He’s All That: Louise Wise on Bold Fashion Choices (Good and Bad)

Whenever I think of the bold and the beautiful, I have two thoughts in quick succession. The first is more of a question: is it always an “and”? Does being bold make you beautiful, and vice versa? Certainly, I think that being beautiful has something bold in it, far more than being “attractive”, or just “pretty” (blah). Beauty has a certain oomph to it. And as for being bold, is that half the battle won where beauty is concerned? I realise I’ve often felt that way – as though going all-out, ramping up the confidence, confers automatic va-va-voom. And then I look at some of the pictures of my past sartorial excesses and I think: Hmmm. Maybe not.

I am writing today to assess my best and/or worst moments, when I felt to be bold was to be beautiful – where I went out on to the street, into the workplace, into “the club” (remember those?), all guns blazing. Looking back on those moments now, I don’t really know what I captured in the process. But it was a fun experience, and something I always liked the idea of, even as a child. Because my second thought, when I hear about bold and beautiful, is of my French grandmother. I think a lot about my grandparents these days; I worry it makes me morbid. But they fascinate me because they were so present in my life at one point, so relevant, and yet are also already history. For our purposes, though, hearing those words makes me think of my mother’s mother, Michelle, who we spent school holidays with in the south of France and was known to us as “Mamie”. I’m not going to lie: Mamie was a stycon (style icon). I know every gay man says this about their dead grandmother, but hear me out.

Mamie was obsessed with style, and stylish living. When she convinced my grandfather to build a house on a hill which eventually bankrupted them, she made sure they had four gardens, including a winter garden, a bathroom with a glass wall which looked out on to said winter garden (you could appreciate the flora from the tub), a whole floor they never even used and, best of all, a walk-in wardrobe. In it sat rails of dresses, coats, skirts and blouses, mostly in the strong colours and prints which a Mediterranean woman like Mamie loved. She had very dark skin, positively black hair and was basically your standard “señorita”, only as French as they come (tetchy, glamorous, a pill for everything). She made a mean pumpkin soup in a kitchen she had painted baby pink, and she did all her gardening in a bikini. She did all this right up until she suddenly died, on a sunny day in May 1994, only a few weeks after turning 68. And another thing she did– which I liked to do with her – was watch her trashy American soaps, dubbed in French, when they aired late on a hot weekday morning. One of her favourites was Amour, Gloire et Beauté, which back in America is known as, yes, The Bold and the Beautiful. Mamie was a complex woman, and she wasn’t always easy to adore. Her relationship with fashion was often categorised as vain, limiting, a waste of money, but then she was also loved for it. I would say I inherited some of that complex and even contradictory attitude, an attitude I’ve spent many years unknotting. But when I’ve got it into my head to be bold and beautiful, I realised who I’m channelling. Allez! Mamie – this one’s for you.

1. I wasn’t allowed many new clothes as a child, since I was the youngest of three, and we couldn’t really afford them anyway: hand-me-downs were my lot. Then, one day when I had a school disco looming at the age of nine, my mother finally caved in and took me to BHS, where we promptly bought a black denim jacket-and-jean ensemble. It was 1992 –who was I channelling? Kris Kross or k.d lang? The only issue is the outfit was so good, I wasn’t allowed to wear it; no event was ever good enough. When the next year’s disco came around, I had already outgrown it. Perhaps this is why I now like to trash pretty much any outfit as soon as I buy it (I like “worn in”), and why I almost never wear black.

2. In my teens, during the high Britpop era, I took it upon myself to wear whatever cheap Adidas ’70s stuff I could find, no matter how tight or flammable it might be. I distinctly remember boiling to death one mufti day at school in a burgundy zip-up number, convinced that loosening the zip would somehow loosen the look. These are very pale early attempts at glamour, I recognise: but it was Plymouth in the 1990s, and frankly I was worried about being stoned to death. I bought a yellow hoodie once, and my mother looked sad and said, “You shouldn’t get on the bus in that.”

3. The first week I went to university, two momentous things happened: I came out, and I pocketed my first student loan. I’m not sure which was more thrilling and revealing. Cue a staggering succession of odd buys, where I started really trying to emphasise my Mediterranean side, but with a side-look of skater: that is to say, I owned a pair of chunky red and grey Etniestrainers, and a brown and gold-thread shirt from Zara. I don’t know what to say: Gen Z would know how to work it? Possibly my favourite items, though, were those wristbands which all student males wore circa 2003. Nothing screamed “accessory” like a striped little towelled number in blue, white, even neon yellow. It’s only now that I realise I was doing The Royal Tenenbaums, but filmed exclusively in Costa Coffee. Bold and beautiful, rite?

4. When I moved to London after uni in 2006, that’s when things became truly bold. I suppose it was just living in east London at that time, but I’m afraid it was also the old gay cliché of having just seen Paris Is Burning for the first time. Truly, is there any deeper, scarier and more downright inappropriate cultural appropriation than watching some gorgeous queer kids of colour on the breadline, in Aids-plagued 1980s New York, and thinking: “I could do that”? I never wanted the pain or the poverty, to be clear: I wasn’t that crass. But I liked the effervescence. Which is a long way of saying, I bought a pair of electric-blue skinny jeans.

5. Also, my most infamous purchase among my friends: The Shirt With A Bow. Around 2007, Topshop-mania was at its height, and Topman asked several menswear designers to contribute their riff on the white shirt. I wanted the Richard Nicoll one; it sold out, so I bought one which had, instead, a voluminous bow attached, in a kind of raffish, fin-de-siècle way. (Again: rite?) I showed this off at a stunning event: my mate’s housewarming at an ex-council flat in Bermondsey. Looking back, I realise this was the truly bold bit.

6. Around that time, I also started interning at magazines, including one quite highbrow left-wing news and arts magazine. They were nice to me there, and gave me some really great writing breaks which I’m forever grateful for, but I just didn’t fit in. I don’t think I could quite square with their own type of seriousness; I tried to not think my sexuality had to do with it. Years later, at some posh book drinks thing, one of my old editors there saw me: “Louis!” she cried. “I always loved you! I always remember your pink shoes!” Now, listen, luv: I never had any pink shoes. I did have some blue and red Umbro hi-tops via Kim Jones, but nothing overtly pink. For years I stewed on this and took it as a terrible homophobic slur. Now I just think, sod it. Get me some pink shoes!

7. For my brother’s wedding in 2005, I decided to wear a sea-blue suit, with a striped blue and brown shirt, and a vintage Dior Men’s tie with the Dior monogram printed all over it. Grey shoes. Looking back, I realise this was me trying to channel Outkast’s album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, specifically the aura of André 3000. Considering he is a visionary Black rapper from Atlanta and I’m a white, bourgeois kid from Devon, I realise this was a stretch. But, by God, I felt bold and, Lord, I felt beautiful! Also, funnily enough, all the English people at the wedding said I looked “so French”, and all the French people said I looked “so English”. Which was maybe just a polite, collective way of saying, “You’re not with us.”

8. My first trip to New York in 2008, I ran to Beacon’s Closet in Brooklyn for vintage, and Century 21 for cut-price fashunz. I still have the Beacon’s purchases now: chiefly, a very cute old t-shirt advertising “Obsessions Night-Club”. (Where, oh where is Obsessions?) The Century 21 buys, if bolder, had a shorter shelf-life. I bought a divine grey Helmut Lang sweater which I wore precisely once, until I realised I was allergic to all the alpaca in it. And then there were the Versace chinos in raspberry pink. Being a style visionary, I thought I could finesse Donatella’s vision, so during a heatwave in London I cut them roughly at the knee and turned them into cut-offs, which I then wore into work at one of Britain’s largest and oldest newspapers. The executives’ look was priceless. And people say we millennials aren’t political…

9. This entry was going to be about an outsized leather jacket I bought which was so large – essentially a tarpaulin with a button – that my friend Julia and I called it Half A Dead Cow. Sorry to all the vegans out there, but I feel like it was quite a glam afterlife. However, I’m aware that I should be suggesting there’s a journey somewhere – a sense that I somehow learned to bend the bold and the beautiful to my own whims. I’d be lying if I said that were completely true, but I did buy a gorgeous navy-blue light cotton suit from Margaret Howell a few years ago for a friend’s wedding, and it felt understatedly bold, and very beautiful. It didn’t need to scream. Everyone else went far more outlandish (and looked great), but I felt just so. I think this is what Mamie would have liked to have seen me in.

10. Finally, though, the most bold and beautiful things I’ve had for a long time, and which I still have now, are the rings on my finger. On the ring finger of my right hand, I wear a thick gold band with a slightly art-deco snake shape on it, encasing a small diamond and ruby; on the middle finger next to it, a gold one which holds a sapphire star. The snake is Mamie’s stepdad’s, actually. My mother gave it to me over ten years ago, and at first, I didn’t know what to do with it – it was definitely, defiantly unfashionable. My boyfriend at the time sniggered at it, and it sat in its box for two years. Then one day I thought: bugger that. I had it resized, and now I wear it every day. I bought the star not long after. Often, when people meet me – when I interview them for work, or if I go on dates – they notice them, and I guess it’s because they stand out, maybe a little too much. But I’ve gone so far with them now, they make sense. Even if I don’t buy so many daft, inappropriate things, I think it’s nice to be bold, just a little bit, every day. And when they glint in the sun, or underwater in a pool, I think of my bold and beautiful, and ever-so-soapy grandmother.

Taken from Issue 54 of 10 Men – BOLD & BEAUTIFUL – order your copy here.