When the CFDA debuted its inaugural New York Men’s Fashion Week last summer, many industry insiders felt it had been a long time coming. With entirely different scheduling and market realities from women’s fashion, lumping the shows together never made a lot of business sense, and it often drowned menswear out in the press-heavy shadow of the women’s collections. As attention toward (and acceptance of) men’s style has increased over the last few years, it’s become the boys, ironically, who are tired of being left behind.
>Whether or not the shows were a success is still up for debate, and as The Cut pointed out at the time, most of New York’s actual male inhabitants were totally unaware of their existence. Although that highlighted an enduring disconnect between the fashion world and mainstream society, the event itself also called into question how forward-thinking fashion really is.
>I was reminded of this question while chatting with the managing editor of an acclaimed fashion magazine—he’s the only straight male in an office otherwise populated by women and gay men. “People I work with always assume I’m gay; I’m just used to it now,” he told me. It struck me as a pretty backward assumption for 2016, especially in an industry that prides itself on being open-minded. Is it still that far-fetched for straight men to work in fashion?
To find out if such a dated assumption remains prevalent, I spoke to straight guys working in various spheres of fashion about their experience. The answer, as is often the case in matters of gender, was not that clear-cut.
Fashion writer and blogger Isaac Hindin-Miller of Isaac Likes believes that things have changed, but only very recently. “There are probably 10 of us bloggers in America who work regularly, and of the 10, I’d say there are maybe three of us who are straight. It’s definitely still an industry with lots more women and gay men,” he tells me. “As I’ve gotten older, in the last two years or so, people don’t automatically assume I’m gay—I don’t know why that is, because up until I was 28 years old, when people met me, they’d be like, I can’t believe you have a girlfriend, I always thought you were gay.”
He cites what you might call the menswear renaissance over the last couple of years, and the resulting notoriety of stylish straight men like Eugene Tong and Josh Peskowitz, for helping disband the belief that dressing well is a statement on sexuality. “I think the stigma is really that only gay guys dress well, which was sort of promoted by shows like Sex and the City and all of those American movies that have women going, Why are the good ones always gay? But when menswear started taking off as it has been, these straight guys that were at the front of the movement really showed the world that you could be a guy who cares about how he looks without it commenting on your masculinity.” Having gotten his start fielding insults for working in hair salons in his conservative hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, where “to be a man, you play rugby, drink beer, and barbecue,” it certainly sounds like progress.
>That returning home poses more problems for guys in fashion than the industry itself was a common thread among the men I spoke to. But according to Jian DeLeon, the former deputy style editor for Complex who now writes for the likes of Esquire and Business of Fashion, it doesn’t have much to do with sexual orientation. “I’m from Northern Virginia, and whenever I go home, I have to become self-aware that not everyone is going to be up on the same things as me,” he explains. “But that’s more about living in a metropolitan area versus not, [and] the difference between being part of a subculture and being mainstream.”
For DeLeon, being part of this group on the margins has paid off: “If anything, as a straight male, it’s made me more cognizant of LGBTQ issues that I wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of. It’s an industry dominated by women and people of the LGBTQ community, and I think that’s awesome, because you really develop this sense of being outside of whatever comfort zone you were in (if it was a predominantly male environment), but also it just pushes the idea of what true identity is. You develop camaraderie across those sort of social constructs; you get along with people in the industry regardless of whatever [outward] differences you may have.” That sense of fluidity—of not having to be any one thing to fit in—is catching on beyond the industry, too, many thanks, as DeLeon pointed out, to the Internet. “I got into clothing at a time when it was really hard to find like-minded dudes who reinforced the idea that that was okay,” he explains, citing the web as one of the first (and most accessible) platforms for doing so. The rise of rap and hip-hop, as well as famous athletes pursuing fashion on the sidelines, has also been influential in shattering stereotypes.
>But that doesn’t mean knee-jerk assumptions have been banished altogether. Eric Cano, a former head stylist for Jack Threads and the founder of Cano Castings, told me people always expect him to be gay and are surprised when he’s not. Is he treated any differently as a result? “I wouldn’t know to be honest—I want to say no, but I wonder if people think it’s harder for a straight man to be objective about beauty, because that’s not what straight men have traditionally been paid to think about professionally,” he tells me. “I just started an Instagram page for the models I’m working with, and sometimes my straight guy friends will give me a hard time for putting ‘hot’ guys on the page—I’m like it’s for work, I have to objectify people all the time and figure out whether or not a guy has a cool look, it’s what I’m paid to do. I have to have a professional opinion about beauty all the time, but sometimes I do still feel a little weird when I go to castings for women—I’m always worried about whether or not they think I’m being a pervert, even though I’m in there professionally and I have a girlfriend, and I’m very quick to tell them that.” At a recent lingerie casting, one girl out of 90 refused to put on lingerie in front of him when she found out he was straight, despite there being nudes in her portfolio. “I don’t know what that was about—was it about me? Did [my being straight] make her uncomfortable?” Cano wonders.
Still, he doesn’t feel that these road bumps amount to a stigma: “There are institutional expectations because things have been a certain way for so long, i.e. that most casting directors are gay men or women, but as long as you’re not an asshole—it’s fine [that you’re straight]. If your work is good and you’re a cool person and you don’t screw around, people are going to like you regardless of whether you’re gay, straight, asexual, whatever. Everything’s kosher these days.”
Do you think there's still a stigma against straight men working in fashion? Sound off in the comments!