16 April 2009

George Zimmer

This review continues the series of guest reviews for Beard Revue. Andy Sturdevant is today’s guest reviewer.

I’ve always been uneasy about short, neatly-trimmed beards paired with traditional men’s suits. Something about the combination has never really worked for me — it’s as if the wearer expects one to dampen the full effect of the other.

Longer, more professorial beards look fine paired with a suit and tie, as numerous scowling 19th century autocrats demonstrated. A moustache and suit can look equally fine, casually rakish in the best Errol Flynn-via-Sabotage-Agent kind of way. But there is something that seems somehow dishonest about a short-bearded man who insists on donning a suit. The beard — or the suit, depending — seems less like a natural extension of the wearer’s personality and values, and more of a consolation, tossed off to quell an unspoken doubt in the viewer’s mind. “Buddy, I’m not just another suit,” they wink. “I’m not like the rest of ’em! I’m different!” Perhaps that’s so, but it’s a look that’s never truly comfortable, or truly integrated.

Contemporary suits, unlike their 19th century antecedents, weren’t designed to flatter bearded men; the exaggerated masculine lines of the shoulders, ties and lapels are meant to offset the clean faces and neat hairstyles of the 20th century. These same lines, when coupled with the masculinity of the standard beard, seem ridiculous together, a case of hyper-masculine overkill. There is no sensuality, no poetry, no sleekness of form. The wearer seems as if he’d be more at ease without the suit altogether, in a cardigan and jeans, wandering around the cabin smoking American Spirits; or alternately, more at ease with his face neat and clean, splashed with aftershave and ready for solving mysteries with Myrna Loy . The beard’s too scratchy, or the suit’s too scratchy — one of them has to go.

Perhaps the best-known victim of this particular strain of cognitive dissonance is Men’s Wearhouse founder and CEO George Zimmer. Zimmer is best known from his nationally-aired commercials for Men’s Wearhouse, where he calmly and confidently extols the middle-class virtues of looking neat and finding bargains. “You’re going to like the way you look,” he assures you. “I guarantee it.” Yet he seems, in his professional life, to harbor a genuine affinity for flying the proverbial freak flag — he has long been a proponent of marijuana decriminalization and the controlled, therapeutic use of ecstasy (!). Indeed, he once appointed self-help guru Deepak Chopra to his company’s corporate board. This guy isn’t Sam Walton.

So what are we to make of his beard? From a formal perspective, we may say it’s short, but it’s handsome, distinguished, flecked with gray in the right places. But Beard Revue has never been about the strictly formal perspective, and the way Zimmer wears his beard (along with the casual, freethinking personality it represents) simply seems to be somehow at odds with his commitment to stiff, inexpensive formal menswear. What would Zimmer wear if his livelihood didn’t depend on selling men’s suits? I can easily imagine him in a loose white shirt, untucked and unbuttoned to the midchest. I can picture him an Indian-style kurta dress and scarf. I can see him in Ray-Bans and a dark blue turtleneck. I can see him in almost anything but a $200 pinstriped wool-blend suit. And yet, these suits are his livelihood. We truly don’t know, deep down, whether Zimmer’s a suit guy, or a beard guy. Maybe he doesn’t even know.

Zimmer has a pleasant, attractive beard that’s a rare blend of serious and easygoing. That should be enough, but we must also remember that a beard never exists in a vacuum. A beard exists within a context, a framework. Either that context enhances the beard, or detracts from it. In Zimmer’s case, it detracts badly. I don’t need Zimmer to wear a beard and a suit to convince me I need to buy from him. His confidence in me and my ability to look good is heartening, but it’s undermined by the uneasy, tentative truce between what I see on his face, and what I hear in his message. Perhaps Zimmer thinks a suit is the secret to securing my trust. In fact, it’s not. It was the beard all along.

Editor’s elegy:
Andy Sturdevant always looks good in a beard (or moustache) and suit. And, yes, this is probably the most thoughtful reflection on beardage you will find on the internets.


Shock said...

I once played beach volleyball with a shirtless Zimmer many years ago (don't ask). That dude is as hairy as a gorilla and Robin Williams. The image is still burned into my memory. I don't think his beard stops. He is covered in hair from head to toe.

Missy said...

Andy Sturdevant is a truly dapper man and a wise choice for a contributor to this fine blog.