Flawless. Avant garde. Cutting edge. These are words that have absolutely nothing to do with my personal style. Knackered. Functional. Occasionally smart … That’s a bit more like it, I’m afraid.
I don’t beat myself up about my lack of fashion nous. I work 40 hours a week as a management consultant, I’m dad to four young girls and I run an Instagram account, Father of Daughters, where 763k people follow my honest struggles as a man surrounded by women. I also have a forthcoming book, written between 10pm and 2.30am over the past nine months. I will forgive myself if, during this period of sleepless nights and frantic days, fashion has not been a priority.
Recently, however, the Guardian called to ask for my thoughts on a trend that has, indeed, piqued my interest: it’s called Dad-core and it was all over the Paris catwalks. Balenciaga, which is the most influential fashion brand on the planet right now, so I’m told, called its show a portrait of “young dads in the park with their kids at the weekend”. It was about corporate workers “out of the office, relaxed and often observed at their happiest”. Male models walked down the catwalk with their own children and it was all very photogenic: pre-teens skulked along holding their dads’ hands; curly-haired toddlers were balanced on hips.
I’m assured that this was more than canny publicity for Balenciaga’s kidswear collection – though it was that, as well. It was, according to the brand’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, a warm celebration of fatherhood, and it didn’t stop there: The brand’s S/S18 ad campaign replicated the kind of professional family photographs families would have had taken in the early 90s, complete with marbled backdrop. It is this soft-focus aesthetic that you see replicated here by me and my four kids, Anya, Marnie, Ottie and Delilah.
As for the clothes? Dads, in Gvasalia’s imagination, wear outdoor hiking gear, oversized tailoring, worn-out denim and bright polo shirts – outfits inspired by the men the designer sees in off-licences, supermarkets and dry cleaners where he lives in Zurich and Paris. To my untrained fashion eye, they looked very much like middle-aged men from 1991.
Funnily enough, that could describe my own father, with my childhood conveniently coinciding with the same decade Balenciaga is mining for inspiration. When I picture my dad, I see a man in his mid-30s to late 40s who wore a stiff suit to the office during the week. He relaxed at the weekend in a pair of boot-cut jeans, a shirt I’d seen him in a thousand times, some sturdy shoes that were purchased for functionality over aesthetics (likely on sale) and a jacket that pre-dated my existence. Most of my mates’ dads wore the same.
Back then, fathers were often the ones who took the holiday photos, drove the family taxi, toiled away in the office, but were relatively invisible on the home front. Now, things are different. In the world of celebrity and politics, among men such as David Beckham and Barack Obama, being a great, hands-on dad is as aspirational as having it large was in the 90s. Online, men such as me, who document fatherhood, are fast becoming as popular as the more established “mum bloggers”.
These changes run hand-in-hand with new legislation allowing for flexible working hours and paternity leave, with more men working part-time or staying home to look after their kids. Most modern-day dads, if they are financially able, want to spend time with their loved ones and be more involved, not just be behind a desk all day. Certainly, there is no longer one cookie cutter “Dad” stereotype, and nor should there be. (Even if, in the world of fiction, the representation lags behind the reality – Daddy Pig, I’m talking about you.)
I suppose my own wardrobe reflects this blurring of boundaries. I do like to look good – it gives me confidence – even if I’m not going to be mistaken for a fashionista any time soon. My normal attire is standard issue among most thirtysomething men; the universal dressed-down work uniform of basic navy chinos, a white shirt and a peacoat, while on the weekends it tends to be a slight variation – jeans, a white T-shirt and some Vans to show I’m still “down with the kids”. (On the rare occasion my wife and I manage to get an evening out, I’ll adult up and change my footwear to a suede Chelsea boot.)
Basically, my clothes are nothing like Balenciaga’s, but if this is what one of the coolest designers in fashion thinks dads should wear, I think I should give it a whirl, spending a normal Saturday with my family dressed in clothes straight from the Paris catwalk.
I started my road test in the place we spend most of our family time – at home. My first outfit consisted of a single-breasted blazer, a pair of lavender-tinted jeans and a striped single-cuff shirt, all of which hung off my frame like reluctant hand-me-downs. The garments themselves were comfortable and the quality was unquestionable. Yet while the oversized nature of the shirt and jacket combination meant I could easily scoop up my twins and pick up the multitude of discarded toys strewn across the floor like plastic landmines, after hearing muffled laughter from my girls (and my wife) I glanced in the mirror and couldn’t shake the image of Tom Hanks in the end scene of the film Big. I looked like a child wearing a man’s clothes. My self-confidence suddenly took a nose dive and for the rest of the morning I found myself constantly rearranging my shirt and jacket so they didn’t appear to drown me.
In the afternoon, after 15 minutes trying to convince the kids to put their shoes on, we made our way out to the park to test the practicality of the clothing and gauge public reaction. With the girls running around in their long-length hoodies (also Balenciaga), I donned an electric blue printed shell hooded jacket that acted like a kite but kept the chill in the air at bay. It was at that point I noticed that men in their mid-50s walking their dogs were no longer looking where they were going, but instead had their gaze fixed squarely on me. Except for the soft cotton fluorescent T-shirt I had on, which shone like a beam across the grassy expanse, I was adorned in the same type of clothing as them, just two sizes bigger. With playtime done, and my pride left somewhere near the swings, I decided it was time to head for home.
Was it my lack of expert knowledge holding me back from revelling in my own fashion moment? I know there is a theory that fashion works in cycles and if we wait long enough, our parents’ wardrobes will cease to be a collection of embarrassing historical garments and will once again be in vogue, ready for us to pilfer without their permission. I’m just not sure these are the types of items I would have made a beeline for. The clothes in this collection struck me as a homage to an outdated dad of the past (whose oversized silhouette left me feeling, well, a bit silly), not the dad of the present, and after a bit of research it turns out that I might know more about fashion than I thought.
Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, explains that Balenciaga’s collection “is indebted to an oversize approach to menswear first established in the mid-1980s” by Italian designers such as Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, and is rooted in “a style of tailoring that was cut away from the body, offering an exaggerated proportion”. This once very fashionable style, he says, is now “outmoded. Balenciaga uses its lack of fashionability as a motor for its transformation into high fashion. They are clothes that on the surface look like the kind someone’s dad bought from Clockhouse at C&A in 1985, and it is their recherché quality that makes them so perverse in 2018.”
In other words, the look is highly ironic. Or, as the Fashion’s stylist tells me on the shoot: “It’s really an extension of normcore, making heroes of quite ‘ugly’ things typically associated with hiking and other outdoor sports. There’s a certain level of it being an in-joke – if you know, then you know.” I nod, like I know.
And perhaps that’s why this look isn’t working on me, because I am a dad, knee-deep in lunchboxes and nappies daily, whereas this is a take on the “Dad” as a slightly comedic archetype, a wilfully awkward, baggy silhouette. (In the oversized jacket, I felt as if I was wearing the jacket of a man who used to shop at “big and tall” but had discarded it after a successful gastric band operation. I’m told this has been legitimately coined “anti-fit” by the industry, but this sounds suspiciously like “alternative facts” to me.) It doesn’t go down as well in the parks of Ramsgate as I am sure it would if I were the sort of person who attended catwalk shows in Paris and Milan. Put this outfit on a teenage model, perhaps, and I’m sure the oh-so-hip irony would be plain to see.
So I won’t be updating my wardrobe. I did, however, find the blue hooded jacket to be a nice piece of clothing. It would no doubt serve its purpose as outerwear while with the family on a windy spring day at a National Trust manor house and has the added bonus of acting as a visible beacon for lost kids.
Is it possible I’m not cool enough to wear Dad-core? It might just be, and I can take that. My approach to Instagram, and to life, is to try to keep everything as real as possible – I wouldn’t post pics of kids scrawling on the walls or refusing to walk down the road if I was trying to look perfect – and I think that’s what I’ve learned. Yes, it’s never been more fashionable to be an Insta-dad, or a celebrity dad. But fashion still treats fatherhood with a knowing wink.
Forever Outnumbered by Simon Hooper is published by Coronet on 3 May at £16.99.