The Velvet Revolution

A manifesto on this winter's smooth operators.

The term usually refers to a nonviolent political change such as the birth of the Czech Republic. But to the dandies who troll Manhattan's Madison Avenue with the same fervor that Ronald Reagan reserved for railing against communism, a different sort of uprising is at hand. This season, decadent, bourgeois velvet will be moving from upper-class staple to cutting-edge statement as leading designers introduce suits, blazers, and trousers in the fabric once beloved by Oscar Wilde.

This velvet revolution means the long-running trend of cold, futuristic menswear is over. The icon of the moment is the jet-set playboy, not the bike messenger or the iPod deejay, which is good news, particularly if your personal fashion aesthetic is luxe rather than techno. "Velvet fits the mood of the season; for me it's Romanticism," says Bottega Veneta's creative director, Tomas Maier, a man often described as the next Tom Ford for his ability to create sexy yet elegant looks.

The plush fabric started creeping toward the mainstream about four years ago when designers like Jil Sander began working it into their collections. This season Bottega is just one of several major fashion houses—along with the likes of Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Ermenegildo Zegna, and Etro—that went long on velvet. Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the eponymous boutique in New York's Meatpacking District, says he had never ordered as much velvet menswear as he did for fall this year.

The downside is that while the material may be smooth to the touch, the look is not the easiest to pull off: There is a fine line between being taken for a habitué of Monaco and a patron of Club Monaco. It is one thing to spot a trend, another to wear it successfully. The decidedly downtown Maier recommends wearing a velvet blazer with a T-shirt and jeans, a pairing that fits nicely into the garment's star-studded past.

During the late sixties and early seventies, when socialites and musicians started mixing in nightclubs, European designers began appropriating textiles once the sole province of aristocratic formalwear. Yves Saint Laurent created a velvet blazer for Mick Jagger. The British tailor Tommy Nutter, who made clothing simultaneously for government ministers and Elton John's Captain Fantastic tour, designed one for Paul McCartney, which the Beatle dressed down with a Cacharel top and denim.

This rock-star lineage is what makes the velvet blazer appeal across male demographics. Butch Wall Streeters can rationalize wearing a girly fabric because what's macho enough for Sir Mick is macho enough for them. Hipsters, who previously dismissed the sports coat as a country-club affectation, view a velvet jacket as a palatable way to dress up while maintaining a street-fighting integrity. "Part of the attraction of velvet is that it's luxurious and it's decadent and, as we say in England, 'rather naughty,' " notes the British suitmaker Timothy Everest, who trained under Nutter and has gone on to make clothes for Sir Mick and David Beckham.

Like Maier, Everest praises the cushy item for its versatility. When Harrods asked him to create a 72-Hour Wardrobe—basically a carry-on stocked with $18,000 worth of luxury garments that could get a guy through a long weekend abroad—he included a velvet blazer. To Everest, the material is synonymous with dressing up. "Putting on a velvet jacket quickly defines the difference between work and play," he says.

The way the motorcycle bomber jacket leaped from the shoulders of The Ramones to the back of every orthodontist in New Jersey during the eighties, velvet will be everywhere this winter. Looking better than the next gent can be a challenge. Velvet is chunky, so it is important to have a well-tailored blazer, or you run the risk of resembling an Edwardian teddy bear. When Everest does bespoke velvet jackets for his clients, he makes sure to cut them a little trimmer and shorter in front to create a slim façade.

Color can be an issue, too: Certain shades will be mass-marketed and thus will appear on every other man in the room this winter—with black, navy, and chocolate brown being the most obvious. Everest prefers a Cabernet Sauvignon blazer worn with a butcher's blue shirt. Etro, the Italian house known for its radical use of color, offers a scarlet version trimmed in grosgrain. Maier's collection for Bottega Veneta has a fitted bottle-green blazer that is the pick of the lot.

Finally, you have to know where the day—or night—will take you. The time Oscar Wilde wore a red velvet coat to meet with the writer Ambrose Bierce in San Francisco in 1882, Bierce was famously unimpressed. When Wilde commented, "I believe that one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art," Bierce replied, "And which describes you?"

Somewhat exasperated, literature's first pop star tried again: "Mr. Bierce, it's obvious you aren't enchanted with celebrity. In particular my own."

"I avoid celebrities, sir. For the same reason that I avoid horseshit in the street," snapped Bierce. It wasn't a great meeting, but the trick is to tune out the naysayers just as the man in the red velvet jacket did: Be a pop star in your mind. If you can get your head in the right place and find your velvet dream coat this winter, you too will be ready to take a walk on the Wilde side.