Meet The Army Officer Who’s Changing The Future of Menswear

If you’ve been paying attention to menswear for the past few decades then you’ve probably noticed that not much has changed. Put aside the more avant garde spectacles of high-end fashion houses and consider the accessible and practical fashions that are readily available to the everyday man. Compared to trends in womenswear — a field that is constantly shifting, often breathtaking, and occasionally outlandish — menswear has remained on a steady path of sharp corners, drab colors, and very little flair. Jeans have gotten tighter and buttons have gotten higher, but that’s about it.

Why? Julian Woodhouse — a superlative fashion designer with a distinguished military background who’s trying to end drab menswear — has an answer:

“The desire to maintain yourself, to look your best, to make sure your hair and your skin looks good, all of those things, those vain things, are associated with women,” he explained over the phone. “When guys do it, it’s looked at as a negative…Which is definitely a huge turn off for straight men.”

Woodhouse isn’t wrong. Whether or not you identify with these behaviors, they are pervasive in men’s fashion. Maybe it’s because American masculinity is rooted in perception, which means men are often focused on what their attire will communicate to the outside world. But, as a man struggling to discover and redefine his own sense of fashion, I’ve come to believe that outside perception shouldn’t really matter. Who cares if I wear something today that gets me teased tomorrow? Tomorrow is overrated.

That’s why I was so excited to talk with Woodhouse, because he’s not only a prime example of what it means to follow your passions, but he is also an advocate for revolutionizing menswear. A big part of that advocacy is focused on pushing through doubt and destigmatizing what it means to be a fashion-forward male.

“So the gay guys look amazing — thank you — but it doesn’t really go well for the mainstream heterosexual male,” he said. “He doesn’t want to put on amazing clothes that he is excited about and then go outside and it…means something negative. There’s a negative stigma associated with guys who try.”

As Woodhouse mentioned, and as you probably have already guessed, a man who pays extra attention to his personal aesthetic is often viewed as non-masculine. “When I was in the closet…I was wearing what I needed to fit in and not seem ‘gay,’” he explained.

Even as a straight man, I’ve often had the same concern. I remember in middle school, buying a pair of black and white checkered Vans slip on shoes, but never wearing them because a close friend told me they were “so gay.” If I could reach back in time and slap my younger self, I’d tell him not to care, to wear what he wants, and, most importantly, I’d tell him that something “looking gay” should never be seen as a negative. Sadly, however, it’s this exact negative sentiment that has held back menswear for decades (save a few bold mavericks).

Fear, it seems, is the enemy of style. That’s why Woodhouse’s fearless, carpe diem approach seems to important.

Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Julian Woodhouse spent his childhood living in more places than most of us will ever travel. “Both of my parents were in the military, so I grew up as an army brat,” he said. “We moved to a different country every two years.” It was an illuminating experience, but as Woodhouse grew up he realized that a military career was more than a family tradition, it was an obligation.

“I was a very free spirited kid, and ended up being that way all through my adult life,” he said. “I was bit by the ‘fashion bug’ in middle school and was already super excited about the possibility of going into fashion. But in my family that was completely unheard of.”

Though, I should point out, Woodhouse wasn’t forced into the military. He had his reservations about making such a commitment but, in the end, it turned out to be exactly what he needed. He didn’t give up his fashion dreams to join the military, no, he used the military to create his own path into fashion. It’s a theme that comes up in his career over and over: Rejecting fear; seizing the moment.

In the end, the military gave so much to Woodhouse that, if he weren’t pursuing a career in fashion, he’d pursue a life-long career in the military. “It turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life,” he said, without reservation.

“It gave me an understanding of systems and processes and how to manage people,” Woodhouse says. “Because as an officer, it’s like a managerial position, but it’s very broad. You span logistics, you span equipment, land, physical resources, you span personnel, their personal lives, their family’s lives, and at the same time you’re balancing a $25 million budget.”

Can you imagine balancing a $25 million budget? I can barely manage my $2,500 savings account. But, then, I guess that makes a solid argument as to the benefit that Woodhouse received from his time in the military. It was these experiences that gave the designer the executive skills needed to manage his own business, the show-stealing fashion brand aptly named Wood House. It was the sort of pivot that could strike fear in the heart of a young entrepreneur, but Woodhouse was undaunted.

“I basically approached Wood House like anything I do in the army,” he said. “We’re taught that the mission will never fail.”

It’s kind of strange thing, this idea that believing you’ll succeed means you actually will succeed. But, as Woodhouse explains it, confidence is the best way to push through your doubts and overcome your fears.

“I use the analogy of glass balls and rubber balls,” he explained. “You can easily drop a rubber ball, it will bounce back up and you can catch it if you need to catch it later. You can let something fall through the cracks today. But glass balls fall and the break and there’s no way to fix it, you just have to pick up the pieces and see what you can do.”

It’s this sense of do-or-die that makes Woodhouse’s designs so interesting. He believes in his clothes, and that confidence shines through, and it does so without the rigid affectation of the military. Keep in mind, I’m no fashionista, but I honestly believe that Woodhouse is building a brand that’s founded in self-confidence, all while reimagining the definition of masculinity.

“It’s about how you want to be perceived,” he continued. “If there’s anything I learned from a militaristic structure, it was that. Because there was a time when I would worry that this shirt was too long, or these shorts are too short, this neck is too low…what if it makes me look too feminine?”

That idea, that fear, “what if this looks too feminine?” is one that most men can relate to. There’s a lot behind that fear, including the pressures of society, living up to social norms, trying to perform your gender in the way that others expect that gender to be performed, and so on. It affects every level of men’s fashion, and that’s a bad thing.

“Our society shouldn’t be such that an individual doesn’t feel comfortable just wearing clothes,” Woodhouse said. “Their clothes, it’s fabric, it’s organic materials from the ground that you weave together and put clothes together I don’t understand how that would, you know, create such a stigma around an individual, just at first glance.”

Maybe it has something to do with toxic masculinity, or the idea that “real men” can’t adopt fashion-forward aesthetics, but even in 2017 there’s still a stigma surrounding “guys who try.”

“That’s what we’re trying to break apart at Wood House,” said Woodhouse. “By making sure that there is an uber-masculine air about everything we do, by making styles that are everything from basics to the extreme. We add the masculine touch, and guys associate it with something they can wear.”

As mundane as that goal might sound — simply giving men more fashion options — it is, at it’s core, it’s brave. Because I don’t think that Woodhouse is interested in giving us more of the same, but instead, I think he’s working for something completely different. In other words, Woodhouse is talking about a revolution.

“I want to be known for changing menswear. When I think of Coco Chanel for instance, she really stands for something. And it’s something that’s abstract, it’s like she liberated women from wearing the corset and these crazy, crazy hats. At the time she was able to connect with what women were feeling at the time. It’s kind of a superpower, in a sense, understanding where all women are at the same time in developed countries.”

Coco Chanel saw women’s fashion as a problem. It was impractical and uncomfortable and, in more ways than one, a barrier. “Finding a solution to that problem is something that I applaud on a daily basis, and I think for me I’m just trying to crack that code with menswear.” Cracking the code for menswear is, interestingly enough, an attempt at solving a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where women’s clothes weren’t basic enough, ours have become too basic. “Just giving guys options that they never thought they would have, or didn’t know that they wanted, but didn’t know where to find them.”

It’s the military that gave Woodhouse the discipline to follow his dreams, and it’s his passion for fashion that will help to reshape and redefine what menswear can do. It’s a big goal, but there’s no denying that Woodhouse is a man of great ambition. “The thing that I stand for as an individual, separate from Wood House, is I stand for hard working, consistent, and inspired individuals,” he said.

And it makes sense, because the values of hard work are what pushes Woodhouse to do what others won’t. It’s not that he believes he won’t fail, it’s that he knows that failure isn’t an option. “Maybe it’s something as crazy as running your own brand from the ground up when you’re living on a base north of Seoul. It’s all about sticking to it. Once you decide that it’s impossible to fail, you’ll figure out a way to get there.”