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Arbiter of Style

Robert E. Bryan (Col ’67) defined trends in menswear for 30 years

Robert E. Bryan Michael Fitts

What does a dapper former fashion editor wear to an interview on a blazingly hot summer day in New York City?

Robert E. Bryan (Col ’67) sports a casual short-sleeved blue polo, crisp khakis and pristine white sneakers. Sparsely accessorized with a simple ring and elegant watch, graying blond hair perfectly coiffed despite the punishing heat and humidity, Bryan looks as though he could have stepped from the pages of one of the many fashion spreads he has directed over the years as a fashion editor for the New York Times and Menswear Magazine and author of a definitive book on men’s fashion, American Fashion Menswear.

Bryan’s bearing, both in dress and in manner, is refined and unpretentious, sophisticated but not fussy. “Robert has an elegant grace and style that is matched only by his down-to-earth humility,” says John Tinseth, who runs a fashion blog called The Trad. “It is a rare pairing in the New York world of fashion.”

The modified preppie look, Bryan’s signature style, has been a longtime love. It began with his “obsession” with the 1930s and movies from that era starring fashion icons such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, before he attended college. “I had this more dandified, extravagant idea of fashion from these movies, and it met with the Ivy League influence at UVA, which is a simpler, pared-down version of the same style.” Bryan notes, “It was comfortable to wear and comfortable to be seen in—there was nothing wild and crazy about it—and it was flattering.”

Bryan's book on men’s fashion, American Fashion Menswear

Bryan traces the evolution of menswear from the 19th century on, especially as it pertains to the Ivy Style. “Brooks Brothers was kind of the forerunner of this Ivy look,” he says. “As early as the late 19th century, they had gone to England and brought back the button-down collar, which was synonymous with Ivy League style. If you go back far enough, everything comes from England. We picked it up and translated it—made it less formal, more relaxed, sportier.”

However, while Bryan’s history major reveals itself through his interest in the historical underpinnings of fashion, the true value of UVA to his career may lie outside the classroom. “Looking back at my education and my career, it was more the social atmosphere and the dress, and the coat-and-tie tradition,” Bryan says. “Everyone wore a coat and tie to class, even if it was loosened. So ironically, that was the more direct influence on my career than what I studied.”

Bryan recalls Charlottesville menswear shop Eljo’s fondly. “I remember the silk club ties—club ties have little emblems or crests that are neatly spaced—they were four dollars in those days.”

The coat-and-tie tradition was on the wane when Bryan graduated in the late ’60s. For a man of his classic, refined tastes, the 1970s—which he deems “the era of the worst taste”—would strike like a polyester punch in the gut. “I always had the feeling that after I left, everything went to hell in a handbasket,” he laughs, “because of the whole hippie thing, the revolution and all that. I graduated in ’67, and there was already one hippie who wore no shoes, went to class barefoot and had long hair.”

After graduating, Bryan endured a short stint in law school before deciding that it was not the career path for him. He moved to New York City and joined a management trainee program at a local department store chain, Abraham & Straus. Gradually, Bryan worked his way up the corporate fashion ladder to a position at Fairchild Publications as the fashion editor of Menswear Magazine; later, he joined the staff of the New York Times as the men’s style director.

Reflecting on the more modest aspects of his career, Bryan says, “You don’t have that much influence, really. Sometimes I’d see people out in public, and they’d be looking in the New York Times Magazine, just thumbing through it, and I’d want to say, ‘Wait a minute! Didn’t you see how nice that picture is?’” he laughs.

But he does admit that a career in the fashion industry “has its glamorous aspects, too, needless to say. I’ve gone places, traveled constantly, seen things I never would have dreamed of seeing and visiting. My parents went to Europe once. And I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve gone. So, it’s been a wonderful life, being a fashion editor.”

These days, Bryan has hung up his editor’s hat, but his passion for clothing has not faded.

He distills his decades of advice to a simple maxim—to each his own. “If you go to a Tom Ford boutique, you can get a dressing gown for $6,000. But I always dressed almost entirely from thrift store clothes through the 1980s, and I was on the best-dressed lists,” he says. “Fashion is usually not practical; it’s often not attractive. Style is more important than fashion. Fashions come and go but, theoretically, your own personal sense of style can incorporate changes in fashion and make them your own.”