Menswear by the book Today's men need fashion help, says author Alan Flusser

Ask Alan Flusser for his list of the best-dressed men of the early 20th century, and the names roll off of his tongue: Fred Astaire. The Duke of Windsor. Gary Cooper. Cary Grant.

But press the menswear impresario for the most stylish men in the limelight today, and he goes silent.

“I can’t think of a single one,” the New York designer and author said during a recent visit to Dallas.

Not George Clooney? Tom Cruise? Carson Daly?

“No,” he said with a sigh. “They’re totally clueless. They have no idea about clothes.”

In fact, Mr. Flusser contends, most men today – from leading actors to the male masses – are in desperate need of fashion advice.

And that, he said, is what compelled him to write Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, (HarperCollins, $ 49.98), a new how-to guide to buying and dressing.

In his three previous books on men’s fashion, he took on such erudite topics as the politics of the industry and the best places to shop.

But he decided to go back to the basics this time, he said, because most men haven’t conquered them.

“That’s led to a profound lack of knowledge,” said Mr. Flusser, who has a ready-to-wear men’s line and a custom shop in Manhattan.

The first half of the book, therefore, is dedicated to lessons that most women would find elementary: colors and proportion.

Poor color coordination, Mr. Flusser says, is one of the most common mistakes men make. Lack of proportion, meanwhile, “is the root cause for the contemporary man’s current lack of sartorial distinction.”

Later chapters cover everything from pocket squares to shoes.

The 56-year-old designer, who was in Dallas for an appearance at Stanley Korshak, got his start in the industry in the 1960s, when he served as a teenage fashion consultant to his high school girlfriend’s dad.

Later he worked for Phillips-Van Heusen and Pierre Cardin. In the 1980s, he went independent, with his own shops and clothing lines.

And now he’s in the process of moving his custom shop from a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan to his own workspace, on East 48th Street.

Mr. Flusser blames several factors for what he calls the sad state of men’s fashion sense. Menswear departments and stores used to train their salespeople; now, he says, many hire kids who know as little about fashion as the customers do.

Men’s fashion magazines, meanwhile, have abandoned the how-to features that used to be a monthly staple.

And then there’s the dismal celebrity landscape, which sets a horrible example for the rest of the country.

He says he realized the extent of the problem when he was on tour for his 1996 book, Style and the Man.

When he made promotional appearances, no one asked questions about the book, which is a guide to the best menswear stores in the world.

“All they wanted to know was how to select a shirt collar or what kind of trousers to buy,” Mr. Flusser said. “I was amazed that people had so many questions about what I considered very basic stuff.”

With its archive photos of Astaire, Cooper and company, Dressing the Man might seem like a vestige of a bygone era, when pocket squares were still hip. But, Mr. Flusser argues, the book’s fundamental lessons are as relevant as ever, even if some of the specific tasks that it covers are not.

“Genuine innovation has always taken place with an awareness, rather than an ignorance, of restrictions,” he writes.

In other words, Picasso didn’t go Cubist until he’d painted pretty flowers. And, Mr. Flusser contends, even a guy who wears Diesel jeans and a vintage T-shirt could benefit from knowing how to pick out a dress shirt and slacks.