An Icon Buffed by an Online Cult
c.2014 New York Times News Service
FLORENCE, Italy — He is an Instagram idol, an object of veneration across social media platforms, the sole focus of blogs consecrated to charting his individual style. That style, which the fashion retailer and savant Nick Wooster spent decades retooling, has lately become influential enough in the age of image obsession that a cadre of street photographers tracks him wherever he goes.
Seldom is this clearer than during the menswear fairs like Pitti Uomo here and the fashion shows that take place this month in London, Milan and Paris, where by nightfall of any given day, whatever Wooster happened to put on in the morning will be plastered all over the Web.
And there, on comment boards and forums, his wardrobe selections — artfully frayed cutoffs or dropped-crotch Gurkha trousers; Grenson Triple Welt oxfords or old-school Adidas Stan Smiths; a cinched-waist jacket from some obscure Japanese label or a preppy white button-down with the sleeves rolled up to reveal Wooster’s tattooed forearms — will be analyzed, scrutinized, discussed and subjected to exegesis by his improbable cult.
“What is it like to be worshipped by thousands of straight guys?” Lawrence Schlossman, one half of a fashion video-blogging duo that calls itself the Fashion Bros, once asked the man he termed a “digital man-crush for an entire generation of dorks, who determine their masculinity based on the length of their pants.”
Wooster’s reply, as is often the case when people pose questions about his unanticipated celebrity, was notable mainly for Midwestern self-deprecation.
“I’m beyond flattered by it all, you know, but I don’t really get it,” as the 55-year-old Wooster, who is from Salina, Kansas, recently told a reporter. “I’m also very well aware that I may appear to many as something of a caricature.”
More accurately, perhaps, Nick Wooster is that beau ideal of a solipsistic era: a one-man brand. And, although the seasoned retailer’s résumé is an impressive patchwork of high-end employment — clothing buyer at Barneys, design director at Ralph Lauren, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, president of John Bartlett, trend development officer at J.C. Penney — the fact that he has rarely stayed long in any one job (and not always by his own choosing) suggests he was always aiming for something outside conventional channels. And that is where social media come in.
“Instagram is my 401(k),” Wooster remarked wryly over one of the numerous iced coffees that fuel him daily.
It was his more than 200,000 followers on the photo-sharing platform last year that attracted the attention of the Lardini Group, an Italian manufacturing company, which initiated discussions that led to Wooster’s signing on as Lardini’s brand ambassador and also to the development of a Wooster and Lardini collection: four jacket styles and an equal number of trousers, some Bermuda shorts and a variety of accessories. It made its debut at Pitti, where 1,090 exhibitors descended to show their wares.
“I would never, ever call myself a créateur or a designer,” Wooster said. “I’m more of an amalgamator or a DJ, taking two things that don’t go together and making them go together.”
It was Nicolas Bourriaud, the academic and a founder of the Palais de Tokyo art center in Paris, who once boldly identified DJs as the dominant cultural figures of our era. Behind the hyperbole lay a shrewd observation, as there is little doubt the DJ techniques of blending, sampling and mashing up have by now infiltrated virtually every form of cultural expression, including such minor arts as fashion.
“I always say Nick is the Cher of men’s fashion,” said Ed Filipowski, the president of KCD, the fashion publicity and production powerhouse, referring to Wooster, whose full given name is Nickelson.
Like Cher, Wooster relentlessly, but with a shrewd eye, ransacks the cultural ragbag for inspiration and has constantly morphed his style. Also like Cher, he is evidently free of the self-doubt that plagues less-confident humans about whether they are appropriately dressed.
“Nick always looks good in an outfit,” Filipowski said.
Back when he was a teenager in 1960s Kansas, Wooster said, his parents often stopped him at the door as he got ready to go out.
“I’m probably one of the most fearful persons in the world, but not when it comes to getting dressed,” he said. “My parents would say, ‘Are you sure you want to go out like that?’ And I would answer, ‘I am.'”
Perhaps more than anything else it is Wooster’s easy assurance that attracts fans and followers, who refer to him as, among other things, the WoostGod. Well, that and his changeable displays of facial hair. What on many may look preposterous — dropped-crotch trousers with narrow legs, in patchwork fabric — Wooster makes like an inspiration you wish you’d had. Using the Internet as his runway and forum, he provides followers a continuing style tutorial, while offering manufacturers a tantalizing ready-made link to that sweet spot between commerce and taste.
“It’s now established as a part of the creative process that, just as we’ve had stylists interfacing with the world of red carpets, we can have style-makers playing a role on Pinterest and Instagram,” said Tom Julian of the Doneger Group in New York. “These influencers affect trends and can help any brand or retailer who’s trying to find a white space.”
It’s within that unassigned bandwidth, that white space, that people like Wooster and such influential bloggers as Garance Doré increasingly find themselves operating, forging lucrative partnerships with companies like Lardini (or, in Doré's case, L’Oréal, Christian Dior, Net-a-Porter and Kate Spade) eager to get at their elusive fans and followers.
“People like Nick are very important in moving a company forward today,” said Julian of the Doneger Group. “The big question is: ‘Where does the transaction take place?’ It does have to become a retail transaction at some point. Internet smoke and mirrors only go so far.”
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Still “young men’s-wear dudes idolize and worship him,” said John Jannuzzi, senior digital editor at GQ. “It’s that kind of dedication to him that makes brands really want to work with him.”
Happily for his fan base, Wooster is a passionately seasoned consumer of clothing and a surprisingly pragmatic one. After learning the ropes of the trade as a teenage assistant to a local haberdasher, he trained as a journalist at the University of Kansas, made his way to New York, fell into fashion retailing, partied heartily in the years preceding the AIDS pandemic, got sober and through it all kept refining a sense of style he says is innate.
“Some people are born with a caul,” said the man who claims to have asked his mother for a suit with a Prince of Wales check at the age of 5. “I was born with a jacket.”
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For Wooster, getting dressed every day is an existential act, an opportunity to compose oneself anew every morning whether or not Tommy Ton is waiting on the street with a camera.
Though he says it takes four hours from the time the alarm clock rings for him to go out the front door, only 20 minutes of that is spent getting dressed.
“I don’t think about it a lot,” he said. “I dress for the weather. Al Roker dictates what I wear.”