Style icon: Marvin Gaye
The timeless style of Marvin Gaye
Words— Marc Richardson
When Supreme announced a collaboration with Marvin Gaye, it was — well, odd. Supreme has tended to collaborate with artists or musicians who have deep ties to New York’s skate, graffiti and hip-hop scenes.
Gaye was a soul singer from Detroit — the soul singer from Detroit — so he wasn’t necessarily linked to Supreme-adjacent scenes in any meaningful way. Apparent randomness aside, the collaboration did remind us that Marvin Gaye has always been something of an arbiter of cool.
Most probably think of “Heard It Through The Grapevine” or “Sexual Healing" when Marvin Gaye is mentioned and that’s very fair. But, the Motown legend’s name should also be synonymous with impeccable style. Compared to Steve McQueen, whose name immediately resonates with the men’s style crowd, Marvin Gaye’s style is under-appreciated — that is a travesty.
In his Motown days, he looked the part, sporting light-coloured suits on stage — beige or grey. Early on in his career, Gaye’s style was deeply curated, as was most everything that was coming from the Motown label. Motown artists were expected to look and sound a certain way.
As the ‘60s turned to the ‘70s, the artist began fighting the label for more creative control in an effort to become more than just another Motown artist. His quest for creative freedom was not without tension, with Motown head Barry Goldy describing Gaye’s seminal “What’s Going On” as “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”
As Gaye began to develop a signature sound, his style also became increasingly personal. Gaye’s wardrobe is often boiled down to a pair of outfits — pictures of which have been used time and again since the artist’s untimely death at the hands of his own father. In one, he’s wearing a red crewneck with a knit watch cap beanie and, in the other, he’s wearing a red watch cap beanie with a chambray shirt. Pictures of both are taken from studio visits, with Gaye looking relaxed and laid back sitting on the floor or at the piano. In one sense, it’s true that these two outfits accurately reflect Gaye’s sartorial inclinations in the latter decade of his life: The red was a hallmark of his wardrobe and he was always won't to sport something eye-catching, but he always looked effortless when doing so — like he knew that he looked good but didn’t particularly care.
In some respects, it also represented his anti-Motown aesthetic; it wasn’t deeply curated, but it was very personal. Unlike many other celebrities of the era — except, perhaps, Steve McQueen — Gaye was comfortable with his public image being more casual. He wore hoodies and red adidas tracksuits at a time where streetwear was not the cultural phenomenon that it is today — in fact, it was almost alien at the time. He wore crewnecks with roughly cut-off sleeves and impeccably fitting white T-shirts with rolled-up denim and leather boots.
While Gaye was undoubtedly comfortable in his loungewear, he was also at home in bedazzled chambray shirts and lavish fur jackets. And try as he may to break from Motown and the tailoring-heavy wardrobes that the label pushed on its stars, Gaye would invariably revert back to tailoring when taking the stage or showing up to award galas, but he would do so in a way that was decidedly his own. His suits were more playful and he often paired them with a waistcoat or an open-collared silk shirt. Luxurious materials, like silk and velvet, helped create harmony between his sound and his look. He began sporting clashing prints and colourful tailoring, while his shirts seemed to lose an extra button with each passing hit, revealing more and more of his chest.
He would show up in an impeccable double-breasted silk tuxedo — with a bow tie no-less — and leave wearing the same tux and the same shirt — just unbuttoned and with a silk scarf thrown elegantly over his shoulder. But, he’d look equally comfortable in both and equally put together, a testament to his effortless cool — try not looking dishevelled in an unbuttoned shirt and tux.
The parallel to McQueen drawn at the outset — that Gaye’s style was under-appreciated compared to the actor’s — is deeper than the two merely being famous. Like McQueen, Gaye’s style was multi-dimensional. He very well could have been a one-trick pony if he had stuck by Motown, but, in his later years, he managed to put forth notable outfits across the sartorial spectrum — just like McQueen.
And, like McQueen, Marvin Gaye’s style is perhaps best judged by its contemporary influence. While Gaye may not be as revered within #menswear circles, his influence is still very much felt within contemporary fashion. As mentioned earlier, consider his adoption of loungewear in the ‘70s and ‘80s — literal decades before musicians like Kanye West adopted the same laid-back but put-together style.
Snapshots of the soul legend offer masterclasses in various fields. Want to wear a beanie that doesn’t cover your ears? Marvin Gaye is the one you want to emulate. You like loud prints but don’t want to look like you’re on vacation? The “Sexual Healing” singer can show you how. A Canadian Tuxedo isn’t an insult to you? Gaye’s denim on denim was never panned. You have to wear a suit but don’t want to look stuck up? Marvin’s the man.
It’s possible that Gaye was just too ahead of his time. After all, today, labels encourage their artists to build a brand on originality and even fashion. Looking at some of the latest trends in men’s fashion, Gaye would have been right at home. The hipster era — denim, perfect white T-shirts, wool socks and leather boots; streetwear’s dominance — adidas tracksuit; hashtag-menswear — chambray and watch cap beanies; and, of course, the throwback tailoring championed by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele that can, at times, appear to have been custom-made for the Detroit legend — from the silky shirts, to the spread collars, to the double-breasted suits, to the bedazzled jackets.
So, did Marvin Gaye skate in New York City? No. And he didn’t tag subway trains, either; nor did he spit bars in underground cyphers in the ‘90s. But, he knew what was cool and he, himself, was effortlessly cool. So, if Supreme had been around in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there’s a good chance that Gaye’s grey hoodie or white T-shirt might've had a box logo on it.