Top critical review
It's a trap!
Reviewed in the United States on July 3, 2019
I had never been too interested in this sort of thing, but received a two-year subscription as a gift.
I initially thought the magazine was shallow, but soon realized that fashion can be an asset. It's a type of social currency: like it or not, we are judged partly by how we look because form is often rooted in substance. We're complex social animals that employ style as a token of self-expression, so our grooming & dressing choices can aid us in a variety of ways - professionally, for instance.
Prior to GQ, I'd wear baggy suits a size too large and didn't know how to mix patterns/textures/colors, like layering a cardigan beneath a blazer or juxtaposing a denim shirt with a suit. I haven't become a dandy or anything, but look marginally less dopey (e.g., my jacket sleeves don't extend past my knuckles anymore and I've chucked the billowy slacks that resembled parachute pants).
So why the low rating? Well, if you're self-aware, GQ will rapidly outlive its usefulness. I soon realized that it was shallow after all...just in a sneaky, insidious way.
1. GQ is in the business of selling you clothing - even at the expense of common sense or good taste.
GQ has a symbiotic relationship with the marketing/sales divisions of apparel brands, boutiques, and department stores - who are also their advertisers - so they coax you into a never-ending cycle of spend, spend, spend.
Turtlenecks, for example, were a derided no-no at first. Suddenly: turtlenecks are back, go buy one! They've become just a bit slimmer, you see. The same goes for overcoats: they harp on about how they should end above the knee for a trim look, then it's, "The killer long overcoat is back!". Says who? Why? Will I no longer be able to sit at the cool kids' table if I don't get one? Because my shorter overcoat still looks fine to me.
There are countless examples. GQ mocks politician Rick Santorum for wearing sweater vests; a year later, they try to sell you an $800 argyle sweater vest from Saint Laurent because it's 'cool' now. So they throw it on a hunky actor, paired with a biker jacket to offset its dorkiness. Nice try - it still looks horrendous to me. A sprinkle of fancy adjectives can't alter the fact that it's same item they ridiculed before, just with a luxe material and insane price tag. Unsurprisingly, the item is being sold by GQ's 'retail partner', Mr. Porter, because monetary self-interest is all it takes to rubber-stamp a double standard.
Dig further and you'll find a paragraph from GQ's Creative Director Jim Moore explaining why you should buy a specific $875 pair of jeans. Really. I don't care how much money you make, this kind of gross excess is emblematic of the most mindless and wasteful aspects of our culture, especially when you consider the opportunity cost. Even if you splurged on a premium pair of selvedge jeans, you'd still have $600 left over to learn something, travel, donate, or do ANYTHING ELSE.
GQ wants you to be a hamster in a wheel forever, and it's easy to develop a constant desire for "new things". The magazine's unstated purpose is to tap into your deepest consumerist cravings, which are hard to resist if you don't step back and realize what game you're in. The core message is "buy":
"Top 10 Must Haves"
"Your Fall Survival Guide"
"Best Leather Jackets to Own Right Now"
Over time, GQ's stories cycle back and repeat themselves: wear this, now do the opposite and disregard the "rules", now go back to what you were doing originally. Their livelihood depends on selling ever-greater numbers of magazines and clothes, but there are only so many permutations. It doesn't matter if they contradict themselves because they use persuasive language, arguing that their advice is "counter-intuitive and confident" or "edgy and rule-breaking".
The same is true of other magazines. I mean, how many times can Men's Health divulge the "secret" to great abs in 30 days? If you don't have abs after two or three issues, do you really think you're going to hit paydirt in next month's mag? Barring a seismic scientific breakthrough, abs will remain abs: work them out, avoid fats & sugars, and presto!
Once you know how to put yourself together, fostering an endless craving hurts more than it helps. You don't need GQ brainwashing you with their narratives: that you need to be "the sharpest guy in the office", that a $4,000 leather jacket from Dolce & Gabbana is an "investment" (haha!), that they know what women want in a man better than you do (which bypasses individuality and human connection, as though you'll be unlovable without x products). They may not intentionally set out to prey on your insecurities, but the implication is often: "If you don't get this, you'll _____________" (choose: be a terrible lover, miss out on that promotion, or be otherwise judged). It's the same Jedi mind trick employed by late night infomercials; you may scoff at first, but after 20 minutes of bombardment at 1:00 a.m., your tired brain yields: "Hmm...I guess I do need a ShamWow rag - and if I call now, it's only $19.99!"
Can we ever really escape our cultural indoctrination? To a degree, but we mostly use - and spread - the filters that facilitate our imprisonment in the ways we judge others and ourselves. We roll our eyes at Cosmo because it promotes low self-esteem ("The Six Sex Moves to Make Your Man Finally Understand You!"), but GQ is just a different version of the same thing.
GQ features peacocks who preen for street style photos at global menswear events and celebrates so-called fashion gurus like Nick Wooster. Wooster looks clean-cut, but also like a kook with his camo pants rolled up to the knee, a blazer & tie paired with shorts, or wearing so many accessories that he's clearly trying too hard. It may be passable within the magazine, but on the street, it looks extravagant and a little odd. And frankly, applying that level of narcissistic obsession to one's attire every morning sounds exhausting!
GQ also praises Lapo Elkann, the jet-setting heir to the Fiat fortune who makes headlines with his douchey escapades ("Italian playboy arrested in New York for faking his own kidnapping after two-day drug binge with escort"). By all means, sport a gaudy pink fedora or bright orange suit if you wish to emulate him, but you'll look like a twit too. Think of it as a Rorschach test: I see an unshaven stranger sporting an unbuttoned shirt, comically enormous sunglasses that likely belonged to someone else, and a stained, rumpled blazer, so I wonder, "Gee, does that homeless guy need assistance?"; meanwhile, a GQ editor, recognizing a trust fund socialite, writes, "Style icon Lapo has mastered shabby chic!".
GQ's advice tends to be tasteful, but in their desperate search for new ideas, they also cook up hare-brained endorsements, like wearing your shirt "cholo style", meaning, with only the top button fastened. You know, the way Chicano gangsters do. Orlando Bloom was snapped doing it, so they want you to do it too. The Emperor has no clothes, folks! (besides, everyone knows the real secret to pulling off cholo swagger is to end every other sentence with "vato" or "ese").
Need further proof? Look at the attached photo of GQ's "best dressed man of the week" at the time of this review. Good on Marc Jacobs for letting his freak flag fly, but it's baffling that GQ would consider his attire (let's charitably call it fanciful!) print-worthy guidance for its readership.
To sum up - GQ operates on the law of diminishing returns: helpful at first, but soon dispensable. Make that harmful.
2. The opportunity cost of reading GQ is greater than it seems.
When you're in the GQ orbit, you necessarily aren't reading things of more substance that will nurture your heart and brain.
The non-clothing content in GQ follows the pattern of pop culture: watch this Hollywood blockbuster, here's the sexy lady of the month, etc. To be fair, GQ features a quasi-journalistic story a few times a year, but it's still wrapped in a problematic package. If that's your core interest, why not read Mother Jones or The Atlantic or The New Yorker instead? Saying you buy GQ because of the journalism is as credible as the old "I read Playboy for the articles" chestnut (my uncle, impervious to being a cliché, actually used to say this!).
The harsh truth is that your time in this world comes with an opportunity cost, so focus is key. With so much left to discover on art, science, philosophy, language, music, etc, GQ started to feel glib, even wasteful. GQ began to irk me and the magazines piled up accordingly. You could argue that there's nothing wrong with spending 20 minutes with a magazine at bedtime. It's escapism! Fine, suit yourself. But just as consuming empty calories will expand your waistline, crowding your brain with low-grade junk food like GQ imperceptibly molds your outlook over time -- you pick up a taste for pop culture fodder and start seeking it out elsewhere. Nothing exists in a vacuum and everything is correlated/symptomatic of something else, even your taste for GQ. It's a personal choice: I would rather spend my leisure time reading material that challenges me because I'm aware that I'm going to die, maybe soon (gulp).
For a hot minute, I fell for it and spent a bundle on clothes. I soon realized that none of the items satisfied me beyond fleeting instant gratification, the way one might devour a Big Mac only to feel vaguely nauseous later.
3. The website offers the same experience, free of charge.
If you truly must have your GQ fix, head over to the website. It has the same interviews, articles, and photo shoots as the printed mag, minus the pungent perfume ads! (ugh). Why pay when you can get the content without piling up magazines in your home?
The only sensible reason to subscribe is if you're a dentist trying to keep patients' minds off their root canals in the waiting room.
Look, I'm not a zealot and understand that fashion has an essential place in the world. It can be a signal of individuality, social trends, and cultural heritage. At best, it connects us to our roots, aspirations, and identity in healthy ways. A single garment may include nods to other cultures and eras, such as features introduced by early twentieth century miners or soldiers. Fashion is also valuable for the sake of art & entertainment...could you envision your favorite films without the talented costume design teams involved? And someone is bound to be at the forefront of fashion, providing insight on what's in vogue.
The problem is that modern fashion - along with industries like PR and advertising - is maybe 50% substance and 50% complete B.S. Like most industries, it is driven by economic interests beholden only to themselves, which corrupts the messaging. It has all been commoditized for constant, dumbed-down consumption. I won't even delve into the global supply chain ethics and widespread worker abuses in the industry, or the way companies manufacture garments around planned obsolescence (artificially shortening the lifespan of their products to keep you buying), or my review will drag on forever.
I'm sure the folks at GQ mean well, but their work has undesirable byproducts. Just as Monsanto, McDonald's, and Philip Morris aren't intentionally trying to kill you, GQ may not be trying to hijack your thought process, but they will because the desire for outward glamour devoid of substance easily spins out of control, leading to distorted perceptions and hidden human costs. The spiffy jacket they dangle in front of you is the embodiment of your dreams, the future you long for, and a reprieve from whatever pain or anxiety ails you. But you're chasing a mirage: with every step, the goalpost moves just a little farther away and true satisfaction continues to elude you. The game is rigged, and just like in Vegas, the house always wins in the end unless you refuse to play.
Here's my experience. I have a cashmere navy peacoat and a sleek black topcoat, but one day caught myself thinking that I was 'missing' an overcoat in an original color like the ones in GQ, say, a chocolate brown or light grey. I spent half an hour shopping online, driven by the propulsive hunger to own a brown coat at all costs...then snapped out of it, realizing that I barely use the overcoats I already have! They leave my closet maybe six times a year each. There was nothing wrong with them, but definitely something wrong with MY thought process! Why spend $700 plus tax, plus shipping, plus tailoring, for a trophy that would spend most of the year inside my closet? All told, we're in the ballpark of $850 - a plane ticket to Europe, for crying out loud. Nine times out of ten, you're better off investing in experiences, relationships, and knowledge instead of things. But it can be hard to resist when (insert handsome movie star) looks fabulously airbrushed wearing it in the pages of GQ. I had to ask myself hard questions like, "What inadequacies or deeper thirsts do I have inside that I believe a third overcoat is going to make me any happier than I am right now? How can I address that in a more lasting way? With my death looming, what's a more meaningful path to feeling validated, purposeful, and loved?" Oof. Get thee to a therapist, right? But we avoid this exploration because it's more comfortable to sleepwalk through life anesthetized by our narcotic of choice, mindlessly filling someone else's coffers while we're at it. I'm reminded of "This is Water", David Foster Wallace's celebrated address about attentiveness and what we choose to worship.
Shopping for clothes and finding fulfillment are not mutually exclusive...and yet, the most unhappy people I know are those who spend gobs on clothing and obsess about updating their wardrobe every season. Make of that what you will. Conversely, I don't think I've ever seen my friend Trevor wear anything other than his habitual black jeans & black tee combo (sometimes paired with a black hoodie for added pizzazz). It's one of life's mysteries how he manages to be a kind gent and steadfast friend without the aid of a neon blue Valentino jacket.
This is a world where everyone is screaming for your money. Every ad, every magazine, every website, every sales 'associate' wants to separate you from your wallet. Don't let them! Leave the sartorial navel-gazing to someone else and save up for your dream vacation. Join a book club. Volunteer for a cause close to your heart. Find a unique gift for that person you love like crazy. Buy a used cello on the cheap, find lessons on YouTube, and savor its rich thrum. Learn to dance and go to a salsa club on a Friday night. Adopt a pup from a high kill shelter and take your new best friend on scenic hikes. Cook a new kind of meal for your family. Take flying lessons, sign up for a fencing club, or take friends to see your favorite band play live. The possibilities are endless, and you can do it all while wearing jeans from six seasons ago.
P.S. More than buying new stuff, the secret to looking great is: a) working out, and b) tailoring. Stay in shape and find a tailor with a good eye for fit. A lot of fellas either don't wear the right size or don't alter anything other than hems. But a $350 suit from Suit Supply will look just as sharp as its $1,500 Paul Smith equivalent if it is impeccably tailored.
But the main secret to looking great is: c) the serene glow from not being enslaved by puff magazines.