Are you a “soc-shopper” (social shopper)? Is DM-ing the manager of your favourite store normal? Will they “tag” you when the new season arrives? No? That’s because you’re not shopping like a guy.
Enter the clandestine world of men’s shopping where T-shirts are dry-clean-only and buying online is mostly a no-no – because anyone can do it, unless you’re a regular on Racked. Stores are stripped back to art gallery-esque bareness and absolutely no Instagramming goes on in the changing rooms. Take Duke’s Cupboard, a brand-new menswear store that deals in elite vintage sportswear on a semi-sleazy Soho alleyway – the latest addition to the area’s word-of-mouth shopping scene.
Groomed shoppers (who all appear to know one another) come and go in Raf Simons tracksuits, exchanging affectionate “luvs” in husky south London accents, asking what the plans are for tonight. Lewisham? Too far. Brixton? Maybe. Intrepid newcomers explore four rails of immaculate retro casuals, eager for new arrivals. (Eighties Stone Island and Nineties Burberry checks are doing particularly well at the moment, founder Milo Harley tells me.) It’s an otherwise bustling Thursday lunchtime, but there isn’t a woman in sight.
DJ Luke Storey, musician Donae’o and Stüssy creative consultant Jordan Vickors (aged 23, and my guide today) are all regular clients of Harley’s, who is busy manning the till and hosting the small party gathering in the stockroom next to a makeshift sound system. He recently upgraded to bricks-and-mortar from his Berwick Street Market stall to meet the demand from a new wave of twenty- and thirty- something casualwear fanatics, and he knows most of his customers by their first names. “They’re friends and they’re influencers,” he admits – it’s a dirty word around here, because the act of influencing essentially blows their cover to a mass audience that isn’t involved in the treasure hunt on the ground.
Vickors is high from a recent purchase. “They’re a Speedo/Comme des Garçons collaboration from 2003,” he says, tugging lightly at the knee of a pair of inconspicuous navy track trousers. Where did he find them? “At the secret place in west London that shall not be named.” On his feet are a pair of box-fresh Converse Chucks (one of 20 identical pairs in his closet), an original Palace T-shirt (the fact that it’s “early days” Palace matters) and a Stüssy camo jacket. Underneath his Cactus Plant Flea Market cap are a pair of pink-tinted sunglasses from his collaboration with Retrosuperfuture. It’s a look that doesn’t come cheap. Vickors admits to spending £500 to £1,000 on clothes each month but, unlike me, he’s all about a targeted approach. “Unless it’s Comme des Garçons, I don’t browse for things that I don’t already specifically have in mind.” Cue payday, and by contrast I will go out of my way to shop for things that I might potentially want and absolutely do not need.
My first mistake is calling it “shopping”. Guys don’t “shop”, I am told categorically – or at least they don’t call it shopping. “This” – unlike my nightly trawls on Mytheresa – “is about building relationships,” Vickors explains. “The internet doesn’t get you very far. If you’re passionate about it, and you’re going to make friends, you get access.” It is also about tracking down rare vintage brands that others can’t. Like many other women, I am primed to ride off the cachet of wearing a full new-season look. That competitive thrill of the new drives most of my spending.
Later that week, I’m again reminded how unsociable women’s shopping has become while wandering Portobello Market with my friend the designer Duro Olowu on a sunny Friday morning. For him, shopping is an offline experience. He knows the traders personally, and spots such as Vintwear2 are hangouts. The laid-back approach makes me nostalgic for Saturdays in the Noughties when the whole day was dedicated to the pursuit – with lunch thrown in – and the actual “shopping” took place in between record-store visits, rather than on-screen. I can’t remember the last time I shopped like this with a female friend.
On the modern menswear scene, private communities rule, and your wardrobe is only as good as your face-to-face connections – the opposite of my persistent refreshing of Net-a-Porter’s “What’s New” tab, lured in by a mailout dispatched to millions. This is socialising rather than shopping (hence the in-store house-party vibe at London menswear haunts such as Machine A). The subculture spirit means that menswear hangouts aren’t always friendly places, however. When I email London’s Basement Approved (nicknamed “streetwear’s hardest online community” by Hypebeast), attempting to infiltrate one of their sales, I receive a jarringly formal reply. They don’t know me and I haven’t been admitted by a trusted connection, so I don’t get invited in to spend – something Selfridges would never do. I’m outraged, and doubly keen to get in, which I’m learning is a familiar feeling in the menswear scene.
Gaining admission is one thing, aping men’s decisive shopping habits is another. The strict needs-based system begins at home with rigid organisation. “I’m a freak with my clothes,” Harley laughs. “Everything is arranged by brand. My closet is the same size as my girlfriend’s, but definitely a lot neater.”
I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that I have shopped to excess since my late teens. Exercising moderation is something men, on the other hand, are highly skilled at – too much stuff would be impossible to maintain, and the overall crisp appearance would slide. Liberty menswear buyer Laura Robertshaw reassures me that I’m not alone in my lax wardrobe maintenance. “I’m unlikely to wear a shirt if it needs to be ironed,” she says, “and forget about workwear that has to be dry-cleaned – that’s not going to happen.” Her male colleague Mark Forsyth looks a little appalled: “I dry-clean everything – even my T-shirts.” We move swiftly on to discuss Liberty’s bestselling menswear (Dries Van Noten and Acne). Key items go “within days” after “a couple of phone calls” to select customers, including Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn and Jude Law.
Unlike the Liberty woman, the Liberty man will always try things on, and while women enjoy the thrill of the haul – all new purchases should be folded, pressed and packaged – men are much more discreet. “They don’t leave with shopping bags,” says Robertshaw. “They typically ask for all packaging to be removed, along with the tag, so they can wear it straightaway or stash it in their own rucksack.”
Women are also more likely to be seduced by the look of the store. “Your cerebral cortex is geared to process more information, so tends to be on the receiving end of a more complex seduction,” says Mark Forsyth. Which explains why Duke’s Cupboard felt brutally bare. Where was the blush velvet sofa, the house plants, handmade ceramics and Memphis coffee table? Thinking back, there wasn’t even a large mirror. Men don’t need to feel like they want to move in, or post a picture of their feet against the marble flooring. Rather than ambient music, men’s stores do Saturday night soundtracks all day, every day.
At Our Legacy, a pared-back own-brand Soho boutique, I can’t concentrate on the specific shade of ice-blue denim I want because of the deafening abstract jazz. I miss Céline’s Wu-Tang Clan remixes that waft through the Mount Street flagship no louder than a gentle whisper. Vickors, on the other hand, is in his element. I pull the plug and we head to gender-blended fashion spot Machine A. Here, the conversation flows back to tonight’s plans. Lil Yachty plays over the PA. I take a quick covert snap of the chic bookshelves for my personal interiors reference. At the till I’m granted a secret discretionary “seasonal sale” discount that hadn’t been marked on the label, and given a hug.
I leave with a Nylon sweater (virtually identical to the Helly Hansen one I’m wearing) that I didn’t try on. It’s dry-clean only. I vow out loud to dry-clean it. I think this means I’ve been officially initiated.