The world became a strange place this year, chiefly because it stopped turning. Or at least it felt like that. We were penned in during a pandemic. A major moment in the civil rights movement told us 'enough'. A presidential election – the most consequential of our time – had the world looking on, in fear, in hope, or both.
Things are changing. Hopefully for the better. And despite all the frankly ludicrous events of 2020, there are several people, things and moments that made this year much more bearable – many of which we've crowned in our inaugural Kings list: the Esquire-approved best of the best in 2020.
The Esquire Kings List
The Kings of Getting Dressed
The King of Normal
When Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People was published back in 2018, the angst -ridden, coming-of-age love story quickly hit bestseller lists and seemed ideal fodder for the middle class, millennial dinner party set. So far, so Man Booker prize nominee. Yet when the miniseries aired on the BBC, a population in enforced lockdown for the previous four weeks, 5 days and 12 hours was searching – nay, yearning – for escape. And along came Connell.
The enigmatic and emotionally distant heartbreaker, played by newcomer Paul Mescal, suddenly became the focus of the nation’s pent-up lust in a series of too-tight school uniform shirts, short shorts and, well, not much else, in Marianne’s bedroom, in the shower, in her friend’s swimming pool, in her kitchen… you get the drift. More extraordinary still was Connell’s humble little necklace – dismissed as 'Argos chic’ by one of Marianne’s friends – and worn by Mescal in every episode. An ordinary, unassuming piece of silver jewellery that sat proudly on Connell’s clavicles, this cheap yet delicate chain garnered more column inches than Dominic Cummings’ road trip, and became so popular that its own Instagram account: @connellschain. It now has 179k followers. I stan Paul Mescal.
The New King of Comedy
Back in 2014, Munya Chawawa was asked what he wanted to do in the future. 'I think there is just too much bad news in circulation,' he said. 'I want to start a gradual journey to battling that with entertaining videos crammed with good vibes.' Too much bad news? Munya of 2014: you’ve no idea. But nobody’s managed to make sense of the 12-month torrent of headlines like the Munya of 2020. He’s been there, on the spot and ready with a lethal piss-take for every single major moment in a year of major moments: the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being dumped into Bristol Harbour ('injuring Nemo and countless others'); the free school meals fiasco; Jess Glynne kicking off at Sexy Fish. And they’re all very funny, which is difficult to balance with empathy and anger but it’s ridiculous how quickly Chawawa turns his stuff around. If Sainsbury’s releases its Christmas advert at 9am and a racist blowback starts at about 10 past, Chawawa has written, rehearsed, filmed, edited and tweeted a bit of the whole scenario by 9.30.
The King of Tomorrow
This is a free and fair kingdom: you’re allowed to judge films with titles like Age of Ultron. Know that Marvel’s teeming, spandex-clad universe is one full of actors proper, though – and it’s not just a cash cow for those in their jaded prime. The franchise has also provided a springboard for up-and-comers, and Tom Holland (abetted by those ever-helpful tingling spidey senses) may well’ve leapt the highest.
Born in the leafy London suburb of Kingston and cutting his teeth on the West End, the 24-year-old has netted roles that reach beyond the bumbling mishaps of an adolescent Peter Parker. In The Devil All The Time, we saw Holland as an embittered, embattled orphan, trying his best to survive in a ‘hillbilly gothic’ world that seemed rigged against him from birth. In a sneak peek of the long-awaited on-screen adaptation of smash hit video game franchise Uncharted, Holland was all steely Tomb Raider gazes and grazed knees as the foolhardy Nathan Drake. And in next year’s Cherry – a very belated production of the astounding roman-à-clef of the same name – Holland will take on the mantle of a drug-addled Iraq veteran on the losing side of America’s war on drugs. The Age of Ultron may well be over, but that of Tom Holland is just about to begin.
The Existential Dread King
What do isolation, manic laughter, existential dread and panic sound like? Well, a little like Phoebe Bridgers's prescient 2020 album Punisher. Written long before the pandemic loomed large, Bridgers’s lyrical kind of doom instantly became the soundtrack to a life either spent gobbling up news in the dark; of government-sanctioned walks in a strange new world.
From the weirdness of stage fright in a foreign city to looking up from your phone to see your life passing you by, Punisher is gleefully nihilistic music. Bridgers’s lighter musical contribution this year came when she followed through with her promise to record a cover of The Goo Goo Dolls’ 'Iris' if Trump lost the election. Naturally it went to number one on the downloads chart, and she picked up four Grammy nominations along the way.
The King of Instagram
These Very Unprecedented Times have brought up countless examples of how to use Instagram badly: from that ‘Imagine’ video to Kim Kardashian’s ‘surprise’ private island birthday party. A light through the darkness has been the account of actress Florence Pugh, with Instagram Stories showing the many steps to her hearty soup recipe or compilations of her manically dancing outside to disco music. Pugh making faces into the camera and laughing about an incoming spot feels like her being herself rather than putting on a shtick about being sooooo normal. There’s been some more weighty commentary too, with the actress showing her solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during protests this summer and encouraging her young fans to register to vote. But her voice was loudest and clearest when calling off the trolls amongst her own fans who objected to her dating Zach Braff due to their age difference. 'I do not need you to tell me who I should and should not love, and I would never in my life tell anyone who they can and cannot love,' she said deadpan to the camera. 'The abuse that you throw at him is abuse that you are throwing at me, and I don't want those followers.' 1-0.
The New King of Horror
The sound of upturned drawing pins piercing flesh underfoot is just one of the truly horrific sounds in Rose Glass’s Saint Maud. The British director’s debut delves into the mind of a disturbed young nurse on a mission to save the soul of the ageing woman she is caring for, painting a grim picture of madness in a sickly seaside town. Glass, who told Esquire that her elevator pitch for Saint Maud was 'as if Travis Bickle were a young Catholic woman living in an English seaside town', is a major new talent in a flourishing genre which boasts the likes of Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) and Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse). Just don’t ask her how she feels about being part of the ‘elevated horror’ gang, as it sounds a bit snobby, she reckons.
The Man Who Would Be King
‘So what’s Josh O’Connor like?’ I ask my editor when I’m assigned the task of dressing him for the Esquire cover shoot. 'Well, Peter Morgan – who created The Crown – says he’s a really lovely human being’. 'Anything else?’ I ask. 'Olivia Colman says everyone adores him.’ ‘Hmmmm. What did you think of him?’ 'Well, we took the dog for a socially distanced walk on the heath…and yup, he really was charming. Good hair too’. Could it be true, I asked myself? Is this new, young(ish) actor, known for his breakout role in ITV’s The Durrells, and a further stand-out performance as a depressed and promiscuous farmer in God’s Own Country, and now as the embittered and isolated Prince of Wales in The Crown, actually, you know, nice? Well, dear reader, I can confirm he is. This ceramics-loving, garden-tending, art-producing, photography-taking, unassuming actor’s actor was man enough to apply his own cover shoot make-up, stand in a muddy field for hours on end and still make an oversize, cock-printed shirt and cape look cool. And for that, I salute him.
The Disco King
It’s not often you get to watch a pop star make the jump from A Very Good Pop Star to A Genuinely Massive Deal. But in late March, just when we needed a bit of leadership, Dua Lipa did the decent thing and bumped her Future Nostalgia album forward a week to help soothe the first lockdown weekend. This year, Lipa strode into what Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys called 'the imperial phase': the stretch where every hunch pays off and every idea lands, when being a pop star looks like the easiest and most fun thing in the world.
It was brilliant: a collision of chrome and spandex, both forward-looking and in love with the divas who came before. Lipa plays both the defiant disco survivor and strident futurist. There’s a straight line through Future Nostalgia to the best albums of Janet Jackson, Kylie’s Fever, Daft Punk’s Discovery and Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor: all have a lean, laser-guided conviction that they are the right sounds for a right good old night out. 'We’re going out!' it shouts from the open window of an Uber outside your house at 11.30pm. 'Don’t know where yet! Just grab your stuff!' It’s slightly cruel that the complete lack of clubs and gigs has robbed us of the kind of nights Future Nostalgia is about, but it'll still be out there.
The Free King
True freedom is being able to do whatever you want to, whenever you want, like being able to utter the line 'if only I had a steak right now, I’d fuck it!' only to then call Willem Dafoe 'an old bitch' in a black and white A24 movie (The Lighthouse), while also being Batman, and the muse of a luxury French fashion house.
A canny navigator of the Hollywood Death Machine, Robert Pattinson turned a seemingly pigeon-holed, tween pin-up career into one of the most interesting paths in film. He has, in the last few years, starred in psychosexual space thrillers directed by indie auteur royalty (2018’s High Life, directed by Claire Denis) and campy French kings in Netflix monster budget period pieces (2018’s The King) and a picture of peroxide and wild-eyed grimy New York moral ambiguity (2017’s Good Time). He is, possibly, the only actor who can just as easily appear in a superhero film as he can an indie pic that approximately 10 people will watch, and make both of them work. What a life, Rob.
The King of Words
Ten years since Four Lions put him on everyone’s radar as one of our most exciting actors, this has been a year of artistic highs for Riz Ahmed. We’ve had two really, really good films in Mogul Mowgli and Sound of Metal, plus his first album under his own name, The Long Goodbye, which recast the hot and cold relationship between Britain and the migrant communities as one that involved a painful, but necessary break-up.
In a turbulent year, he’s talked a lot of lucid sense, and done it while wearing very, very nice clothes. 'For me, to say 'I love Britain' is akin to saying 'I love this planet',' he told us during his Esquire Townhouse interview. 'I think it's a globalist position, not a nationalist position.' His vision of Britain is exciting and inclusive and positive, and at the same time realistic about its shortcomings and the sharpness with which it can treat people it underestimates. His view is a welcome reminder that proud Britishness isn’t just the preserve of VE Day congas; it’s a live, dissenting, questioning thing.'When I'm saying I love Britain, I love everything about Britain: everything that makes Britain Britain, and that's a lot more than just Shakespeare,' Ahmed said. 'It's something that's as rich as human history and human civilisation.'
The Television King
There is too much TV. Too much to keep up with and so much that it's hard for one show to truly dominate anymore. But in a raw and devastating year, the most electric and crushing television easily came from Michaela Coel in her BBC series I May Destroy You. The 12-part series flickered between light and dark, comedy and drama, grief and ecstasy, the ground crumbling beneath us each and every time we thought we'd found our footing.
Coel’s own experience of sexual assault and the complicated emotions she felt afterwards are the inspiration for the show, but I May Destroy You gave viewers so much to process in each of the characters it conjured so vividly. Given that the British writer, director and actress already won plaudits for her debut series Chewing Gum, whatever she does next will be big.
King of the Ballgown
What a year for the lad. First, when lockdown 1.0 was getting a bit real, he released the catchiest, sexiest song inspired by the title of the most post-apocalyptic novel ever (In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan), and almost single-handedly reawakened our long-dormant friskiness with a video 'dedicated to touching'. And then, last month, after spending the year demonstrating that Mary Janes and pussy-bow ties are in fact perfectly appropriate for a man (albeit a very handsome celebrity man), he graced the cover of American Vogue in a periwinkle Gucci gown, and set the Twittersphere alight.
Even in the depths of a global crisis, it’s depressing that people can still get FURIOUS about a man in a dress. Ben Shapiro – the conservative commentator and evil medieval prince trapped in a blogger’s body – asked why we couldn’t 'bring back manly men', but Styles, and pretty much everyone else, just blinked and got on with their lives.
The King of the Road
Think of Maserati and three things come to mind: style, speed and that incredible trident badge that must be the coolest in the industry. Trouble was, on the speed front, for the last decade or so the Italian marque didn’t actually have a proper, low, knuckle-whitening sports car in its line-up. Praise be that Maserati, only too aware of this omission and after much teasing and expectation, unveiled the stunning MC20 two-seat supersports car back in the autumn.
And it didn't disappoint. The name – Maserati Corse 2020 – harks back to the Italian marque's racing heritage which goes back over a century, but this is a statement car that carries a lot of new hope for Maserati's future. In comes with a brand new three litre twin turbo V6 engine christened 'Nettuno' which will take it from 0-62 in less than three seconds, and a top speed in excess of 200mph. So that’s certainly the speed issue covered. On the style front, its typically pure and understated design offers something genuinely different in a really crowded segment. And even that killer badge gets special billing in the form of an abstract design for the engine cover at the rear. Three out of three delivered on then. The next box to be ticked is actually driving it.
The Once and Future King
There is something just right about Brad Pitt returning to us at a time when we need him most. Was it the Oscar win for playing a wise-cracking, washed-up Hollywood heartthrob? Or was it actually the photo of him clutching Jennifer Aniston’s hand backstage? Whatever did it, this year marked the return of a legend as Pitt staged his comeback to the world of acting. The 56-year-old star swept awards season with his life imitating art portrayal of Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and acceptance speeches imbued with the perfect amount of self-awareness, all delivered with a raised-eyebrow at his good fortune. If a world with acceptance speeches feels lightyears ago, Pitt sent our homebound world into overdrive in a live table read for a charity reunion film, flirting his way through a scene with the aforementioned ex-wife. He also put us all to shame when he was spotted on a quick cigarette break from helping deliver food supplies (while wearing a mask, of course). Twas ever thus: it’s Brad Pitt’s world and we’re just living in it.
The Lifetime Achievement King
Everything Pierce Brosnan touches turns to gold. And though it’s been some 18 years since hanging up the Walther-PPK for good, the essential Bond skill of world-saving still sits on the actor’s shoulders. Case in point: the soulless marketing exercise that was Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Brosnan carried a charmless plot and a disjointed cast as a grizzled, grumpy, Nordic workwear god that admonished his deeply annoying, synth-loving son at every turn. ‘He is going to one day sing and dance in the Eurovision Song Contest!’ coos a family friend. Brosnan, speaking for all of us just 15 minutes into this nil-points shitshow: ‘I’d rather be dead’.
But, perhaps rather impartially, MY favourite Brosnan moment was an Esquire one, in which the good man agreed to sit down and watch and narrate and try to enjoy GoldenEye in real time in a live broadcast from his really lovely home in Honolulu. We saw the same level of wit, grace and charm first debuted all those years ago in an exploding villain’s lair somewhere in the arse-end of western Russia. Long live the King.
The Promised Kingdom of Dual Citizenship Applications
Even before the novel coronavirus swept the globe and unceremoniously harshed the mellow of the entire year (no Glastooooo), New Zealand was having a ‘moment.’ A duo of lonely islands jutting out into the Tasman Sea, NZ has become a favourite location for soft-chinned Silicon Valley super nerds to build their doomsday estates, its isolation, temperate climate and low population making it fertile ground for the likes of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to construct elaborate billionaire bunkers for if (sorry: when) the world becomes fully fucked. Alright for some.
Then there’s the fact that, while we stumbled into the dark accolade of the nation with the highest death rate in Europe, our flat-vowelled Antipodean cousins 11,000 miles across the pond stopped Covid in its tracks, with just 25 deaths and life, basically, back to normal. Plus, unlike its near neighbour, Australia, there are no giant crocodiles, leg-melting snakes or tiny death-mongering jellyfish. In essence, NZ seems like a pretty nice spot to see out the unravelling of society. Come on Elon, let me into the bunker.
The Mad King
In The Last Dance, the ESPN and Netflix smash docuseries, we are shown a group of very tall and talented men performing at the height of their craft, coming together in the pursuit of sporting glory. It is a glossy, addictive, painstakingly curated archival drama, compelling even if you dislike basketball. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a story about Michael Jordan being a hard, angry, genius bastard.
Sat on a throne-like chair inside a gleaming white McMansion, much of the show is centred on the show’s protagonist, at 57, as a still stone-cold killer; a permanently coiled spring grasping an iPad in his massive hands as he retraces his own halcyon days. This is someone with a preternatural ability to bear grudges from decades past in internal 4K quality. Every spat, slight and petty grievance is logged meticulously inside that glistening dome. General managers, coaches, teammates, journalists and cocky, young pretenders to his Airness’ throne – all is recalled in minute detail. Jordan has 'bones to pick', people are put on his 'list'. If, like me, your main experience with Jordan as a pop culture icon was Space Jam, TLD shows the true apex predator at work, the flawed champion, the golf-obsessive, dice-rolling, giant suit-wearing, shit-talking superstar and what it takes to be the best, mainly: remembering everyone who has ever crossed you, seething over it for an undetermined period of time and then systematically destroying them.
The Fly on Mike Pence's Head
The King of the Skies
Oh, winged cherub. Oh, Schizophora of great levity and wit! When the earth had been made low and darkness hung o’erhanging on every escarpment, thou ascended on high to Pence’s bonce. Thine gossamer limbs carried you aloft to the pallid, snow-driven peak of the swamp, whereon you languished in thine exertion and let our hungry eyes feast on the nourishing milk of your triumph. You lingered in the heat and sweat of the turgid thatch, sated thyself on whatever morsels of 'druff drifted in the thick cranial air. Oh many-eyed angel! Rub thy creepy barbed limbs in pride! What hope you sprouted in the arid garden of our political minds, what glee you stirred in us, what fervour your sent drenching through the dust of the internet. Now you are away, perchance ne’er to grace our peepers again, but you shall buzz long in our peripheral. God speed, the prettiest fly for the whitest guy!
The King of Quite Mediocre At-Home Dance Routines
If you think back to the Covid-free days of 2013, you might remember the app Vine: a short video sharing app that was eventually sold to Twitter for $30 million after a brief surge in popularity. It doesn't exist anymore. So how is TikTok, an app that essentially provides the same service and arrived long after its rival, now worth $75 billion?
The platform is a weird blend of the self-obsessed nature of Instagram, the filter addiction of Snapchat and a healthy sprinkle of meme culture for good measure. Brands are just as prominent on TikTok as they are on other platforms, fighting for our attention, funnelling their products through influencers who follow dance routines, lip-sync and make jokey skits. But why has it been so addictive? Perhaps it’s a 15-second, bite-sized social fix that connects in times of dangerously short attention spans. The homemade videos, with their DIY, low-budget nature, make us feel as if we're part of a community that is accessible. Take off your T-shirt and dance in a Milton Keynes box room, and you too could be a star of this dystopian digital realm. Or just watch pointless videos for an hour, you decide.
The King's Top Lip
Much like the team at AstraZeneca, I had big plans for the pandemic. A Sharpied list of lockdown ambitions that included learning a new language, starting a Sopranos-themed Etsy shop, and becoming monstrously, agonisingly ripped. It all felt pretty doable. There was so much time stretched out ahead of us, with so much space for self-improvement.
Long story short, the only personal growth I’ve experienced over the past eight months has been nestled above my top lip. At first it was a novelty – everyone I knew was growing a semi-ironic moustache as a sight-gag for their nightly Houseparty calls. But before long they were just part of the shaggy Seventies furniture. When I eventually spoke to other men about their moustaches (I’m a highly respected journalist), they all told me that growing and maintaining their face fuzz was an unexpectedly mindful and distracting experience. What’s more, it genuinely looked good.
Not everyone was going to come out of 2020 with a short story collection, five podcasts and biceps like gammon joints. A global pandemic was never, ever going to be good for productivity. But in times of stress and disorientation, there’s real value in nurturing yourself, having patience, and focusing on the small stuff. Tom Selleck’s always smiling for a reason.
The Drunken King
2020 was the year we all became little in-house sommeliers. Bread? Boring. Natty was the real king of lockdown epicurean time-wasting masked as self-fulfilment. With its colourful labels, funky tasting notes and an irreverent vibe, seeking out niche, Alsace Pet-Nat felt like a better alternative to staring into the abyss, stockpiling soup, or starting a kettle bell routine.
Independent shops like North London’s Top Cuvee capitalised on the capital’s free time and thirst, rolling out same-day bike delivery services and an Instagram page that showed off photogenic bottles and fun captions. Suddenly, going to the supermarket for a bottle of dusty, French red felt like a relic. Wine can be an intimidating, byzantine world, so seeing makers and purveyors who weren’t taking it too seriously while modernising the ancient act of crushing grapes and drinking them was, and is, fun. Yes, some of the vernacular is a quite annoying (I’m sorry for using the term ‘natty’), but fill up your fridge with Chin Chin vinho verde and just see what happens*.
*I don’t know, but probably something good.
The King of Sensible Coats
How ironic: the year we can’t go outside, we become obsessed with dressing for the outdoors. Zippy hoods, Gore-Tex and breathable vents: as much as I find all this Duke of Edinburgh energy amusing, I am also mildly obsessed. Brands like Patagonia, Arc’Teryx, And Wander and Klättermusen have made outdoorswear stylish again. I'm not skiing the back ridges of Revelstoke in a blizzard with a Red Bull chopper hovering on the horizon, but I sure look the part.
It's an obsession most will allow. We're dressing for the things we could be doing: a dreamy, bucolic vision of life before lockdown 1.0. And 2.0, etc. There's no harm in it. Let’s all prepare for a life we wish we lived, freely exploring the great outdoors, dressed for any occasion, whatever the world could throw our way.
Actually… nothing too horrible, please. 2020 has been hard enough.
The Necessary Evil King
A lot of new ills have emerged this year. There’s the constant existential dread and weight gain, of course, and the new tradition of beginning work emails with ‘I hope you and your family are safe at this crazy time’. But perhaps the worst thing (that doesn’t actually attack your nervous system) is the advent of Zoom. In the past, it was a novelty way to video-call people; it was something you did after two pints on a Friday night, something you did with nana so she could recognise the disembodied voice coming out of the iPad. But now, not only has Zoom somehow become the very lynchpin of global industry, and an actual verb, but it is now the best way of congregating with people.
We’re almost 14 billion years into evolution and we find ourselves muted, buffering and unflatteringly lit. We are at the pinnacle of human existence, hurtling ever faster into a shimmering dawn of technological advancement, but the only way you can maintain any kind of rapport with your co-workers is over a Zoom quiz on a Thursday night.
The Sloth King
If these are our final days, then kiss me, sweet, sweet oblivion. Because it means I’d get to live out what I truly deem to be my best life in utter comfort: horizontal, Bravo reruns booming forth from the telly, and sweatpants firmly on.
2020 and all its indoor fun has seen much of menswear return to a needs-must basis. Things got a bit frightening for a while. Thus, we wanted to be comforted. And after a few runway dalliances, sweatpants became fully acceptable once again: slothful essentials for slothful times. What’s more, they’re embraced not just by hypey designer brands (sweatpants were always a solid, inevitable pillar of the ongoing sportswear thing), but by really classic blue chip marques too, like Tom Ford, Brunello Cucinelli, and Canali.
Every label makes a pair because everyone is wearing them. And, by a strange phenomenon in which one piece represents style, max comfort, working out and hangovers (horn included) all at once, sweatpants are a mildly steamy artefact of a turbulent, sex-starved time in which we just wanted to be touched and catch-up on crap TV. But that’s not to say I’ll be dropping mine when the lights turn green. Covid has changed us forever. For one, it's cemented co-ord sweatsuits (with overcoats and Reebok Classics, and Below Deck) into my rotation forever more.
The Fragrant King
It’s been a bit weird, being in the house so much, hasn’t it? For a lot of us, those little routines, like getting dressed, wearing actual shoes and suits and big coats, have all sort of evaporated into a dim mist of memory; a sense of before. But candles, candles we can control. One of the nice things about spending days on end in one place is being able to focus a bit more on the style of our interior lives, which is why home fragrances have been one of the boom industries of the year, as men have come to realise that having a fragrant living space is equally as important as grooming and personal style. There’s not much point in spraying on any Le Labo Petit Grain 21 when your company for the week is a cat, but the candle equivalent offers both the enjoyment of a luxury scent and a soothing ritual. Plus, having a Byredo Bohemia in the bathroom is the new Aesop handwash. Ladies, if he doesn’t have a fresh Diptyque ready to light, then he’s not the one for you.
The Kings of Getting Dressed
Dior Air Jordan
Return of the (Streetwear) King
Something had to give. After seasons of luxury streetwear, it seemed that the tide was beginning to ebb. Suits were slowly coming back – classic ones – and the hype trainer market was oversaturated. There was too much supply. So, by way of understanding basic economics, demand would die out.
Then Dior Air Jordan came along. First previewed in Paris behind immaculately-suited security guards, NDAs and Fort Knoxian walls, this collaboration was the first of its kind, comprised of tailored wide-leg shorts, loose, fluid shapes and – the grail piece – an exclusive Air Jordan trainer, its sacred swoosh filled with the Dior house monogram. The menswearheads were excited again. Despite Covid-19, it sold out in seconds. And if you thought this was yet another cynical crossover, know that creative director Kim Jones knows Air Jordan; 'I was at school and me and my friends used to share a pair,' he said in a video campaign for the release. 'We’d wear them even if they were the wrong size for us because we were such geeks about them.' And it seems the fanboyship still sails on: you can pick up a pre-loved pair of Dior Air Jordans for a cool £6,400 at resale.
The King of London
What does it mean to be a young, mixed heritage person living in modern Britain today? It’s a question that runs through every facet of menswear designer Priya Ahluwalia’s work; the importance of immigration; the beauty of diversity; and the urgent need to explore the potential of vintage and deadstock clothing.
In an industry with a dubious track record on supporting women of colour and sustainable working practices, the designer's namesake label is a force for good and a champion of change. Her clothes are cool too. This year, her innovative method of patchworking upcycled fabrics have made her a joint recipient of the prestigious LVMH prize, a notable mention on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Arts and Culture List and a project with Matches Fashion Innovators Program, culminating in a high profile collaboration with fashion juggernaut Gucci, as one of 15 emerging designers to create a feature film – directed by Samona Olanipekun – with the Italian megabrand's support.
The King of Keeping Calm (and Carrying On)
Of course, there were more important things to worry about this year than men’s watches. Although presumably that’s less true if you happen to work in the men’s watch business, as several blue chip brands effectively called 2020 cancelled in March – why bother trying to sell new product in this kind of chaos? See you in 2021.
You could do that. Or you could follow the example set by the watch company Breitling. Given its brand values reflect daring in the face of adversity – all those ambassadors ‘on a mission’ over land, sea and air – it seems somehow appropriate that it opted to plough on through 2020 regardless, even doubling down on launching new things. 'Why would you go into a cave and close the door behind you?' Georges Kern, Breitling’s formidable CEO asked Esquire over the summer, pondering some of his rivals’ business nous and, quite possibly, manhood. 'I mean, it’s ridiculous.' If you have the right product and if you represent the right values to the consumer, Kern argued, there’s no need to shut up shop.
So it proved. Breitling launched several excellent new watch lines this year: the Superocean Heritage ’57 (as sporty dive watch), the Chronomat (a retooled pilot’s watch) and the Endurance Pro, a smartwatch/athleisure model that happily chimed with our renewed emphasis on exercise during lockdown, among them. When it also ‘pivoted’ to release a new limited-edition version of its rainbow coloured Superocean ’57 with profits going to the NHS and healthcare workers across the globe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, well, now it was just showing off.
While no one except Jeff Bezos and the makers of Among Us could reasonably be said to have had 'a good 2020', by accounts Breitling’s was far from the disaster the wider watch industry was predicting. Its August results were even up, year-on-year.
Casablanca x New Balance
The Collaborative King
A few weeks ago, I saw very insightful meme on the Grailed Instagram feed that succinctly explained just how good New Balance has been in recent history. The brand marries heritage and hype, exclusivity and democracy and quality and value perfectly. It also creates collaborative products that make sense, as demonstrated by the shoe of the year, the Casablanca edition of New Balance’s 327.
Aside from the fact that it illustrated the two brands’ best qualities (NB: heritage, sporting prowess, a back catalogue to kill for; Casablanca: irreverence and an irresistible Eighties preppiness) it was a shoe that moved the conversation on from hyped-up trainers. It was/is the thinking Hypebeast’s shoe. Any brand should be so lucky as to get the chance to work on a re-up of an NB archive design, and I for one can’t wait for what’s coming next.
Prada's School Uniforms
King of the Haunted Common Room
Thom Browne is just a wonderful school for creative souls: all Windsor knots and tweed nappies. And if you’re more of a traditionalist, our nanny’s last family attended Ralph Lauren, and honestly, she really couldn’t speak highly enough. Oh, you’re thinking of Prada High? Oh, nothing. It doesn’t matter…
Erm, it’s just that I’ve heard it’s, well, a bit spooky? Yes, that’s the one. The students, they walk around all wide-eyed and gloomy, a bit sullen, really. But they are always, always in the sharpest jackets and trousers, all-black, everything neatly cropped at the ankle above clunky leather shoes, or at the wrist to reveal a slither of ghost white cuff. During the S/S ‘21 window, the school launched the collection with a fashion film made of five vignettes, and my goodness, it was strangely compelling. Never before have I seen a uniform look so appealing, and so reliable, and so haunting. It even came to me in a dream: a procession of immaculate monochrome that I could wear for the rest of my life, a strange rabbit in the corner of the classroom playing the 'Moonlight Sonata' on a grand piano as they pass, like sad clouds. What do you mean? Wait... you’ve seen them too?
The King of Fashion for You, You, And You!
Having founded his namesake brand in 2005, New York designer Telfar Clemens had a reputation as a scene designer with a killer ‘hero’ product: his unisex leather handbag, playfully dubbed ‘the Bushwick Birkin’, had become a zeitgeist hit over the last couple of years. Despite the attainable price tag, £150-£250 or thereabouts, they became so popular that it was nearly impossible to get one at retail.
Bots, price gougers and the modern bottom feeders that have become synonymous with internet fashion were beginning to zero in. Rather than accept the status quo, Telfar rolled a strategy that was both ingenious and simple: a 24-hour pre-order window where anyone could buy a bag, to be delivered a few months later, pouring water over any hoarders in the process. 'It’s not for you – it’s for everyone' reads the brands’ motto and, well, it’s true.
The Make-Do-and-Mend King
It’s hard to think of someone that has ‘read the room’ better than Emily Bode this year. It began with an excellent, stirring show in Paris – her first in Europe – which showed lots of other designers how you can make a scene without a Hadid-heavy frow and a 48-piece band. And as the year has progressed (in terms of time, at least) the brand has cemented itself at the zenith of the ethical fashion movement.
But it’s not just that Bode uses vintage and antique fabrics to make Americana clothing that is at once old-fashioned and completely current. It’s that it has a wholesome energy at its core, and a design sensibility that snubs the shimmer and clean edges of luxury. It’s being worn by Jay Z and Zayn Malik, which shows that the down-home vibe is permeating high Hollywood glamour, but it still feels like a brand of the people, so to speak. It’s hypey and humble, all at once. 'I would define our brand as resonating a lot with the family,' Bode told Esquire at the end of 2019. 'It evokes emotion from a lot of our consumers. People feel like it's relatable to their own family culture or the histories that have shaped their life.'
The Busy King
If you want to make some money out of clothes in today’s goldfish memory hype landscape, then you better have some collaborations up your sleeve. Typically, this will be one or two carefully selected partnerships that share similar 'values', but that’s not Stüssy’s style. Having already navigated the awkward space between desirable and accessible streetwear (why not both!), in 2020, Stüssy launched into a series of increasingly interesting and wide-ranging collabs. A corduroy earth tone Birkenstock x Stüssy Boston house shoe? Yes. A soft-shouldered navy cord DB suit with transatlantic cool kid collective, No Vacancy Inn? Also, yes. Then, with Our Legacy’s upcycled ‘workshop’ imprint, a range of tees, oversized dress shirts, big check overcoats and… boxer shorts.
Kim Jones is such a fan of OG founder Shawn Stussy’s style that he dedicated an entire Dior collection and ostentatious Miami runway show to the former’s Eighties zig zag and technicolour surf and skate influence. Not bad for a streetwear brand that started out printing T-shirts in Orange County.
The King that Carried On Regardless
America loves its FREEDOM, so centrally-governed direct mandates don’t apply to everyone in every place. If your governor defies a pandemic and allows for a state’s residents to spit in one another’s mouths, then play on player (and pray Pfizer is working overtime). Which is why A$AP Nast, he of the eponymous Mob, was permitted to go to Vegas, and sit in an empty hotel room in a near-empty casino and use the city of sin as a temporary lockdown base.
But the complementary bathing robe stayed on its hanger. Going against the tide of sweatpants and grey marled cosy boys, Nast kept on doing what he was doing: getting dressed, getting preppy and reaching for the pearl necklaces. The trousers were big, and sat perfectly on the ankle. Loafers were polished. There was even a trouser chain! All of that sounds like a lot of effort when there’s not a lot to do, but it was definitive proof that a pandemic was no reason to rest on your laurels. On the contrary: if you’ve a mirrored bedroom ceiling – for whatever lurid reason – this had been an opportunity to showboat harder than ever, and given the dreary circumstances of 2020, it's probably one of Nast's best outfits yet. For all the anti-Covid measures, as least wardrobes stayed open.
The King of the Hill
In the blurry days after election week 2020, an emoji summary of the Vice Presidents of the United States of America made the rounds. There have been many ‘history-making’ moments in politics in recent years, but it takes seeing a cartoon line-up of 48 men, all white bar one exception in 1929, followed by one smiling Black woman to realise the weight of history that Kamala Harris had overcome in becoming the first woman in the White House.
Harris shared a video from the moment she received the news that she and Joe Biden had won the presidency. Out for a run and sporting a dazed smile she said, 'we did it Joe'. There are so many things that 'it' could refer to: defeating a tangerine toddler in the Oval Office, rejecting white supremacy and standing up for science. But for so many watching, it felt personal to see a woman get the job she deserved over the man she had to remind not to speak over her. That she was able to accept the job in her running kit, and not a sexy-but-not-too-sexy, powerful-but-not-too-powerful outfit made it better still. Harris’ victory is especially symbolic in a year where Black women in swing states across the country came out to save the Democratic Party. Her victory is their victory.
The Good King
The general public often think that professionals, sporting or political, should stay in their lane: you don’t see Keir Starmer break down Harry Kane’s right foot for instance. But in October, Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford blurred the lines of what is expected of a professional football player by outwardly protesting against the government’s decision to cut funding for free school meals over the Christmas holidays. Using his social media presence for good, his petition gained 1 million signatures and forced the government to make a U-turn.
It’s a difficult thing to get right. Your ‘fans’ simply want you to play well, score goals and just be a footballer (insert an aggressive Roy Keane quote about football ‘back in my day’ here). But footballers are now more aware of their club and its community, and take an active role in supporting charities that help. As much as footballers are paid to play football, that won’t stop them caring about things bigger than sport – chiefly that of the health and support of underprivileged children. Marcus Rashford has blazed a new path for footballers who want to use their passion and profile for something other than the beautiful game.
For King and Country
Dolly Parton might sound like a wholly unlikely candidate for saviour of 2020, but that’s only if you haven’t been paying attention to the extraordinary philanthropy the singer has been dedicated to in recent years. In November, as the Moderna vaccine announced it was 95 per cent effective, it came to light that this was the trial to which Dolly Parton had donated $1 million. Twitter naturally became overrun with jokes of 'Vacciiine, Vacciiine, Vacciiine!', or that the trial was '9-to-5 per cent effective', but in and amongst that people also recognised the that the only reason Parton isn’t a billionaire is because she gives vast sums of her personal fortune each year to charity.
In 2018 the Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a charity which gives deserving children a free book each month, gave its 100 millionth free book to the Library of Congress. Meanwhile, other charitable endeavours of hers have raised money for everything from wildfire victims to the preservation of the bald eagle. In typical Dolly fashion, she modestly said of the news she’d saved the world that she was 'a very proud girl today to know I had anything at all to do with something that's going to help us through this crazy pandemic.' God bless Dolly Parton.
The Eternal King
Now we know just how ill he was while making it, it’s hard not to watch Boseman’s final film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, primed for poignant moments. One of them jumps up at you. 'Life ain’t shit. You can put it in a paper bag and carry it around with you. It ain’t got no balls,' his character Levee says at one point. 'Now, death? Death got some style.'
When Boseman died in August at 43, he seemed to have just been getting started: an intelligent actor who the world had finally woken up to, and who carried the responsibility and expectation of all that Black Panther brought with a genuinely regal bearing. It’s all the more remarkable now we know that for the last four years of his life he worked in the knowledge of his illness. After the summer of civil rights protests, the death of T’Challa – the culmination of a series of Black icons Boseman played, including baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, James Brown and civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall – landed that much harder. But it’s worth remembering that it didn’t take Boseman’s death to transform his reputation. The lordly glow which surrounds his ‘Stormin’ Norm’ Holloway in Da 5 Bloods sums it up. He was loved. Ma Rainey is a fitting tribute to his unique charisma. Boseman’s instinct to keep working was a last defiant statement, and there’s nothing mournful about the film. His Levee is a vibrant, visceral, restless, energetic lasting impression to leave – a sensuous celebration of being alive.
The King of Chaos
Aside from the software engineer at Netflix who allowed us to turn off auto-play, no one person had a bigger impact on cinema in 2020 than Bong Joon-Ho. The Parasite director who cleaned up at the Oscars – that ceremony he had referred to as 'very local' – truly changed the perception of foreign-language films globally, snidely reminding us that a 'one inch barrier' was not much to overcome in exchange for a world of cinematic treasures.
Parasite not only made Oscar history by crowning a foreign-language film as the best picture, and giving Korea its first ever win, it also completely captured the ‘eat the rich!’ sentiment of 2020, and the true horror of the class wars which are already being waged before our eyes. The story of two families, one poor and one rich, and how the former infiltrates the latter, is a doll's house of horrors that shows all of the different rungs of class. Parasite is a a bug that keeps sucking until it bursts and sprays blood everywhere.
The King of Truth
In the time between America voting in the 2020 presidential election and the results being known (which, in true 2020 fashion, went on forever) people around the world watching CNN were calmed by the steady voice and fine jaw of one Jake Tapper. As one of several of the network’s reporters who gave literal meaning to the job of 'anchor' during a truly weird week, Tapper kept those nervously watching in Pennsylvania or Paris, LA or London, grounded and sane. In the days following the result Tapper and his co-hosts alternated between snatches of sleep and holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire by showing the receipts against every wild claim being made. Undoubtedly the humble JT would want this award given instead to Gritty: the Philadelphia Flyer’s chaotic orange mascot from his home city who danced in the streets when the news broke of Donald Trump's defeat.
None of us were ready for a pandemic – the NHS especially. Years of funding cuts, wage freezes and a shrinking workforce meant that it was already buckling under the strain of everyday life. Preparing for a worst-case scenario was impossible. Then, the worst came.
At the time of writing, government figures state that there have been over 2 million Covid-19 infections in the United Kingdom. 67,616 people have died. But whatever the reason for our country’s worryingly high case number, the NHS has held strong, its embattled staff members working around the clock to keep us alive, risking their own health in the process. This is all completely free at the point of service. We are so lucky to have that – and so privileged to be placed in the care of those that care so much.
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