The tastemakers work in offices above one of the busiest parts of America, so close to Times Square that cold January winds litter the balconies with confetti from the New Year’s celebration.
At more than 40 stories in the middle of Manhattan, the Condé Nast Building is not only an integral part of the New York City skyline, it’s where trends in fashion, culture and thought take shape.
The monolith itself provides one of the best games in media, where one takes an elevator and guesses which magazine each person will depart for: The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Glamour. While waiting in a lobby near the office of Teen Vogue, my own people-watching predictions become boringly accurate, particularly with the women who are 10 years younger, 5 inches taller and 50 pounds lighter than I am.
My appointment lies at the other end of the hall, in the office with the giant abbreviation logo that is used as a noun, verb and adjective. Gentlemen’s Quarterly, better known as GQ, has been a pillar of the male style zeitgeist for decades and is stewarded by two Notre Dame graduates: editor-in-chief Jim Nelson ’85 and deputy editor Michael Hainey ’86.
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Notice the previous use of the word “style,” and not “fashion” — at GQ, it is an important distinction. Outside Nelson’s office is a piece of artwork that says, “Fashion fades, Style remains.”
“To me, that conjures other qualities we hold dear and want to celebrate,” Nelson says. “We are a men’s magazine that is trying to reach all facets of the stylish life for men . . . and kind of open doors for guys.”
The goal is summarized in a four-word slogan on each issue: Look Sharp, Live Smart.
“It is sort of those two missions. I think a person who considers and cares about style then cares about his place in the world, cares about taste, and that branches out into taste in good food, wine and travel,” Nelson says.
Down the hall from Nelson’s office, the mission of GQ stays the same for Hainey.
“Anyone can have ‘fashion.’ Money buys you fashion. . . . The clothes are one part of [style], it’s sort of the man’s character, who he is,” Hainey says. “It’s where you choose to travel, where you choose to eat, the books you read, and the ideas that you want to speak about and know about. Style is a way of being.”
At a remove from this conversation, the Condé Nast Building, or New York City, these statements can come off as breezily esoteric. But when put in the context of the actual magazine and these two men behind it — and when put into actual practice — it starts to make more sense.
Nelson and Hainey, after all, are personifications of their own magazine’s values: friendly, witty, genial and urbane, noticeably at ease with living in their own skin; Nelson sitting at a clear tabletop set upon sawhorses, rows and rows of books behind him; Hainey in an office defining modern minimalism, with bare white walls and few accoutrements; Nelson wearing dark jeans, a navy sweater with a large red stripe, and black shoes with a white accent running along the edge of the soles; Hainey in a dark pinstripe suit and wingtips, the button-down collar above his tie purposefully unbuttoned; both with slim builds and hair trimmed close on the sides and left longer on top.
They started the path to their current jobs in worlds decidedly more journalistic than runway. Nelson, an American studies graduate from Maryland, came to Notre Dame primarily for the study abroad program in Angers, France, and was an editor at Harper’s before working on features at GQ. Hainey, a Chicago native, studied literature in South Bend and began his career at the widely admired Spy magazine.
Hainey notes that in the past decade GQ has won more National Magazine Awards than any other Condé Nast publication and is second only to The New Yorker in prizes for its journalism.
“Style is one part of what I do here,” he says. “It’s one part of what GQ is.”
“That’s my love: great ambitious writing, literary journalism, and writing that affects people and sticks with them,” Nelson says. “I had to learn a lot very fast [after becoming editor-in-chief] because I didn’t know that much about the fashion. I didn’t know about the fashion world, I didn’t understand how the fashion pages were made here. . . . I took it as an intellectual task.”
The ties that bind
Not too long ago, the thought of being a member — nay, wanting to be a member — of a “Tie of the Month” club would have struck me as ludicrous.
That inclination started to change when I began regularly reading GQ.
Since graduating from Notre Dame almost eight years ago, I have gone from someone whose clothing decisions were based around which band to promote on his back to someone who attempts to make sure his collar, lapels and tie are as proportional as possible (and, in the current style, slim — but not too slim). In my college years, my clothes were mostly a personal statement on the merits of the Clash, R.E.M., Leonard Cohen and Notre Dame’s football team. Now, they are more of a preppy dissertation on corduroy and chambray, boat shoes and chukka boots, knit ties and tie bars.
And thanks to a birthday gift from my indulgent wife, I recently was part of the Tie Bar’s “Tie of the Month” club, personally choosing 12 ties on not only color and pattern but also on the fabric of said ties — silk, wool and cotton — and correlating it with the season. The only reason I was interested in this, and the only reason I knew the company even existed, was GQ.
Like Nelson and Hainey, my relationship with the magazine initially sprang from my interest in writing. By 2005, I had traded in the Midwest for a cramped studio near Lincoln Center to study journalism at Columbia University. Picking up GQ was a utilitarian decision; I chose an academic concentration in magazine writing and, frankly, just needed to read more magazines.
Plenty that I read regularly or semi-regularly at the time, such as Harper’s, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, have all but disappeared from my monthly media diet, with the occasional online article being an exception. GQ, however, has been a mainstay with me for the better part of a decade. It’s a guidebook, influencing what I wear, watch and read. It’s why I thought to buy chunky brown wingtips, to rent the first season of Mad Men, to listen to Fleet Foxes and to read a new wave of fiction about hard times in rural America.
Not too long ago, the magazine would not have had the same appeal. For much of its more than 50-year history, GQ functioned as an insider publication for the fashion industry. It only branched into more general interest territory in the 1980s and 1990s under the late Art Cooper, Nelson’s famed predecessor. That was when GQ expanded from its niche role into long-form journalism and pop-culture content. Featured authors included David Halberstam, Andrew Corsello, James Ellroy and Gore Vidal.
“He wanted to make it wider, bigger, smarter,” says Nelson, who took over for Cooper in March 2003. “He made it a real mainstream American magazine.”
When Nelson first helmed the magazine after six years as its senior editor, he found his biggest task was to better integrate GQ’s clothing mission with the rest of its content.
“I thought men were becoming more aware of fashion and style and more willing to embrace it. So I didn’t need to apologize for that or hide it,” he says. “It felt a little bit like it had been ghettoized, and I needed to figure out a way to integrate it all.”
Hainey, who has been at GQ for 13 years, said over the last decade there has been a dramatic change in how much men are interested in style. He attributes some of it to a generation of men comfortable with their sexuality, some of it to the Internet explosion and its attendant expansion of the ability to view fashion trends and buy clothing from trending labels. The style search is also less intimidating as it continues to move beyond magazine pages, he says, and into places like NBA player press conferences.
“There has been an enormous revolution. . . . It’s this edited view of the world, this curated view of the world,” he says. “The flood of imagery and fashion bloggers and style bloggers and guys who are obsessed about the perfect shoes; if you really want to learn it, it’s like anything now, you can get really deep into it.”
A single New York City subway ride shows how much inspiration is available outside the runways: bright red boat shoe boots; overcoats with crisp military accents like epaulettes; blue and green corduroys; and a woman who can only be described as a living audition for a walk-on role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Even at a distant remove in places like South Bend, a Twitter feed can be turned into a running photo gallery of style gurus mingling outside the latest Florence fashion show.
“My eye is always on. It’s not on in a critical way; it’s on in looking for ‘new,’” Hainey says. “The conversation is happening both ways. The street is influencing the runway as much as the runway is influencing the street.”
If anything, GQ’s role can be enhanced, not replaced, through this information flood by playing, to use Hainey’s term, a curative role amidst the digital flotsam.
“The magazine can sort of be like a big brother,” Nelson says.
At your service
In the front of each issue, a GQ reader will find a section, originated by Nelson, called “Manual.” With short, punchy text accompanying glossy pictures, it is a core part of what Nelson and Hainey term their “service” pieces.
“The magazine is aspirational and it’s instructional, and it’s also important to me that it’s never exclusionary,” Hainey says.
In December’s issue, Manual noted the utility of wearing fingerless wool gloves to stay stylish when temperatures drop low but texting stays high; how to take sartorial inspiration from action film costumes like Kurt Russell’s bomber jacket in The Thing; and three ways to “elevate your grilled cheese sandwich” with new ingredients. In January’s issue, the Manual endorsed a specific pair of boots for winter and discussed the merits of getaways to all-inclusive resorts.
“Men’s minds work that way. They want to scan, digest and act upon things,” Nelson says. “I wanted the magazine to be more clearly helpful and to do clever, modern service on a variety of fronts. I just think that men crave advice and guidance, and they look to magazines to give it to them.”
A linchpin of this approach is a running feature called “Project Upgrade,” which shows a man in his own clothes and makes just enough changes — a better fit in the suit, a shoe with a rounded rather than squared toe — to transform his appearance.
“What you really want is, ‘How do I do that?’” Hainey says. “We tweak it just a little bit, and often not for a lot of money. . . . It’s not night and day. It’s night and a better night.”
Over time, I have found the Manual to be indispensable. Given my chosen profession, learning to be discerning without bringing on bankruptcy is important, and the rules of good style apply no matter a price tag.
Example: more than anything, it’s necessary to know how clothes should fit. Over years as a political journalist, I received a daily visual dose of bad suits, bad pants, bad shoes, etc. We don’t all have to be waifs, but not all clothes have to fit like pajamas, either. There’s a good compromise, and I have found that a well-cut, $100 synthetic fiber suit from H&M that lies closer to the body both looks and feels superior to a baggy, $400 wool suit from Macy’s.
In the spirit of Nelson’s own fashion immersion, the style world also appeals to my journalistic and observational instincts. It is all about the details, whether it’s bright socks or a piped pocket square. Sometimes GQ’s suggested products will carry prices in the thousands, but you don’t have to buy that precise shirt or suit; instead, study the color or cut and search for a more affordable alternative. I confess to have smirked a little in a Paul Smith store in Soho when I saw a blazer listed for $950 in the “new season” section that was virtually identical to one I purchased from Land’s End Canvas last summer for about $50.
And as an ongoing student of American life and history, I find the recent trend away from European to American heritage styling particularly fascinating. New York City in January looked like it was full of people expecting to chop wood or tap a tree for syrup on the way to the Met. One morning the lobby of my hotel featured a man chattering on a cell phone in Italian while wearing an enormous buffalo plaid flap hat.
“It’s funny,” Hainey says, “the democratization of a trend.”
Regrets, they’ve had a few
I acknowledge that the more I have become interested in style, the more I have pondered the question of authenticity. Does simply buying a piece of clothing make it yours? Or is it nothing but a costume you choose to wear any day but Halloween?
Granted, these questions eventually devolve into an existential crisis over the meaninglessness of much, much more than whether a lapel should be 3 inches or 2-1/2 inches wide. It would also seem an illegitimate standard for style to have to be inherited, like a great wardrobe of family heirlooms, for acceptability. No less a man than George Washington spent a lifetime wrapped up in sartorial fastidiousness, special ordering his clothes from England, picking the uniforms for his personal guard, and, in the words of historian Ron Chernow, “regarding a person’s apparel as the outward sign of order.”
But as someone whose senior thesis was titled “Elvis Presley and the American Dream” and whose favorite book is The Great Gatsby, I do spend time considering the difficulties of fashioning the American male and defining one’s own identity. The trick seems to lie in making sure you don’t end up — metaphorically, of course — dead in your own pool.
We all have to be as discerning as possible and be willing to let go of clothes that don’t work. I jettisoned an ill-advised hat phase and have been relatively happy with the result. I am fully signed up for cardigans and loafers but dozens of photo spreads of double-breasted suits and turtlenecks still have me unconvinced.
Thankfully, GQ does have the guts to admit when it was wrong. There is an archive on the magazine’s website called “GQ Regrets,” and the collection of images is accompanied by a thanks to readers “for still looking to us for guidance, even after we told you it was cool to leave the house dressed like a sex-dungeon proprietor, or a Renaissance Faire pimp, or the distinguished ambassador from the Sovereign Nation of Polyestra.”
“No one is perfect. We all have pictures of ourselves, like, ‘Really? I was wearing that?’” Hainey says. “That’s why guys trust GQ.”
It’s a challenge that runs through the whole magazine, as it does any publication trying to negotiate its mission as a guide to style and culture while not becoming a slave to the moment. Making the magazine relevant to younger generations is important to Nelson, whose first cover had Johnny Knoxville of MTV’s Jackass fame. Nelson believed when he took over that the magazine needed to upgrade its icons and cultural references from the Rat Pack days of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
“I was trying to do something different, and I knew some people would not like it,” he says. “That is something we talk about all the time, even so far as debating what is ‘nostalgia.’”
It’s a balancing act that can court controversy on occasion. GQ found itself in the crosshairs in late 2010 when it had a racy pictorial of some cast members of the hit show Glee, even though the actor and actresses pictured were well into their 20s. Nelson says he still finds the reaction mystifying, considering the age of the people involved and the wry sexual content of the Fox show itself. The photo spread is still available on GQ’s website.
“That kind of controversy can be good for a magazine,” he says. “I would never do something that I thought was purely outrageous or controversial, but it’s okay to provoke, and it’s okay to push boundaries sometimes.”
Hanging over it all, perhaps, is a question of permanence. “Fashion” and “style,” no matter the preferred term, can be used pejoratively, and the clothes within a magazine can be as fleeting as the movie promoted by the celebrity cover subject.
Hainey, however, is untroubled by the hourglass.
“The guy who professes more than anything that he doesn’t care about clothes, cares about clothes. You are making a choice,” he says. “How come all you wear are track suits and white shoes? You decided that’s your style.
“I don’t find it ephemeral,” he continues. “That style is at the root of it all — stylish writing, stylish thinking.”
That reaction makes sense at GQ. The magazine’s very mission is tied to the idea that what you wear is as much a part of who you are as the music you listen to, the books you read and the food you eat. It’s not a transitory lifestyle, it’s a lifestyle dedicated to the search for what is appealing. As journalists, it’s not surprising Nelson and Hainey — or, if I may be excused a moment of ego, myself — are willing to try and live their lives as a sweeping flashlight.
“Journalists love to observe . . . and grab that thing and start to describe it and what it means,” Hainey says. “You are signing up for the idea of being a carnivore. You are automatically saying you are going to keep expanding your mind.”
Living the life
I mulled these thoughts in the waning afternoon as I wandered around Soho and Tribeca. By taking along GQ’s own travel guide to New York City, I hoped to get a better sense of the magazine’s aspirations, and I idly wandered through stores that looked like a basement from a Maine summer home, with $28 socks sitting next to carved trinkets and books about bird watching. I also spent some time in Uniqlo, a store by an up-and-coming label that felt like a dystopian fever dream, complete with enough pastel clothing to coordinate an entire wardrobe with sherbet flavors.
At first it was a dislocating experience, akin to a confirmation of the authenticity problem. I wasn’t living a lifestyle, I was passing through it. And it didn’t feel that enjoyable, amid the ransacking of Uniqlo’s discount racks or the “I don’t think he’s buying anything” stares of downtown clerk cognoscenti.
I felt a click around nightfall, though, when I settled into Spitzer’s Corner, a gastropub recommended by the magazine and located at Rivington and Ludlow streets on the Lower East Side. If there was ever a bar designed for a cold January day, this was it, with a warm, wood interior and a plate-glass window revealing people going home or out to shop.
While eating dinner, I started to understand what Nelson, Hainey and GQ want for their readers. Not just my dark leather boots, charcoal herringbone pants, light gray jacket, red Fair Isle sweater, white spread-collar shirt and navy tie; not just a braised pork belly sandwich and a Maine microbrew on draft; not just a perfect view of a winter sunset over the tenements that is accompanied by the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”
They want readers to have it all.
And in that moment, I definitely didn’t feel “fashionable.”
I felt stylish.
Liam Farrell is this magazine’s alumni editor. Email him at email@example.com.