I checked my watch – one o’clock – and shrugged my shoulders. We’d agreed to meet at twelve thirty so this was now officially a no show.
There’s a fine line between late and not coming, just as there’s a line between waiting patiently because she’s worth it and looking desperate and needy. By happy co-incidence my mind put both lines can be found at thirty minutes after the pre-agreed time. On the odd occasion when someone I was meeting had been genuinely delayed for longer than that, they had texted or phoned me.
I checked my phone. Nope, no messages no missed calls. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go and eat worms.
Actually this was no big deal, just one of the downsides of online dating. You get chatting, get to know and like who you’re talking to, decide you should meet, then at first sight there’s complete absence of chemistry, something the Internet has no way of conveying for you. No helping it.
I suspected she’d come into the café while I had my back turned, seen me, decided no and walked out. I’d like to take the high ground and say that I’d never done the same myself, but it would be a lie. So, no harm no foul. Get up, dust yourself down and get on with your life.
At least this time it wouldn’t be a total bust.
I drained the last of my coffee and, instead of making for the exit, I set a beeline for a nearby table where three youngish ladies were holding a very loud and heated discussion. They looked about my own age, plus or minus a couple of years, although not exactly my type, except maybe for the one on the right; she was kind of cute. No Richard, down boy. This is business, not to be mixed with pleasure. Deep breath, charming smile.
“Good afternoon ladies. I wonder if you’d be kind enough to let me join you for a few minutes.”
“Who the f….”
“Sarah. Can you at least pretend to be civilised when we’re out.”
The middle one, Sarah, had manners enough to look embarrassed through her frustration and anger. She ducked her head, while the one on the right looked up at me.
“I’m sorry. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling us who you are and why we might want to talk to you?”
And I was in, or nearly. I broadened my charming smile to best charming smile and held out a hand.
“My name is Richard. Richard Fortune, although seeking rather than possessing one at present.” Come on Richard, deep breath, go for broke. “I am a potential future customer.”
“And just how do you know what we sell?” snarled Sarah, obviously the aggressive one.
“Because, and I must apologise for this, I’ve overheard a fair amount of your conversation over the past half hour.”
“That’s a bit rude isn’t it? Listening in on other people’s private discussions?”
“Perhaps so, but when you hold your private discussion in a public place and raise your voices like you have been doing, I think a little blame sharing is called for. Besides, I think I may be able to help you.
“Give me ten minutes of your time to convince you. All you need do is listen, and I’ll even pay for a fresh pot of tea.” I wasn’t selling it. Time to sweeten the pot. I turned my full puppy dog charms on the young woman to my right; the one who had defended me against Sarah. “And a round of cream cakes for everyone?”
Her hard gaze melted into a smile and I took that as my cue to sit. Sarah’s face stiffened but the other two showed no further reaction and I began to relax. Foot in the door, the hardest part was over. I raised a hand to a passing waitress, who paused long enough to take the order, then turned back to my audience.
“Perhaps you delightful ladies wouldn’t mind introducing yourselves. It’s so much more civilised when everyone knows each other’s names.”
“You only have ten minutes and you’re wasting your time on introductions?” The one who’s name I already knew wasn’t going down without a fight.
“It’s alright Sarah, it’s not going to take a moment. My name’s Jennifer.” This was the girl on the right. She had a friendly smile in a pretty face framed by long dark hair, and wore unusual clothing. I suspected she was the designer.
“And I’m Caroline.” Curly hair, slightly heavier build, but decidedly attractive in a curvy sort of way. She offered me her hand, which I took gratefully. The others followed suit, Sarah with obvious reluctance.
“So what is it you think we do Mr Fortune?” Jennifer asked.
“Richard please, or Rich if you prefer. I think you’re clothes designers and I think…” Come on Rich, don’t chicken out now. In for a penny. “I think you’re planning on extending the male wardrobe. I think you have ideas to design the equivalent of skirts and dresses for men.”
“And that’s something you’d be interested in buying?” Sarah again, sardonic smile; openly disparaging.
“Yes I would, and I’m not alone. What’s more, if there were really something wrong with the concept, you wouldn’t be trying to sell would you? So I don’t want to be restricted to some limited variation on shirt and trousers in an equally restricted range of colours. What’s wrong with that? Why can’t I be a little more expressive in the way I dress like you?”
“You really think we have a potential client base?” Caroline. Probably the accountant.
“I do. I think there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of guys like me in our country alone who’d like to wear something different and exciting. The thing is though, if you were to open a shop in the high street tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t have any customers. Myself included.”
“But you just said…”
“I know what I just said. You have a great concept, probably some brilliant designs, and there are a lot of people out there who’d like to buy them. There is a problem though, and it lies not in your product or your potential clients, but in how the rest of the world will react to what you are selling.”
The tea and cakes arrived then, interrupting my flow briefly. Caroline took charge of disbursement, leaving me free to continue.
“Your problem, if you’ll forgive me, is that you are approaching this venture as three women, and you don’t have that clear an idea on how men think.”
“And you do because you’re a man?” Caroline said handing me a cup of tea. “Yet by the same argument you don’t know how women think, which means you also know half the picture. So what exactly do you have to offer that we might want?”
“Fair point well made, and perhaps if you’ll let me explain I can demonstrate.”
The all settled to listen. Even Sarah who had so far been my most outspoken opponent. Despite Caroline’s last comment, both she and Jennifer looked at me expectantly, hopeful of good things.
“The main, if not only, difference between how men and women think is that men are competitive while women collaborative. Interaction between men is more often than not in some form of challenge to establish who’s best. Primitive men came up with concept of initiation into manhood which is all about proving you’re good enough and sports are largely, and originally, male ideas and derive from a need to finding who’s the best. This extends vicariously into following and supporting team sports. Think about groups of football supporters and their joint delight or misery when their team wins or loses; the taunting, and in extreme cases fighting, that goes on between rival groups.
“The same thing happens in business, in love, in just about every aspect of male behaviour. Men are driven to a large extent by the concept of fitting in and growing a reputation to gain others’ respect. You know the term trophy wife? There you have a man who looks for respect through having the most drop dead gorgeous woman on his arm. Promiscuity the same. Men who claim to have been with loads of women look on it as a way of keeping score, of improving their reputation with others around them.”
Faces turning sour, time to change tactics.
“Not all men are like that though. There are a good number who hate the idea of living competitive lives, who would rather live like they see most women doing. Women are almost always in groups or pairs, quite often with one attractive girl sticking with a less fortunate one so that when men approach, the condition of getting the pretty one to dance is that the plainer one also gets to enjoy herself. The things women do naturally together are about supporting one another. You chat and gossip and live inside each other’s lives. You notice when things aren’t going right because you are involved enough with each other that you see the changes.
“There are a lot of guys who would rather live like that, just as I am sure there are quite a few women who would like a more competitive lifestyle,” I favoured Sarah with a smile. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with either male or female points of view, they’re just different ways of living, but society frowns on people who exist part way between the two and want to swap sides, even occasionally. The expectations of most push us all into moulds which mean a lot of us don’t get what we want and have to live life pretending to be something we’re not.
“Without suggesting it’s easy, I would say I think it’s easier for a woman to express manly traits than it is for a man to do the opposite. You get tomboys and butch aggressive women, and they are accepted by the female side of society because that’s what you do. You accept differences, be they in behaviour or self-expression. You embrace new things even when you don’t particularly like them, because what matters to you is the person underneath; the relationship.”
Back on track. They were nodding along with me now, probably largely because I was painting being a girl in such a good light. Not that it was difficult because I was one of those people who appreciated the qualities of female interaction so much more than those of male.
“So let’s bring these views to the way men and women see clothing, and this brings in a lot about the way men and women interact in the age old dance of love. I mean sure clothes aren’t all about looking sexy and attractive, but the factors that have driven the different stereotypes derive from the way we get it together, Men tend to be the aggressors, the ones who make the first move, whereas women take a more passive role. This is traditional, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen the other way round, just that this is the established norm.
“Taking a passive role means that the woman’s side of establishing a relationship is always the more subtle. You dress to be noticed; attractive, sexy, or just plain different. If the guy you’re interested in still doesn’t pay you the attention you want then you enlist friends to manoeuvre him into a position where he can’t help but notice you, but you still let him at least think that he made the first move. From your perspective, courtship is largely about looking attractive then, so you embrace new ideas, you complement each other and help each other look the best you can be. That in itself is part of the reason why you do things this way, so that when one of you snags a really good guy it was because they chose you rather than you fought over him. It means you can maintain friendship even when one of you walks off with the man you all wanted.
“For guys it’s different. Most men don’t sit around waiting to be noticed. Instead their aggressive hunter’s instinct puts them actively in the pursuit of the prettiest girl they can find. Way back in cave man days they’d take what they wanted through brute strength. In these more civilised times, when the girl has the choice to say no, men will make an effort to look presentable and act more respectable to reduce the chances of being rejected. Looking presentable, however, does not mean going to all the same trouble you girls do. In the end you’re more interested in the boldness and strength of a guy. You want someone who’s going to sweep you off your feet and look after you and protect you for the rest of your life, and that doesn’t have a lot to do with how pretty a guy looks.
“In short, when looking at the clothes thing, men don’t need to bother with anything too different, and because life is all a big competition for us there have to be rules regarding even something so mundane as what we wear. Unwritten rules, but it’s all part of belonging in a group. Some groups dress very much the same as part of a way of identifying with each other; think of mods and rockers, and even football supporters. Most of the time though, men simply dress within certain fixed parameters dictated by their social group. Anyone who steps outside of those parameters does so on pain of being laughed at, ridiculed; in extremes even despised and rejected by everyone else in the group.
“A guy wearing a pink shirt has jokes made about him because it’s girly. Cravats are effeminate, as are certain materials and colours. How often have you seen a man wearing a suit made from velvet or satin, or any clothes coloured mauve, lilac, yellow or pink? It happens, and the poor guy instantly becomes the butt – no pun intended – of every gay joke going. If a guy does anything different with the way he dresses, he has to provide a logical context for doing so if he wants to avoid his mates turning on him.
“The sad thing is, despite being restricted to shirt, trousers and jacket in navy blue, charcoal grey or black; or jeans and a tee-shirt, history shows us a very different range of male clothing in the past. In fact when trousers were first introduced to Europe about four hundred years ago, they were considered unmanly and started off as a purely female fashion where they were worn under the skirt. Pretty much every culture, including our own, started off with men wearing some variation on kilt, robe or tunic, skirts and dresses effectively, and yes with stockings and hose to keep the legs warm in colder lands like ours.
“If you want to persuade men that they can return to that sort of clothing then you’re going to have to do two things. One is to make the change gradual enough that nobody really notices it, or if they do, that they consider it too little to be worth the aggravation. Do you remember the time a while back when petrol prices jumped by ten pence or more? There was outrage pretty much throughout the country, so the fuel companies brought the prices back down then systematically added one or two pence each week until the prices were just as high and no-one complained. Sudden and dramatic change in men’s fashions is like that. If it gets noticed, it gets attacked.”
“So what’s the second thing?” This from Jennifer, though even Sarah was hanging on my words now. I took a sip of my tea, as much to ease my dry throat as to provide dramatic effect.
“The second is to re-educate the country, or even the world. The media we have for spreading ideas like this is amazing. TV advertising is still expensive but potentially the most effective. It could be made cheaper if we can persuade TV company directors that it would be worth their while to make documentaries on the history of men’s clothing, the psychology behind men’s and women’s clothing choices, that sort of thing.
“Then we have the Internet. All we need is for a good advert or two to go viral on YouTube and advertising becomes all but free.
“Imagine. A guy steps onto the tube and looks around him and every other guy in the carriage is wearing the exact same thing as himself, same style same colour. As a result the guys expression changes to match the dejection on everyone else’s face. Then another guy steps on wearing one of your creations, but not too different. Slightly more vibrant colours, slightly different style. He keeps his smile and everyone looks on enviously. We introduce a slogan like ‘dare to be different’.
“Another idea. Close up of two rather blokey blokes, you know builder types, laughing their heads off, snap to another guy who looks from close up to be wearing something a little out of the ordinary for a man, implying the reason he’s being laughed at. Get the audience laughing, then pan out to show that the two guys who are poking fun are wearing togas or kilts and the one they’re laughing at is wearing trousers.
“You get the idea, introduce newness and change as a positive thing. Show that the narrow minded sorts have always existed and would have laughed at something different even when they were wearing something we’d laugh at now.”
“So how do you see the subtle changes to the clothing coming about?”
“Over a series of seasons introduce progressively tighter trousers in stretchy faprics, progressively longer shirts and jackets until the trousers are tight enough they might as well be thick hosiery and the jackets and shirts long enough to be tunics . Use colours that are current in men’s clothing, but make them a little brighter, more vivid. Shoes become boots, socks become longer, softer, designed to clump around the ankles like ankle warmers. I don’t know, I’m a salesman not a designer. Take existing men’s fashions and the concepts you have and put together half a dozen intermediate designs.”
“I think I get what you mean.” Jennifer pulled out a sketch book and flipped through to a blank page. I did get a brief glance at some of her designs as she did so, all exactly the sort of thing I’d like to be wearing; patterns, frills, tight leggings showing of the shape of decent legs, skirts to mid-thigh. Nothing I’d dare wear in public now, but maybe one day. Empty canvas found, she sketched for a few minutes then turned it round for us all to see.
She had produced a sort of story board, comic style set of panels with a man wearing a normal plain suit in the first frame and progressing slowly through several changes until the man was wearing a patterned tunic, hose and boots.
“Exactly that.” I couldn’t keep my excitement out of my voice as I pointed at the second panel. “There is no question that there’s a market for that today. Give it a few months and move on to the next and the next. Within eighteen months or two years, you’ll have guys wandering about in this sort of thing without realising there was a time they’d never have dared to wear it.”
“I still don’t get it. Why would slow change make any difference if they’re against the concept now?”
“Because a lot of them aren’t, and a lot of the rest are open to being re-educated. Because it’s usually one or two outspoken, narrow minded guys who set the trend for the rest to follow. One thing a man can’t stand is to be laughed at, so if you can direct the laughter from what’s new and exciting and onto those narrow minded enough not to accept change, you have a good chance of taking control of what men think of as acceptable, or at the very least influencing it.
“Listen, sorry for the car analogy, but do you remember when Ford stopped building the Cortina and brought out the Sierra as their new family car? It was a while ago and none of you look old enough to remember it. I just know about it because my Dad was a big Cortina fan and he made such a fuss over it at the time.
“The Cortina was one of those boxy, car shaped cars, and one of the most popular on the road. Things were changing in the motoring industry though, veering more towards fuel efficiency and performance. Ford took this on board and designed their new car almost entirely in the wind tunnel. They found that a bubble shape with as little trim as possible gave the most fuel efficient design and they went and built it. When it was unveiled, almost no-one bought one. It looked to strange, too plain, like a spaceship form an old B movie. Ford had to recall the lot and redesign the bodywork so that it had some trim, something to break up the featureless surface; change the smooth curves so they looked a little more like the lines of a car.
“The car lost a lot of its super efficiency, but it was only after the changes were made that people started to give it a chance. Since then it’s gone on to become one of the most popular cars ford ever produced, and the design has headed slowly back towards the more fuel efficient shape. What’s more, it paved the way for a lot of other manufacturers to come out with similar designs.
“The thing is men get fixated on an idea of what’s right, even when it’s wrong, but they can be persuaded to change their minds if the argument is made correctly, logically and above all slowly, so they have a chance to adjust. I mean you go home with a new hairstyle. You think it looks good, so do your friends, but your husband or boyfriend looks at you oddly and doesn’t say anything. It’s only later that he manages to adjust and complements you on it.”
Jennifer, to whom I’d directed the last comment, ducked her head and blushed a little. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Or a husband. But I guess I see what you mean.”
Sarah wasn’t going to leave her friend mired in her awkwardness. “OK, so your arguments are convincing. How come you know so much about how men and women thing? What makes you so different?”
“The answer is that I’m not like normal blokes. I dislike sports and I hate being competitive. Given the choice I think I’d have preferred to be a woman, but I’m not. I’m one of those people who sits somewhere in the middle and tries to fit in as best he can. Not only does this give me a clearer perspective across the gender divide, but I can give you insight into the way other people like me think. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be your main customer base if they can be persuaded to come out of their shells, and they make up an estimated ten percent of the male population.
“Most women think too much like women so don’t understand the normal male mind-set. Most men will feel too threatened by the extent of the change you attempting here. They’ll want to stick with the status quo just so that they won’t be seen as rocking the boat and ostracised for it.
“What you have in me is someone who’s sympathetic, possibly even dynamically in favour, of your goals, who knows enough about the way men and women tick to be able to see the change happen.”
I wasn’t sure where in all this I had gone from offering some hopefully helpful advice to being interviewed for a job, but as realisation dawned, I discovered this was something I very much wanted.
The women huddled their heads together and a short discussion took place. They sat back, Jennifer and Caroline looking at Sarah, who stared at me appraisingly for a few moments before nodding just once.
“You’re hired. If you want the job that is.”
“I think I do, but what is the job exactly?”
“Sales and marketing director with a seat on the design team. We’re just starting up so salary won’t be much, no more than any of us are getting, but we are prepared to offer you stock options at start up prices if you meet certain targets within the first two years.”
I whistled. “You’d make me a partner.”
“You’d have to prove yourself first, but we know the company has to make a profit, and the heated discussion you overheard earlier was about whether or not we believed we could actually sell our idea. We’re all in agreement that you’re our best option in that regard, and we want you to have the right motivation. Even Sarah, who was seriously considering withdrawing earlier, agrees.
“What do you say Richard? Partners?”
It’s been a year since that first meeting and things have gone amazingly well for Man Remade. The advertising budget in the first quarter almost crippled us, but paid its dividends. I pulled a few strings, whispered in a few ears, and the documentaries were made and broadcast, although not as effectively as I’d hoped. What did work was the commercials. First I insisted that we spend the money making them as good as they could be, then we started showing them in the TV slots we could afford and leaked them on the Internet. They were different enough and good enough that they did their rounds of Internet viewers, topping two hundred million views worldwide, and all for nothing.
As head of marketing and the public face of the company, I managed to negotiate clothes from the new line as part of my first year’s salary. I went after public appearances on talk shows, breakfast television, just about anything and everything I could, and always went wearing something from the latest release. The clothes became the topic of the chat more often than not, and in each case I was able to make my points, push forward the cause.
Our target was to break even by the end of the second year. What we actually managed was a healthy profit in just one year and stock prices were climbing steadily. This was the point where the shareholders in a business can get greedy, and I’d spent a nervous few weeks waiting for the girls to call me in for a meeting and give me some excuse that would end up cutting me out on the stock options they’d originally offered me. When the meeting finally came, the shock was much bigger than even I could have anticipated.
“Twenty five percent of the stock signed over to you.”
They slid the papers across the table, contented smiles on all of their faces.
“But that would be twenty thousand quid even at start up prices. It’s worth what…”
“One hundred and seventy two thousand pounds give or take at today’s prices,” Caroline always was the one with the numbers.
“Look Rich,” Sarah looked at me with a much softer expression than the day we’d first met. “Man Remade is a success and far sooner than we anticipated. We know that most of it’s down to your efforts and we wanted to let you know that we recognise that and appreciate it. We weren’t that sure of you at the beginning, me in particular, but you’ve exceeded the two year target in just one year and you have earned this. Welcome aboard partner.”
I took her hand then Caroline’s. Jennifer was quiet, nervous, the last to approach. There was little question that something had grown between us over the year we’d been working together, but as usual I was too nervous to do anything about it.
“I’m having a dinner party at my place tonight to celebrate; just the four of us. Please say you can come.”
So here I am, riding the buses out to Jennifer’s place. I still get a few odd looks from the people on the bus, but there are a few on here with me wearing similar styles, perhaps last season’s or the one before that. The tunic is made of a sweatshirt type fabric, dyed a dark rusty red. It has no buttons, pulling over the head like a tee-shirt, but it falls to mid-thigh and has a cowl rather than a hood that bulks up the shoulders. The trousers are tight and made of a stretchy material like lycra. They might as well be thick footless tights for the way they cling to my legs. I asked Jennifer to put stirrups on them so they wouldn’t ride up when I put my boots on, and they’re much more comfortable for it.
The overall look reminds me just a little of Link from the Zelda games in his Goron tunic, which is at least a little of what we were going for. Helps make it more acceptable if you can identify the clothes with a hero, even a cartoon game hero.
My stop comes up and I climb off feeling better than I have in years. They say the clothes make the man, but it feels great to have clothes that help me to express the man I have always been. Looking different gives me an excuse to act differently as well, and I’m far more able to be who I’ve always been inside looking like this.
I’m early and Jennifer opens the door wearing an apron.
“Hi Rich. The others aren’t here yet, but I have a gift for you in my bedroom upstairs. I left it on the bed. Perhaps you’d like to go and change?”
I’m a bit put out, I mean it’s not as if I haven’t made an effort this evening. I feel a pout coming on.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
She looks me over with evident pride in her creation and what it does to me.
“Nothing Rich, you look amazing. Just please do this for me.”
She’s impossible to resist when she’s like this. I make my way up to the bedroom and find myself gasping.
It’s made from a soft, shimmering, silvery grey fabric; light delicate, floating. It’s the tunic she drew in the last of the boxes on her story board and it’s perfect. Not particularly manly; still something guys would laugh at today if I were to wear it in public, but not feminine either. The cut is to fit my body, the pattern intricate without being flowery. There are matching tights and flat shoes and I’m grateful I’ve been keeping my body hairless these past months.
I change quickly, luxuriating in the feel of the soft fabric. I feel myself melting inside as the softer look draws the inner me to the surface. I allow myself a twirl in front of the mirror, delighting in the swish and swirl of the material. A moment to make sure everything is just right and I head back to the stairs.
Jennifer has the phone to her ear and stands open mouthed and speechless as I come down the stairs. She recovers and says something into the phone quickly then hangs up. We meet in the middle of the room. She brushes something invisible of my shoulder.
“That was Sarah and Caroline. Apparently they can’t make it tonight so it’s just the two of us.” She looks me up and down, tugs gently here and there. “You know, you’re right. The world isn’t ready for this quite yet, but it is how I’ve always seen you, right since that first time we met.”
And everything is perfect. Perfect moment, perfect feeling, perfect girl. Perfect first kiss.