The concept of “military wear” isn’t just as simple as a combat uniform, it’s informed much of menswear design today. The influence ranges from staple outerwear pieces like the bomber jacket and M-65; to the way items are sewn, constructed, and built to last.
A look at the modern man’s wardrobe proves that the marriage between the military and men’s style is obvious; supplying menswear with more than just smart design, but with great designers. In a world where fashion creatives are often stereotyped as flighty, indirect, and inconsistent, the unique skills of a military veteran make him perfectly attuned to success in fashion—especially when menswear has so much of the military embedded into its history.
I was going to fashion school and grown men were crying because they had to sew a shirt and I was like: ‘I’ve been in the field—you guys are sewing—why are you crying?’
— ABdul abasi, designer at abasi rosborough
Ex-servicemembers aren’t just equipped with combat training, but the unique work ethic that keeps them regimented—in more ways than one. Ryan Taylor, an Army veteran with over three years in the service, and the designer behind Ryan Knew, explains how his military training keeps him focused from both the creative and business perspective.
“The military showed me that once you have something, be direct with it—and that’s my approach with everything that I do," says Taylor. Military discipline has also helped Taylor meet and maintain deadlines, making production more efficient.
It’s that kind of approach that has directed Taylor to avoid common pitfalls, from overbuying materials to complete sudden orders, to managing the books. It’s even as simple as being on time. As Taylor pointed out, “It’s given me a lot of discipline in the sense that I can control my brain... I’m never late, anywhere.”
For designer Abdul Abasi, one half of design team Abasi Rosborough, and seven-and-a-half year Army veteran, his military training helps keep the little things in perspective. Abasi joined the military at 18, at a time when he was looking for direction.
“The sort of thing I took away from the military was the matter of responsibility," Abasi says. "Through my service I was able to see the world; see different types of people, and cultures; be put in positions that tested my mental fortitude, physical capabilities and my emotional strength, and at the end of it I realized how strong of a person I am.”
Abasi credits his military experience for emotionally equipping him to deal with stressful situations. It also gave him an appreciative outlook on civilian life. "I was going to fashion school and grown men were crying because they had so sew a shirt and I was like: ‘I’ve been in the field—you guys are sewing—why are you crying?’"
But it’s not just in terms of how these designers handle their respective businesses, their military histories naturally color the way they design their work. For Taylor, he makes no secret about his work’s homage to his military history, with his most recent collection clearly taking cues from servicemembers and military uniforms.
“I’m always looking to keep the military aesthetic, I want that to be the focus," he says. But the inspiration won't always be taken literally. "I don’t want every piece to be a camo piece, or an Army green piece, but I do always want to keep the structure of the military behind it."
Starting to design while in the service was something that didn’t just maintain his interest in the industry, but helped him find an aesthetic foothold. The parka in his “Full Metal Jacket” collection is a direct reworking of an old CBRN defense suit. The little details that Taylor makes sure to include—like the fact that he “loves the way military garments are heavy”—are what make his collection more educated than a military homage. Like many designers, “military style” is a foundation to his work—except in this case, Taylor has actually been involved in the profession that inspired those garments in the first place.
For Abasi, the inspirations may not be as obvious, but they’re still present—namely in his appreciation of style history, and design functionality.
“Historically men have wanted to be warriors, and warriors are the epitome of masculinity— the culture of respect and responsibility," Abasi says. He also points out the subconscious influence of military style in menswear—whether or not you've ever enlisted, you've probably worn something that's graced the battlefield. "Most trenchcoats, bomber jackets—you name it—are derived from a military garment which was designed with function in mind. These garments are made to protect the wearer in times of conflict... it just epitomizes strength.”
While Abasi admits that he’s always been a creative person, he initially wanted to be a graphic designer. His time in the military helped propel and inspire his move into menswear. Changing posts around the world would become a major reference point in his future work.
"I was stationed in Korea, Holland, Germany, Turkey—all over the world—and that’s where I really got a sense of appreciation for the tangible nature of clothing as art. You know: something that is created artistically but has a function, and each person has a tangible connection to it. So I thought that was the perfect blend of artistry, design, and functionality."
But military inspirations can only take you so far, and transitioning from the armed forces into fashion design isn’t exactly a conventional—or easily affordable—path. Thankfully, vets can flourish off of supportive—often government-affiliated—programs for those who’ve served. With the G.I. Bill as a starting point, there’s a variety of options open to veterans as they look, not only to get a design education, but to establish their businesses.
Abasi used the G.I. Bill to help land him a spot at FIT, one of several universities that provide support for veterans looking to advance their education. While Abasi notes that there’s no direct path, the bill does provide monetary support (by way of tuition fees, housing allowances, and other living expenses) for ex-servicemembers going back to school. But for vets like Taylor, who realized he wasn't the college type, there are still ways to tweak the benefits of the G.I. Bill to cater to fashion industry aspirations.
“The G.I. bill basically says if I go to school they’ll pay for my school for the next three years. So, I have something like that helping me with my funding," Taylor says, who divides his benefits between studying pre-law and funding his burgeoning fashion line. "Of course there’s other programs to help vets with businesses, and those are also helping me. I’m actually a part of one of the military’s programs to help young vets start businesses."
But for veterans with authentic military (and fashion) histories of their own, one has to wonder if ex-servicemembers balk at those who use the idea of “military wear” as inspiration without having served themselves, like Kanye West’s first adidas collection, which has plenty of obvious military influences.
Abasi remarks, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery, so the fact that these people are trying to dress like servicemembers should empower the servicemembers to know that you’re doing something that’s so appreciated.” He continues, “Having served, especially when I was in the progress of my military service, I really wasn’t conscious of the fashion aspect of it, I was just conscious of the necessity and the function that [the clothing] provided."
Abasi also acknowledges that when fashion designers like Helmut Lang, and brands like Stampd are constantly referencing military silhouettes, it's a testament to the longevity and wearability of those pieces. "[Military clothing] is always going to be mined for inspiration, it’s an archetype, and I can’t be upset about that,” says Abasi.
For Taylor, the sentiment is much the same: “Everything is very tailored; it’s very accessible. It has a functionality aspect too, like where you might have a cargo pocket on a shirt or pair of pants."
But for all of the benefits the military has left on menswear design, Taylor does point out when he feels it crosses the line.
“You’ll see kids nowadays wear the ACU (Army Combat Uniforms) or the BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) shirt with name tape still attached to it, and in that sense I think fashion needs to take a step back," Taylor says. "That’s a shirt people fight to wear; that’s a shirt people have died to wear."
Taylor acknowledges the celebrity influence on military surplus gear—and the string of copycats that follow in its wake. "I see people are buying $200 dollar military boots that are $50 because they see Kanye or Jerry Lorenzo wearing them."
That said, Taylor thinks it's perfectly acceptable for civilians to wear camo, and appreciates how designers have flipped military wear.. "I love what fashion is doing, with things like camo, and structured trenches. Just look at Raf Simons and what Kanye’s been doing with it; it’s all so good.”
Kanye In raf Simons bomber... pic.twitter.com/Ggh2QT63Vt
It’s the unique combination of perspective, discipline, and practicality that makes veterans one of fashion best assets.
Abasi explains, “I think [my service] empowers my design sensibility and my credibility. To say I came from the military proves that I have a relationship with clothing and function that maybe people who come from civilian life don’t."
While there may not be a swell of servicemembers with fashion industry aspirations, Abasi points out that the military is often a precursor to several career paths like finance, engineering, or creative pursuits.
“You meet some of the brightest minds in the military—and I know it gets the stigma of jarheads or idiots or whatever—but there’s brilliant people and they all do it for different reasons," says Abasi. "This is just one part of their journey."