When people meet me in the flesh, they often seem disappointed that I don’t resemble Mark Donovan, the character I played in The Inbetweeners, a bit more closely. “Where is the French crop, where is the sportswear?” they think. Instead they find someone with a lifelong enthusiasm for dressing snappily – for men’s tailoring, militaria and exotic vintage. But sports casual not so much.
In fact my all-time fashion inspiration goes a bit like this: West Indies cricket teams of the 70s-80s. David Niven. David Hockney. Joe Strummer. Jack Nicholson. Chet Baker.
My clothes mean a lot to me; they have history. The more long-lived the item, the greater its ranking in the wardrobe. I’m thinking of a shabby Italian tweed jacket of my mum’s that I poached when I was 15. I remember being told I was dressed like a “young fogey”; I took it as a compliment, and never looked back.
Not that I don’t rock shiny new sportswear. I do – but normally sticking to a singular theme. I might be doing my best impression of a West Indian cricketer from the 70s, with bucket hat and wide collars, or Jamel Shabazz-era hip-hop style, high-tops and bomber jackets. Or more recently, travelling long haul, I might go full Nike Tech Fleece. What I don’t often do is cross the streams. I always want an outfit to feel complete.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that I’m colourblind and often wear strongly contrasting colours, as they don’t confuse my eyes as much as blended tones. But in aiming to never be underdressed, I occasionally end up overdressed. Maybe swapping clothes with Elgar for a day or two will teach me to find the in between spaces, the levels between levels of dressing, like that hidden floor in Being John Malkovich.
When the outfits Elgar has chosen for me arrive, I get a warm sense of nostalgia; the brands and style feel familiar. The first outfit is APC jeans and a red tartan Fred Perry shirt, which fit very well, as does the navy Baracuta jacket with bright red lining. I have a flashback to owning two Baracuta jackets myself, but in lurid pink and neon yellow. In this incarnation I feel very blokey, and a little muted. My Air Force 1 trainers are a lone beacon of white in a sea of navy and grey.
The whole ensemble is not unflattering; I feel well put together, but a bit anonymous, as if I’m dressing to blend into a crowd, like an undercover cop.
At lunch, my friend Jemima points out the almost matching shades of plaid on my Fred Perry shirt and my jacket lining. “I like the coordination between the collar and the jacket.” “Thanks,” I reply, grateful for a bit of early reassurance. But as always I’ve underestimated her French sarcasm. “I mean it’s too obvious,” she says. Ouch. “Your casualwear is more stylish,” she offers by way of comfort. “Is this normcore?” I ask the table. “You look more like the slick guy in a movie about football hooligans,” my friend Nikesh muses. I’ll take that… I think.
The one thing I hadn’t bargained for is the cold. My winter wardrobe is full of layers, shirts and cardigans tucked under thick coats and blazers. I feel very exposed in my lightweight jacket. I resolve to dig out an old fishtail parka for the rest of the day. It’s kind of sports casual, so I hope it’s not cheating.
On day two I wear my second outfit – a blue-grey Adidas Spezial Beckenbauer tracksuit – to the football. It’s a warmer affair, thanks to the Stone Island x Nike coat that comes with it. To my surprise, the outfit gets a rapturous response. Unlike the first ensemble, which seemed to remind people of something I might wear, albeit with the brightness dialled down, this full-on casual look is enough of a departure for people to really take notice.
“You look perfect,” my dad chirps as I meet him outside the Loftus Road stadium. One of the football regulars, Ben, takes a shine to it, too. “You should keep this as your look,” he says. My wife has given it her stamp of approval – she says it’s “very attractive” – and I start to wonder what all of this positive feedback says about my usual clothes. I think my mates enjoyed seeing a laddier side to my personality; they appreciated my style without the flamboyant edge. As I leave, I ask my friend Alex why people prefer me in this outfit. He gives it some thought. “You look like it’s 1997,” he says, “but you’re pulling it off.”
It feels good to have had so many compliments in a single day, though afterwards I relish the return of the sense of expression my own style gives me. Elgar’s style is unfussy and practical, and there’s something comforting in that for both the wearer and those around them. Looking at my own colourful wardrobe, perhaps I’ve learned that, sartorially, sometimes less really is more – for a trip to the football at least.
Henry Lloyd-Hughes played Roger in Harry Potter and Ralph in C4’s Indian Summers, but earned cult status for his role as bullyboy Mark in The Inbetweeners.
Elgar Johnson, fashion director at GQ Style
Ever since I was old enough to know what trainers were, I’ve been obsessed with sportswear and streetwear. Nike Air Max. Adidas Spezial tracksuits. Levi’s jeans. Stone Island, Timberland and Supreme.
For me sportswear isn’t a trend – it’s a way of life. I love sports and I still dress the same way as the friends I grew up with in Peterborough and Liverpool. I take as much pride in choosing the right trainers as someone else would in a three-piece suit. Not that everyone understands that; some people look at my clothes and seem to think I’m about to rob them. That’s definitely not the case – I’m just a normal guy who doesn’t wear super-fabulous outfits.
I think my look reflects my personality. I’m easy-going, 33, not ready to be too grown-up quite yet. My clothes are a uniform, really. I’m a fashion director of GQ Style, a huge men’s magazine, working on many different projects, so the last thing I want is a dilemma getting dressed in the morning.
I’d put on a suit if the occasion demanded it – I wouldn’t wear a tracksuit to a wedding – but there are some things I would never wear. Like trilbies or anything too polished that deliberately turns heads. I prefer to blend in; my look is kind of muted. And I always wear socks – I don’t think that cropped trousers, naked ankle thing looks attractive. Not with my ankles, anyway.
At first, when I heard I would be dressing like Henry Lloyd-Hughes for the day, I didn’t think it would be too difficult. I knew of him from his role as the school bully in The Inbetweeners, a character who dresses as if he’s straight from the football terraces. But the real Henry is nothing like that. He looks great – he has a very clear sense of his own style – but his clothes are totally unlike mine. He’s dapper and precise; suited and booted. It’s more formal than the way I dress, a look with the feeling of a bygone era.
Henry often has a proper Victorian strongman moustache, so I decided that, to embrace the challenge fully, I’d shave off my beard up to my moustache. That was fun. Actually the clothes affected me more. As soon as I pulled them on – a roll-neck jumper, suit jacket and grey tailored trousers – I felt a bit Marvin Gaye, very smooth. I can recognise that as a great look, but I’m much more Oasis and the Streets myself, and my behaviour changed.
Going to work, I didn’t sprint up and down the escalator in a mad panic to be on time, like I usually would. In my smart, more restrictive clothes, I walked down instead. In my head, I thought there was more chance of me getting away with being late; I could just lie and say I had been to a bank meeting. It felt as if I was acting, like I was dressed as an older, more authoritative figure. I carried myself differently; felt more grown-up, more sensible.
The most marked response came when I was shopping. Sometimes when you wear casualwear, you feel as if sales assistants or security guards are judging you. Now they eyed me up very differently – as though I might buy the entire shop. It was amazing to see how much strangers judge you on your clothes.
In the GQ office I’m surrounded by very opinionated, well-dressed men, from Dylan Jones, who always looks slick, to Luke Day and Gary Armstrong who explore fashion brilliantly, and one of the coolest men in Condé Nast, the always effortless Bill Prince. The majority seemed to really like it – I suppose it’s a men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, so they’re pretty open-minded about trying new looks. Our creative director, Paul Solomons, greeted me with, “What’s wrong with you and what are you wearing that for?” but then went right back to his computer. The attention felt weird – I’m usually happier for someone else to be the star of the show.
After work, at the football, my friends’ reaction was pretty positive, too. At first they assumed I was going on to a work party. “You look good. Though not really like yourself,” said one as I stood awkwardly in my tailored trousers in a pub after the match. “You look like a 1980s footballer. Or a black Magnum PI.”
The one person who really was not convinced was me. In truth, I felt uneasy. Save for some kind of big lifestyle change when I get older, I can’t imagine dressing like this again. It just doesn’t reflect my personality. The experience also made me realise we still live in a judgmental society; it’s bizarre how foolish some people are for judging others on their clothes when they clearly don’t know their stuff.
The next day, back in my own clothes, I went and watched the football down the pub and felt like myself again, with one little grown-up addition: I’ve still got the tash.
Elgar Johnson started started out as a model before moving into magazines. After cutting his teeth at i-D, then Man About Town, he is now fashion director at GQ Style.
Grooming throughout: Mike Harding using Kevin Murphy