Gather round, men: your plain shirts and discreet dark jeans are looking a trifle tired. This season, it’s all about print. From Hawaiian shirts to floral Dr Martens, patterns are on everything. Not since the 1980s – when it was all about the Manchester indie-rave scene and Versace‘s baroque designs – has print in menswear made fashion headlines.
Cut to now and Prada is selling floral trousers that riff on golfing slacks and printed shirts that whiff of 1950s Americana. Topman’s retro paisley-print catwalk pyjamas sold out in February. Clumpy Dr Marten boots have been given a floral print remix for Liberty. Burberry is backing tribal print trousers, GQ has included these in its patterned trousers spread this month while Zara is selling Aztec-inspired backpacks. To say that print is enjoying a comeback is an understatement.
As the rain pelted down Tuesday, Marks & Spencer reported that men are buying rather a lot of lemon-yellow and rose-pink chinos, and perhaps even more surprisingly, Hawaiian shirts. Tony O’Connor, head of menswear design at M&S, says that “Hawaiian and vintage-looking prints, even in this adverse weather, have gone off really well”, helped no doubt by George Clooney pulling off a decent Hawaiian shirt look in The Descendants. (OK, he was in Hawaii at the time, but the point remains.) “Guys are buying into colour now,” says O’Connor, “so print is the next logical step.”
Gareth Scourfield, fashion editor at Esquire, thinks we’re all going to be shocked at how enthusiastically men embrace print. “When the block colour look started to come in, I remember wondering if men would get it. But from a designer level right through to the high street, everybody started to do well with bold colour jeans and chinos.” Scourfield thinks that menswear has been mostly pared-back since the 90s, so perhaps it’s time for men to have “more fun with fashion”.
Topman’s flagship Oxford Circus store is rammed with a dizzying array of prints, from Aztec- to African-inspired designs, floral to 50s kitsch. “For the British male, wearing print still requires quite a lot of confidence,” says Gordon Richardson, Topman’s design director. “It works on holiday, on the beach. But in dull British weather, prints are more difficult.”
The weather doesn’t seem to be worrying the buyers, though. Asos will offer 60 styles of printed shirt this season and next month rolls out 60,000 printed products. “I’ve never seen this much print in menswear before,” says John Mooney, the company’s head of menswear design. He reports that the look is a particular hit with the 18-to-mid-20s demographic. “These guys are confident and cocksure, and there’s a massive trend for standing out from the crowd and impressing your peers.”
So why now? “I think we were definitely in danger of menswear becoming a little bit dull,” says Topman’s Richardson. “We went through this period of smartening up, of heritage-inspired clothing. Then colour infiltrated chinos. So to look individual, you almost had to try to explore print in some way.” Now it covers a range of Topman products from caps, bracelets and wallets to T-shirts, shirts, bags, belts, vests and knits.
River Island’s menswear design manager Elizabeth Taylor thinks the look has its origins in the success of last season’s patterned knits, such as ironic Christmas jumpers and busy Fair Isle styles. “Men are getting used to bolder designs,” she says.
In London, there is also emerging momentum for printed men’s fashion from both established fashion week designers, such as Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane, and up-and-coming names such as Agi & Sam and Kit Neale. For Agi & Sam, whose buzz catwalk collection for autumn/winter featured rooster and duck prints, print “gives your brand an immediate identity, and originality. It also feels like you have created everything.”
Neale, whose work also caught the eye during London fashion week, based his autumn/winter collection around his dad’s allotment. Cue jolly vegetable and insect prints on T-shirts, bomber jackets and jeans. Among his friends, he says, there is an enthusiasm for both 1980s Moschino and vintage Versace, both known as loud statement labels. “The current preppy look has dominated men’s fashion for too long,” he says. Last year’s collaboration between H&M and Versace welcomed a new and enthusiastic audience to the brand’s archive. Donatella then put classic Gianni-era Versace prints back at the heart of the label during the spring/summer men’s show, including patterned trousers, a look also shown by Paul Smith and Burberry.
This element of the print comeback, though, is perhaps a harder sell. “I think the look will be a slow burn and probably take a season or two to filter down,” admits Robert Johnston, associate editor of GQ. “I suspect the Burberry-esque batik prints will be the first to become popular. And it will be a long time before most men will feel brave enough to wear Prada florals.”
But with the backing of the high street, it seems that print is a look with legs – even if those legs aren’t likely to be covered in floral patterns any time soon.
“There are so many ways to do print,” says Dan May, style director at Mr Porter. “It covers the most adventurous guys. Or you can just pop in a print scarf or a tie so you address the trend but in a minimalist way. That’s really the beauty of print, you can hit it as hard as you like.”