“Nakedness makes us democratic, adornment makes us individuals,” said Liberace, who was no stranger to ensuring that, by his measurement, he was as wildly individual as humanly possible. The flamboyant performer was one of the 20th century’s great male peacocks (although there had certainly been others before him), and a celebrant – and symbol of – lavish male dress in a greige post-war world. So, he’d be raising a jewel-fingered toast (pink Champagne, naturally) to menswear’s current maximalist renaissance.
“I think the idea of having fun and playing with your identity is definitely on men’s agenda style wise now,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at e-tail behemoth Matches Fashion. It’s certainly telling that this new emphasis on the bold and unabashed is happening now, as we emerge blinking into society after such a long period of style inertia, where casual clothes have dominated and sales of hoodies have spiked.
Beyond the catwalk theatrics – and the baroque stylings of brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Alexander McQueen and Gucci – it’s also a movement on the red carpet. See for example the clashing sofa pattern motifs of tailoring sported by Harry Styles (in seventies-esque Gucci) or the raised eyebrows and headlines about Daniel Craig eschewing standard black for his tuxedo in favour of searing bright raspberry. As social events gradually fill up the diary once more, it’s clear that dressing to make an impact is back on the table.
“There’s maximum freedom today, that’s what the new generation has taught us,” said Stefano Gabbana upon the unveiling of he and Domenico Dolce’s autumn/winter men’s collection back in January. And it was maximum sensory assault too; the clothes veered from gleaming metallic suits to tailoring embellished with crystals and pearls, jewellery studded T-shirts and animal print. Having tempered their aesthetic in previous seasons in favour of a more handcrafted, rustic charm, the duo volte-faced with a more is more attitude.
It was the desire for the opulent, ornate and singular that compelled the Italian powerhouse to start designing the men’s Alta Sartoria couture line eight years ago, to create truly remarkable pieces – think heavily bejewelled, brocaded and jacquarded – for an ultra-high net worth roster of private clients. It was actually a particularly extravagant demand that provided the seed for the collection; one of their female couture clients purchased a dress with a replica Caravaggio print on it. Her husband promptly got in touch; could they recreate the pattern on a suit? The pair had to decline; they only had the rights to recreate this image once. No matter, said the fellow, he owned said Caravaggio – as one does – and happily gave them the green light.
A bold approach was also evident for the autumn/winter 2021 collection at Dior Men, which saw creative director Kim Jones collaborate with artist Peter Doig in a series of decorative, show stopping one-off designs; from bright knitwear that incorporated the artist’s imagery to embroidered hardware on jackets. Shunning what he referred to as lockdown’s ‘gloomy mood’ he “wanted to create something that lifted the spirits…it felt like the time for optimism, all things beautiful and special.”
At Louis Vuitton, patterns clashed against each other on coats and even at one of the most restrained and refined of traditional men’s suiting institutions, Brioni, designer Norman Stumpfl created a suit in which silk fibres were coated in 24-karat gold.
Of course, decorative men’s dressing is nothing new historically. In the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King evolved a style of dress as lusciously grand as the royal women of his court, featuring high heeled shoes (an affectation inherited from Venetian nobility) in scarlet red, parasols, furs, silks and sumptuous jewels – with rouge as liberally applied as any of his female counterparts. The Camp-themed 2019 Met Gala had nothing on the Louis le Grand.
In the early 19th-century, British bon viveur Beau Brummell cemented his mantle as the ‘original dandy’, wearing clothes that while not quite ‘maximalist’ in the most expressive sense, were curated for impact and a degree of show. And after Victorian sombreness and two world wars, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a more outré sense of men’s style evolved in the form of Elton John, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie – the former dressed in high-octane Bob Mackie glitz and feathers, citing Liberace as an early influence on his style. The last truly ‘maximalist’ era of men’s fashion were the 1980s and ‘90s, where pioneers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace turned the dial up to 11 in terms of print, pattern, excess and vivacity. The latter’s blousy, wildly printed shirts featuring swirling tendrils, Medusa heads and clashing acid brights became a byword for ostentation.
And now? “Historically, it’s always been the case that the consumer embraces joy in fashion following times of uncertainty, and we’re seeing that with our male customer. Men today are becoming more confident and forward thinking, and that follows through in terms of bold clothing,” explains Paul. “We’ve seen a huge uplift in pieces focusing on tactile fabrications, bright colours and prints. We’ve noticed high sell-through rates on anything bright this season, possibly because people are finally holidaying abroad and want to feel celebratory. Yellow is proving popular,” says the buyer.
Crucially, maximalism isn’t just excess for excess’s sake. Much of the techniques involved are painstaking with artisans lending a degree of richness – and a certain geek appeal – to surface adornment. Whether that’s Belgian designer Dries Van Noten creating a beadwork atelier in India or the handcrafting at Dolce & Gabbana’s factories in industrial Veneto, where jacquard, brocade and embellishment techniques are acquired over the course of generations.
It’s particularly notable now largely due to the two opposing forces in the world of menswear that existed pre-pandemic. In one camp, a creeping casualisation and rise of athleisurewear, where clothes are low-key, downplayed and sports-focused. And in the other, the bombastic rise of Alessandro Michele at Gucci whose joyously flamboyant, kitschy-cool approach has seen sales boom since he took hold in 2015. Even in the midst of the global health crisis, sales rose 24.6% in the first quarter of 2021. Alongside Michele, Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent and Hedi Slimane at Celine have also created a men’s style template based on all things sparkle-dusted and crystal-studded.
Which begs the question; how to wear such outlandish pieces in 2021? The key is tempering the extravagant touches; borrow from the Tom Ford playbook and don a brocade or silk moiré dinner jacket with sleek black trousers and a muted black polo, or take a leaf out of Dries Van Noten’s book, who will pair a riotous patterned shirt with rustic jeans or clean-cut shorts. You don’t have to go full Liberace, but a sprinkling of sartorial stardust is certainly the mood of the moment.