Master of Menswear

Joseph Barrato's "Beyond Category" Recounts a Life in High Style

Do you recall a time in which we wore clothes other than athleisure? When dresses and suits were something we actually wore and didn’t just push aside as we reached for our sweatshirts?

Westport resident Joseph Barrato does, primarily because he helped direct the trajectory of menswear for nearly half a century.

The son of a mail deliverer and a homemaker, Joe started out as a stock boy in Brooks Brothers in 1958 at age 17. There he met fellow employee Ralph Lauren and eventually became President of Polo’s Purple and Black Labels in 1967. From there, he worked with some of greatest names in men’s fashion, eventually becoming the CEO of Brioni USA for 20 years.

Now a consultant, the father of five (all Staples grads) and grandfather looks every bit the member of Esquire’s 1994 Best Dressed in Fashion list and dashing sartorial savant. Even in quarantine. “It always feels good to dress up,” he says.

His soon-to-be-published book, “Beyond Category,” tells the fascinating story of a career sparkled with celebrities and industry leaders, the shift of fashion trends, and the stories behind iconic labels and apparel, such as Levi’s, Lacoste, and Burberry.

Here are some excerpts from his book:

The Significance of Dressing Up:

“[Coty Award-winning Jeffrey Banks, an African American designer] gave me some insight on how important it was to his family, when he was a child, to dress him with care as an act of defiance against the hardship and sorrow that frequently lingered among the black community. Dressing up for an occasion created a sense of pride, especially on Sundays, for going to church provided a spiritual uplift after boundless suffering, prejudice, and pain.

“This conversation couldn’t help but remind me of the downtrodden immigrant Italian men who, in their own sartorial splendor, used to visit my widowed grandmothers on Sunday with an envelope of money to assist with basic needs. These men were common laborers, but the Sunday ritual of dressing with elegance was their way of overcoming the oppression and prejudice they suffered throughout the week.”

Burberry Trench Coat:

“[Thomas Burberry, a draper’s apprentice] invented and patented in 1880 a hard-wearing fabric called gabardine. This cutting-edge material was tight in weave and water repellent, yet allowed for ventilation. Not surprisingly, it was useful for sports, but was also popular with aviators and explorers. Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team, on their 1907 expedition to Antartica, wore Burberry gabardine coats and slept in gabardine tents. This extremely functional fabric has endured over time and is still woven in Burberry’s English mill to this day.

“Understanding just how useful this wind and weather-proof material could be to the military, Burberry lobbied prominent British generals to wear his gabardine fabric in wartime. Sure enough, during World War 1, khaki-colored gabardine would prove essential in keeping officers protected against rain and wind in the trenches, hence the name trench coat.

“While the trench coat was originally associated with the English aristocrat - the idealized image of the stylish officer - it simultaneously held a democratic appeal. Every element of the coat can be broken down to its practical, wartime function, from its large, deep pockets (for holding maps and other critical items), to its collar buttons at the neck (to protect against inclement weather or poison gas), to its warm removable liner (for emergency bedding).”

Available on Lulu.com and Amazon.com

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