The state of menswear has come a long way since the days of the beefcakes immortalised in Versace campaigns by Bruce Weber and the Neo-Greek gods Tom Ford sent down his Gucci runway in the 1990s. It’s also a far cry from the template set by the Pitti Peacocks in the late 2000s with their three-piece suits and double monk strap shoes. The mid-2010s were all about the hypebeasts and streetwear swagger, but that, too, has reached peak saturation. These days, it’s all about the soft boy.
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As its name implies, the look is all about a certain tenderness, flamboyance and romanticism that deviate from the traditional masculinity that defines classical suiting and even sportswear—the roots of which can be traced to skate, basketball and other conventionally hyper-masculine sports and subculture. Instead, the soft boy borrows from the language of womenswear, with colours, fabrications and ornamentations more commonly associated with the modern female wardrobe and the menswear of centuries past.
At the forefront of this aesthetic movement is a new wave of pop culture icons as renowned for their style as they are for their artistry. Think A$AP Rocky in his pearl necklaces and silken headscarves; Harry Styles with his feather boa and sheer blouses; Timothée Chalamet in a cinched Haider Ackermann suit or a bejewelled Louis Vuitton harness; Troye Sivan in cropped tops and low-riding leather trousers; LaKeith Stanfield at the most recent Oscars in a high-waisted, open-collared Saint Laurent jumpsuit; and Ashton Sanders at the same ceremony in black lace gloves by Dior Men.
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Dior Men, of course, has been transformed by Kim Jones; the razor-sharp precision of his predecessor, Kris Van Assche, giving way to Jones’s soft constructions, delicate fabrics and opulent embellishments—all inspired by Christian Dior’s own haute couture heritage in womenswear. Alessandro Michele has similarly transformed Gucci, reinterpreting the Italian brand’s heritage through a romantic gender-fluid lens. In Michele’s world, boys and girls alike are decked in pussybow blouses, fur-lined slippers and fistfuls of jewellery. Jonathan Anderson overhauled Loewe with his soft, oversize silhouettes, craftsy knits, artistic collaborations and whimsical accessories—a continuation of the discourse he started at his eponymous brand, where he has sent men down the runway in frilly shorts and cropped tops.
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But it’s the next generation of designers who are really driving this softer sensibility forward. One of the most lauded today, Emily Adams Bode of Bode made her name with her distinctive, sensitive take on menswear built on upcycled textiles—antique linens, tablecloths, quilts. Steven Stokey-Daley’s S.S.Daley became one of today’s buzziest brands when Harry Styles wore its billowing shirt and trousers in his “Golden” music video last year; its new collection looks to the work of the seminal queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to subvert the British schoolboy uniform—resulting in smocked shirts, chintzy prints and ribbed knit underwear. Alejandro Gómez Palomo of Palomo Spain draws from his Spanish heritage to create extravagant designs with rich velvets and fanciful ruffles. And then there’s Ludovic de Saint Sernin, the French designer who has refracted Helmut Lang’s minimalism through a queer lens, dressing his boys in barely there organza pieces and tightly laced leathers.
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Today, as gender conventions are more scrutinised than ever, there have been progressive strides made towards dismantling the systems that have allowed toxic masculinity to thrive. While there is much work left to do, it is increasingly clear that archaic notions of gender roles should not dictate how men should be and behave, and by extension, how they should dress. At its deepest level, the soft boy look is a quiet but powerful visual cue that hints at an evolved man. Time to embrace the softie.