To explain his style, the GQ US editor-in-chief talks music.
Will Welch, who has been the editor-in-chief of American GQ for two years and now oversees all international editions of the magazine, built his style around music. From country to Kanye West by way of the Grateful Dead and the Strokes, he tells us about his fashion journey, with all its highs – and occasional lows.
L’ÉTIQUETTE. What are your earliest memories of clothing?
WILL WELCH. My first memories have to do with my dad. Southern men in America are known for their flamboyant streak, which my dad totally had. In the sweltering summers, he’d wear colorful seersucker suits, light fabrics, bow ties and loafers. He had a ton of Ralph Lauren in his closet, of course. His style was classic, but with a certain panache, rather nonchalant. When I was 10, he took me to get my first navy blazer with gold buttons from a tailor at the end of our street. I can still picture this impeccably dressed dude with a mustache, a tape measure around his neck, taking my measurements. The kids of my generation were the last ones to see that kind of thing. Day to day, I wore Levi’s, Abercrombie chinos and Ralph Lauren rugby shirts. I also had a pair of L.L. Bean duck boots, which I’d wear right through the winter. Those were my style staples, which I’d adapt slightly as the occasion warranted. To go to church, I’d put on an Oxford shirt, club tie, Duckhead chinos, and Sebago boat shoes. I remember going hunting with my dad, too. I grew up in the city, in Atlanta, but a lot of people in southern Georgia go hunting on the weekend, so my dad would lend me his hunting vest with all the pockets. And then there were the sneakers. I was born in 1981, so I grew up with Air Jordans, Nike Barkleys, Reebok Pumps. That was the dawn of sneakerhead culture.
É. Which ones did you have?
W.W. Jordan Vs. Probably the most interesting thing about me as a teen.
É. When did you get into music?
W.W. Around sixth grade, when I got interested in country music. That really wasn’t the done thing in middle school. I was a fan of Dwight Yoakam, a classic “hillbilly” singer, and Garth Brooks, who was more mainstream. I had a rodeo shirt, a copy of one Brooks often wore. I also bought a pair of white jeans and some cowboy boots. I stopped short of getting a 10-gallon hat [the provenance of the name “10-gallon” for a traditional cowboy hat has inspired plenty of theories, but the most amusing is that it comes from the Spanish “tan galán,” which loosely translates as “so handsome”], but that didn’t stop the other kids from screwing with me. Not that it bothered me. In fact, I think I probably enjoyed it. Must have been my way of asserting myself.
É. How long did your country phase last?
W.W. Until I was 14 and discovered Outkast. That changed everything for me. They were from Atlanta and were rapping about the streets where I grew up, about the bus line I was riding every day. Before Outkast, hip-hop was either from New York or L.A. and then – bam! – there were these rappers talking about my world. Also, Big Boi and André 3000 had incredible style. I interviewed them once, and they told me how they’d dress preppy to go to Tri-Cities High School in a working-class neighborhood. André told me this crazy story about how he’d take a tennis racket to class as an accessory! I didn’t try to dress like them, thank God, but they had a massive influence on my style, on the way I wore my jeans and the Atlanta Braves baseball cap I had. People could tell I listened to hip-hop and that I was a kid from Atlanta.
É. Which you eventually left for New York…
W.W. In 1999, when I was 18, I moved to New York to go to Columbia University. Honestly, that was an awful period for fashion in America. Well, at least my style was bad. Basically, my wardrobe consisted of baggy jeans, a T-shirt and some characterless secondhand clothes from Value Village, a thrift store in Atlanta. Luckily, I got swept up in a new wave of music, the post-punk revival with bands like The
Strokes, the White Stripes and The Hives. I took off to study in London for three months and was going to three gigs a week. I really threw myself into the scene, music- and stylewise. What all those groups did – the Strokes and their front man Julian Casablancas – especially, was show that a suit could be cool and youthful. Their uniform was a skinny jacket, slim cropped pants and trashed Converses. I also remember buying a fitted leather jacket at a vintage store on Brick Lane for £12. I’d wear it with a skinny tie. It was a crazy departure for a former country and hip-hop fan.
É. And then there was the Grateful Dead.
W.W. That goes way, way back. When I was in seventh grade, I hung out a lot at my best friend’s house. Ben’s dad was a Deadhead; he’d been a hardcore fan since the 1970s. The Grateful Dead played all the time in his house; that’s how I came to know their music. I believe it had become cool to like them, in a kind of ironic way, but I tell you, the Grateful Dead was never a cool band. For a long time, they were possibly the most uncool band in the world, but they had their own aesthetics, language and iconography, which might mix skeletons and photos of bears with references to Egypt. When you’re a Deadhead, it’s as much about the look as the music. The merchandising around the band was phenomenal. There’s all the official range, especially hundreds of T-shirts, but there are also all the things the fans made themselves and hawked in the parking lots outside concerts. I started to collect Dead merchandising years back, buying stuff on eBay, and I haven’t stopped.
É. You caught the collecting bug?
W.W. I guess I got that from my dad, who was massively into late 19th-century American cowboy paraphernalia. Growing up, there was a room in the basement of my parents’ house that was like a cowboy museum. I’ve also been collecting all of Kanye West’s merch for years now. For me, there’s Kanye and there’s the Grateful Dead. They’re the two musical icons who’ve really understood the potential of music merchandise to support creativity.
É. Has your style evolved since you’ve been at GQ US?
W.W. I joined GQ US in the late 2000s after writing a lot for the music magazine Fader. That was when menswear blogs were exploding; it was all about Americana and workwear. And then suddenly everyone rediscovered tailoring. It was my job to watch what was happening and interpret and describe it. Because I wrote about style every day, it made me want to streamline my wardrobe and only wear black from head to toe. A uniform began to take shape: a Levi’s trucker jacket and 511s with black ankle boots for everyday wear; black suit, black tie and white shirt for more formal events. It gave me the freedom to write about style without having to give a second thought to my own. I stuck with that for years, before I loosened up a little… Nowadays, there are only a handful of labels in my wardrobe. I wear RTH, an L.A. brand that reworks old jeans and military pants. I really like Evan Kinori in San Francisco, and Sid Mashburn in Atlanta. I get my suits from there, and I wear their Playboy Chukka boots with crepe soles. And, of course, there’s Ralph Lauren. I shop a little when I’m traveling, too. My glasses are from Maison Bonnet in Paris, and I have a few bespoke suits from Eral55 in Milan.
É. What’s your favorite garment?
W.W. I’d have to say my black trucker jackets. I’ve always got four on the go, from the most worn out to one that’s brand new. The pockets are perfect for holding all the crap I can’t leave home without: my wallet, keys, phone, pointand-shoot camera, spare film, etc. But I’m always becoming obsessed with new types of clothing. Prada’s nylon collection is really appealing to me right now. It taps into my love of black and technical gear. On the other hand, I can’t wait to go and get a tailored suit from Anderson & Sheppard in London. The stylist George Cortina is a regular, and he promised to take me there when we can travel again.
É. Is it important to dress well?
W.W. It’s important to feel good in what you’re wearing. Whenever I don’t, I go home and change. That still happens every now and then.