Derek Dubery is a model and actor living in Northern Ireland. He is 51 years old and lives with his two dogs, a cat and far too many clothes. He enjoys dressing inappropriately for the situation.
I’ve been giving some thought to style icons recently, specifically male style icons. We’ve all heard the term ‘style icon’, but what does it really mean? Style icons from the past are fairly easy to identify, but current ones are more troublesome to pick out. Is it something that requires the passage of time in order to become apparent? In the quest to delve further, I asked my friends on social media to name current male style icons – the list was long, varied and highly subjective. To some people Morrisey is a style icon(!). You heard it here first.
When you examine some classic style icons a couple of truths emerge: it’s not all about the clothes and it’s nothing to do with fashion. Either one of those statements may seem odd… Surely, being a style icon is all about the clothes and fashion? My thought would be, If you dress Jeremy Clarkson in David Bowie’s clothes, will he look any less of a plonker? The answer is likely to be no. Being a style icon is not all about the clothes. As for fashion, it’s the antithesis of being a style icon. Style icons might create passing fashion, but they don’t follow it.
Historic style icons were also assisted massively by working with the best photographers, and the value of a collection of good photographic images cannot be underestimated. These days we need to content ourselves with being careful with what we post on our Instagram account.
Let’s park the question of current male style icons and consider Steve McQueen. There are few men who would score more highly for style if I were to make a list – whether he was wearing the fabulous three piece suit from The Thomas Crown Affair, the casual military garb and flight jacket from The Great Escape, the roll neck sweater, desert boots and tweed jacket from Bullitt or just his day-to-day clothes. He just oozed style. It’s not just the clothes, it’s him. He was cool. Very, very cool. Now, as anyone who has modelled will tell you, you’re sometimes given some ghastly stuff to wear. The only way to make it work in those situations is to pretend it’s fabulous and to exude as much confidence and cool as you possibly can. It doesn’t make the outfit any less ghastly, but it does make the viewer believe that it’s the sort of thing a cool dude like you might wear. That in turn makes the clothes seem slightly cooler than they actually deserve to be. That’s the idea anyway. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten away with it myself, but when you see really good models in action you know it works. It’s even more true for the genuine style icons of the world.
Cool is an illusion for most of us: a literal confidence trick. Cool is about what other people perceive and not what’s really going on inside your head. Now, I’m sure there are genuine cool people out there, but the best most of us can hope for is the con-job version. Cool, and the illusion of cool is about not giving, or appearing to give, a damn about how other people perceive you. There’s a fairly fine line between cool and antisocial in my opinion, and if you are slightly socially ill at ease, an aura of cool is something that more than a few celebrities and non-celebrities have used as armour to hide behind. To the outside viewer at least, it’s about seeming to be comfortable in your skin and, to bring us back to style icons, in your clothes. Now, that’s not the same thing as being relaxed at home in your fleecy pyjamas. No, to be anything of a style icon you need to own your look and it needs to be a strong look. It’s about wholeheartedly going with a look; an idea; a feeling. You have to believe totally, or genuinely not care at all – Kurt Cobain being a great example of the latter (a man who hated the idea of being a style icon but was, regardless). The average person seeing someone at a party, in a bar, at a fashion show, or wherever, can sense doubt in them and if someone is uncomfortable or embarrassed by what he’s wearing, it’s obvious. Style icons are never embarrassed. Never, ever show that you’re embarrassed or be apologetic about your outfit. If other people don’t like it, it’s their problem.
This idea of genuine belief in your style is one of the reasons I hate the notion of ‘smart casual’. That’s not a look, it’s a cop-out. It’s not having the style guts to commit to either smart or casual. Be overdressed or radically underdressed, but don’t play it safe. Blending in is not what style icons do.
Part of the illusion of cool and indeed style, is also about posture and movement. Cary Grant, another undoubted style icon, looked fabulous, particularly (but not exclusively), in a suit. When you watch him on film you are struck by his poise and grace. When he walked it was almost like dance. Now, Cary trained as an acrobat as a young man (he literally ran away to join the circus) and this grace stayed with him throughout his life. Again, watch a good model walk compared to a bad one and think of bringing some of this to everyday life. Good posture and a deliberate way of moving make you look more stylish. It’s part of the con, and worth practicing.
In terms of a particular look to aim for, it’s worth thinking for a moment about what ‘type’ you are. Actors are encouraged to work out their ‘type’. Casting directors are often rather shallow people and they tend to typecast actors first and foremost based upon whether they look right for the part. If you’re a young and handsome chap, you’re less likely to get cast as the middle-aged professor. If you’re a 50 year old man with wonky teeth, you’re not going to get cast as the young action hero. The same sort of thing can be applied to your personal style in your quest to become your own icon. You can dress to enhance the look you already have, or, if you’re feeling more daring you can go against your ‘type’ and dress to contrast with your more obvious look. A good example of this latter option is Conor McGregor. Here’s an obviously tough looking tattooed guy who regularly dresses in smart suits as a counterpoint to this. He’s dressing against his type and it creates a very powerful impact.
Ultimately, the people we consider to be our personal style icons are generally those people we want to be like. However, it’s generally a mistake to think that by dressing like them we will become like them. Rather than copy, spend a little more time working on your individual look and above all remember it’s about how others perceive you rather than what you’re actually wearing. If people start to think that you are cool then they’ll start to think what you’re wearing is cool too.