FLORENCE, Italy — While the wider world may have doubled down on cargo shorts, flip-flops and whatever passes for a male uniform in the world of open-space workplaces, here on the streets of this Renaissance city and throughout the trade pavilions crammed inside the 25-acre walled Fortezza da Basso for the huge Pitti Uomo men’s wear fair, it’s dandy time.
Suddenly, it seems, every cobbled lane (and Instagram feed) is chockablock with men in Homburg hats or straw boaters, suits with nipped jackets and pleated trousers cropped short to reveal two-tone spectator shoes. There are capes and canes and foulards and billowing pocket squares, beards of every imaginable cut and even waxed mustaches. Sometimes, seen walking two or three abreast, the Finnish and Korean and Russian and Chinese and Japanese buyers or vendors seem dressed as if for some arcane form of cosplay. All of it is decorative, anachronistic, highly refined and considered — and more than a bit silly.
And it has all begun to change.
Far too little is said about fashion’s relation to Newton’s third law of motion, the one that posits for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Indications are already visible as Pitti Uomo begins — 20,000 visitors and 1,240 brand representatives descending en masse on the tiny Florence airport — that reactive change is coming to men’s wear. The dandy is dead. We are entering the age of fugly.
The advance guard of this particular development has been clomping around for more than a year now, ever since the introduction of Balenciaga’s Triple S, the $895 dad sneaker designed by the label’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia. With its stacked, wave-form sole bulging in every direction, its bloated and aggressively clunky silhouette, the Triple S is so ostentatiously unlovely it induced near fatal apoplexy in the American designer Ralph Rucci, that champion of elegance.
Taking to Instagram in May, Mr. Rucci let rip with an unfettered attack on designs emanating from the house of Balenciaga, venting spleen on what he saw as desecration of its founder, the couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. “They have taken his name and have conveniently used it as a springboard for such mediocrity, such tastelessness, such ugly ideas,’’ Mr. Rucci wrote.
Who you calling ugly? What Mr. Rucci derided as Balenciaga’s “whorish greed to sell a gym shoe’’ has not only spurred a huge boost in sales but propelled the brand into the consciousness of a new population. What nearly everyone in fashion has been attempting for years, Mr. Gvasalia neatly accomplished: Snagging the sneakerheads. That he did so may be attributable to his canny understanding of a population that cares less about how wearable something may be than its likelihood to attract online eyeballs.
“Social media is the culprit here,’’ Nick Sullivan, the fashion director of Esquire, said last week. By tradition, the best-dressed men tended to be those whose clothes you did not instantly recognize. If logo and label dressing changed all that, Instagram raised the ante, making it necessary for designers to produce products whose iconography produces a pop on a smartphone screen.
“Designer brands have become beacons of fugly precisely because people have replaced shopping for things with posting them and then regramming them,’’ Mr. Sullivan said. “Old-fashioned taste at the moment is out of taste.’’
What takes its place is stuff so deliberately and uproariously awful, so defiant of traditional canons of taste you almost have to applaud it. Although certain of the male superstars at the recent Billboard Music Awards — think Lil Pump — were clad in custom clothes from designers like Alessandro Michele at Gucci, the net effect was of sartorial mayhem: pink dreads, studded cowboy wear, neck tats and braces.
“The ugliness has a real beauty to it,’’ Chris Law, a young men’s wear pundit whose Fresher Than Chris style site was deemed one of the top 25 blogs of 2018 by The Fashion Spot. “As a kid, I thought dad sneakers and Hawaiian shirts were so awful I was embarrassed by my dad wearing them,’’ Mr. Law said. “Now I wear them all the time. The louder the print, the more ridiculous, the more right it seems.’’
Bolstering his point, the Webster, an influential specialty retailer, recently posted Instagram ads featuring loud floral rayon Hawaiian shirts from Rhuigi Villaseñor’s cult label Rhude. Each bore as its tagline a revised men’s wear call to arms: “The brighter, the better, the tackier, the trendier.’’
Increasingly, for a consumer whom Jian DeLeon, the editorial director of Highsnobiety, characterizes as “a jaded, postironic and highly engaged fashion acolyte,’’ this style represents a growing confidence among informed consumers who aren’t constrained by sartorial don’ts. “These are garments that almost dare you to wear them,’’ Mr. DeLeon said referring to rompers, Crocs, Uggs, fanny packs, chef pants, dad-style double denim or Rick Owens’ new Birkenstocks, the ergonomic cave man footwear made from what appears to be Wookie pelts.
“In some ways what’s changed is that there’s no dictating aesthetic anymore,’’ Mr. DeLeon said. “Guys are free to pick and choose what they want to wear in a way that reflects the fast-paced social media economy.’’
For the greater part of a decade at Pitti Uomo, said Nick Wooster, a longtime industry figure and Instagram influencer, the focus has been on traditional Italian tailoring; fine woolens; bench-made shoes from Northampton, England shoemakers like Tricker’s, John Lobb and Grenson; and classic headgear like true Panama hats.
“I think it’s super-important that the tailored jacket with full canvas lining is still represented here,’’ said Mr. Wooster, who this season is presenting a capsule collection in collaboration with Paul & Shark. “What makes Pitti relevant is that they leave room for that core tailoring consumer, but they’re also moving on.’’
Although old enough at 57 to be a granddad, Mr. Wooster saw in the Triple S sneakers he bought this year not a dad shoe (one that, weighing seven pounds a pair, might give dad a hernia) but an object whose every dimension was fastidiously designed.
“They’re not a knockoff of a pair of Nike Air Monarchs from Payless — they’re homage,’’ Mr. Wooster said. And, despite being hefty as bricks, the Triple S sneakers went into his luggage alongside 12 other pairs of shoes, an assortment that included Mr. Owens’s Birkenstocks and the truly unclassifiable footwear that Teva has produced in collaboration with the Japanese artisanal footwear designer Ryo Kashiwazaki.
Called Manual Industrial Products 18, these Crocs-style slip-ons, produced by Hender Scheme in beige-colored leather with an articulated sling back and perforated toes, may do more than any other single item to test the resolve of a fan of ugly style.
“Look, we’re in a time now where you can joke with fashion,’’ said Josh Peskowitz, the co-owner of Magasin, an influential specialty men’s wear retailer in Los Angeles. “But kind of like in a meme-y way.’’
Now that so much fashion is pitched to an online fan base, what propels the men’s wear market forward is often less a matter of taste than of one-upsmanship: “The people pushing the fugly narrative are hip-hop artists and Marc Jacobs,” Mr. Peskowitz said.
In fact, it was Mr. Jacobs’s fiancé, the candle maker Char Defrancesco, who managed to sum up the ineffable allure of ugly in a recent interview. “Fashion is a pendulum — things were getting so luxury and so perfect for so long that they were getting idle and stagnant,’’ Mr. Defrancesco told The Daily Front Row.
“Somebody threw in something ugly and different? Cool,’’ he added, referring to the dad sneakers he and Mr. Jacobs are seldom seen without. “Now I have this thing with my friends: ‘That is so ugly; I’ll take it in a medium.’’’