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Tim Dowling: can I be a Fantastic Man?

I don’t usually give much thought to what I’m going to wear on a given day; it’s generally a slight variation on what I wore the day before. But I won’t pretend I didn’t think about it on the day the editors of Fantastic Man magazine came to my house. I thought about it until I overthought it, and then I tried to underthink it. In the end, I was rescued from paralysis by a lack of choice. I just had to go with what was clean.

Fantastic Man, founded a decade ago by Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom, can be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated gentleman reader. The latest issue runs to 330 pages and is stuffed with the kind of fashion ads in which it is not always apparent what’s being advertised, or to whom: men obscured by clouds of ribbon, or something; a woman’s foot emerging from beneath a heavy drape.

Tim’s inspiration: Collier Schorr’s portrait of Ollie Edwards from Fantastic Man, autumn/winter 2013.

“It’s not for everybody,” Jonkers says. “It’s somewhat limited in its reach.” But it has a great deal of influence in fashion circles. Jonkers likes to describe its market position as “worldwide niche”. Not everyone has heard of the magazine, but wherever he travels, somebody has. It isn’t really as daunting as it first appears, either. Fantastic Man combines articles about men from many walks of life (the new issue contains a lengthy interview with a scientific researcher dedicated to the notion that offensive body odour is both contagious and curable) with a trainspotter’s eye for detail: cuffs, collars, buttons. Some of its success stems from its outsider’s perspective: although written in English, Fantastic Man is a Dutch publication. Its tone is dry, deadpan, guileless. I don’t consider myself to have a forensic interest in the finer points of men’s style, but it turns out I can happily read a whole article about baseball caps. It doesn’t mean I’m going to wear one.

After 21 issues (Fantastic Man is published twice a year), the best interviews from the magazine have now been collected in a handsome book, published by Phaidon. Among those featured are David Walliams, the director Steve McQueen, Christoph Waltz, Mark E Smith, Spike Jonze and Bryan Ferry. The lineup includes artists, designers, architects and entrepreneurs. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it takes to be counted as a fantastic man, but I’m hoping Jonkers and Van Bennekom are going to do more than explain the rules. I’m hoping they’re going to turn me into one. I want to be remade: me, only fantastic.

Jonkers is the first to turn up at my house; his colleague is stuck in traffic somewhere. In an unhelpful accident of timing, my wife is in the kitchen when he arrives, flipping through an issue of his magazine. I hadn’t planned on this at all.

“I don’t like men in silly clothes,” she says.

“Really?” Jonkers says. “You don’t think men should take risks?”

“I mean, look at that,” she says, pointing. “Ridiculous.”

“She won’t be staying,” I say.

Van Bennekom arrives a few minutes later, and we sit down at my kitchen table. They’re both dressed neatly, but casually: van Bennekom wears a grey sweatshirt, Jonkers a short jacket that almost matches the blue of his trousers.

I ask how they go about selecting their fantastic men, but they’re a little vague. “It’s mostly people we admire or like or have a curiosity about,” Van Bennekom says. “So in that sense it’s not a formula. It’s also maybe people that are not so well dressed.” Ah, I think: a loophole.

“We’re not clothes-obsessed,” Jonkers adds. “We never refer to our magazine as a fashion magazine, because I don’t think it is. We’re genuinely interested in the people we feature.” He stresses the magazine’s commitment to individual style, rather than fashion. “I think there are hardly any grown men who think, every six months, ‘Oh, what’s going to be my new style?’ That just doesn’t exist. Men are very happy to find out that they love a cardigan.”

“I think a cardigan only became a staple about five or six years ago,” Van Bennekom says. I’m pretty certain they keep mentioning cardigans because I am wearing a cardigan. What can I say? I was cold.

This sets us off on a digressive sidetrack about wardrobe staples, updated classics and the dwindling appeal of vintage clothes. While I’m definitely out of my depth, it’s getting hard to maintain the fiction that I don’t care. I confess my own current style preoccupation: my ongoing and growing uncertainty over what is supposed to happen between the bottom of a trouser hem and the top of a shoe. I’m not sure any of my trousers end properly.

“That’s a man’s preoccupation, I think,” Van Bennekom says. I tell them that I saw a man my age on the tube who had round-rolled his jeans halfway up his calf. “So you tried it out immediately?” Jonkers says.

“No,” I say. I do not mention that I spent the previous day secretly experimenting with a pin-tuck roll I saw in their magazine.

The men that grace their pages are generally already possessed of a strong sense of style, which the magazine prefers to reinforce, or boil down, rather than alter. They will happily celebrate a look without necessarily endorsing it.

“We quite like to stay close to reality,” Jonkers says. “It’s not so much pushing a person in some strange direction.”

“If someone is known for wearing a black rollneck and it looks absolutely great,” Van Bennekom says, “then we would love to shoot that person in six different rollnecks. That’s more the way we go about it. Very simple.”

To that end, they say, they would like to have a look at my wardrobe. With a slightly heavy heart, I lead them upstairs.

Such is the state of my personal fashion cupboard that Jonker’s first suggestion is that I throw away between a third and half of the clothes in it. He’s got a point. I only ever wear a small proportion of the contents. The rest is moth food.

Jonkers looks down at my shoe collection, singling out a pair of black lace-ups. “A bit pointy,” he says.

“That’s because I got them off the internet,” I say. “They didn’t look that pointy in the picture.”

I flip through my selection of unsatisfactory white shirts. Most are no longer quite white enough. Some have bad collars, some horrible cuffs. None of them fits particularly well. This, I explain, is because I mostly buy them in airports, under extreme time constraints.

Normal Tim: cardigan and shirt, both
Uniqlo; jeans,
Banana Republic; glasses,
Paul Smith. Photograph: Sophia Spring for the Guardian

“It’s even more important for basics to be perfect,” Jonkers says. “It’s so annoying to have a white shirt that’s wrong.” He gets his from Gap. “I don’t think you have any black shirts,” he says. “Which is good.”

“Black shirts aren’t good,” Van Bennekom says.

“You’d hate me,” says my youngest son, who is passing by in a black T-shirt and black trousers. They’re not being prescriptive, Jonkers and Van Bennekom insist. “I’m never for those rules, like, you can never wear a thing with a thing,” Jonkers says. But they have indirectly shown me the error of my ways. I have a cupboard full of stuff I don’t like, that doesn’t suit me. What little I have that I do like I’m mostly wearing at the moment, cardigan included.

“There’s more,” I say, directing them to a chest of drawers. I show them my T-shirts. My sock drawer, I discover, is completely empty. When I open my pants drawer, I’m sure I hear a sharp intake of breath.

“The horizontal stripes are not a fashion statement,” I explain. “It’s a form of colour coding, because my kids now wear the same size pants as me. It’s just to stop us getting them mixed up.”

After they leave, I get a little depressed. I have the sartorial sensibility of a shut-in, I realise. And I need new pants.

A few days later, and very much to my surprise, I learn that the editors of Fantastic Man were rather taken with my personal style, to the extent that I am instructed to turn up to a before-and-after photo shoot wearing precisely the outfit I had on when they met me: jeans, boots, a blue corduroy shirt that I’m actually fairly certain was originally bought for my oldest son, and the aforementioned dark brown cardigan. For better or worse, this appears to be my signature look.

What greets me at the photographic studio is even weirder: a clothes rail hung with sleeker, more expensive versions of my own clothes: a whole range of brown cardigans; all manner of jeans; boots just like mine, but nicer. They’ve even laid out facsimiles of my glasses – four pairs in varying degrees of chunkiness. It’s as if someone famous is going to play me in a Hollywood film.

Fantastic Tim: cardigan,
Dunhill; shirt, Berluti; jeans,
APC; glasses,
Cutler and Gross. Photograph: Sophia Spring for the Guardian

The Fantastic Man makeover is, therefore, a kind of intensification. My beard is trimmed to an optimal length, my hair is pulled into shape and every detail of the drape and fold of my garments is fussed over until I can be presented to the world – or at least the lens – as some kind of super-me. It feels, I have to say, fantastic. It’s hard not to take all this as a ringing endorsement of my default mode of dress, of choices I hardly knew I was making.

When I climb back into my own version of my clothes and head for the tube, I am correspondingly diminished, returned to my former, unprepossessing state. But not quite, because I’m still wearing the makeup.

“What? You look exactly the same,” my wife says when I show her the pictures later. “It’s just you wearing what you always wear.”

“They’re all new clothes,” I say.

“Are they?”

“Those aren’t even my glasses,” I say.

“It just looks like you,” she says.

“Fine,” I say. “Whatever.”

I don’t need her approval for my signature look. I just need four more cardigans in the same colour.

Fantastic Man is published on 26 October by Phaidon at £29.95. To order a copy for £21, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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