IN 1901, Levi’s gave its famous 501 jean its famous fifth pocket. It wasn’t, as many assume, the teensy pocketwatch slot above the right front pocket—that had been there since the jean’s beginnings in 1879—but rather the back left pocket. That unassuming addition granted generations of men (and eventually women) double the rear-end real estate in which to stash bifolds, bandannas, crumpled bar receipts and, of course, awkward hands. For a mere sliver of space, it marked a revolution in clothing.
These days, our relationship to pockets is undergoing a similar sea change. Whereas Levi’s took a subtle approach, menswear designers are now stitching pockets on garments with the abandon of Jackson Pollock flinging paint on canvas. No longer an afterthought or mundane change-holder, pockets are the defining component of many designs. When brands showed their spring 2019 collections during Paris Fashion Week, two designers made pocket-packing vests a Big Thing: At Louis Vuitton, affixed wallet and pouch shapes directly onto cropped vests; and Junya Watanabe unveiled vests on which multiple pockets had been enthusiastically stacked. Meanwhile, labels from Gucci to Fendi slung “belt” bags—essentially fanny packs—across their models’ shoulders, the kind of thing a certain man now throws on like a detachable kangaroo’s pouch.
You needn’t wait until 2019, however, to witness how pockets have taken over men’s fashion. This fall, stash-minded guys can pick up British designer Craig Green’s cotton jacket with two mammoth pockets dangling down the front; or steroidal cargo pants from Japanese label White Mountaineering and Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, with layered pouches barnacle’d all down the legs. Want a fisherman-style vest to hold all your gear? Versions from P. Johnson, Engineered Garments and Snowpeak offer multi-sized pockets to harbor everything from a pen to an iPad.
Pocket mania has clearly reached a fever pitch. But while some of these pockets are as useful as Levi’s fifth pocket, others are more about fashion cred than utility. Tommy Ton, the artistic director at New York label Deveaux, designed pants with a pocket just above the hem: “It’s graphic in a strange way,” he said. “There’s something about the pocket weighing down the pant that I find interesting.” The detail recalls the space-cruising crew in the 1979 film “Alien,” who wore pants with shin pockets. Still, Mr. Ton conceded that, for his earthbound customers, “realistically no one can ever use a pocket that’s lower on your leg.”
Sam Lobban, the vice president of men’s designer and new concepts at Nordstrom, admitted that today’s pocket overload is often about form over function. You might find a use for a few of the pockets on White Mountaineering’s crafty cargo pants, but all 20? “Unless you’re moving your house with the garment,” said Mr. Lobban, “you may not need all of those pockets.”
But men do need some pockets. That’s why practically every brand from Zara to Zegna has made a four-pocket safari jacket. And with all the cellphones, backup chargers, e-readers, AirPods and USB keys that we lug around, pockets are more desirable than ever, despite technology’s promise to lighten our loads. Cam Hicks, 26, a photographer in Brooklyn, N.Y., has taken to wearing a fisherman-style vest by the Japanese brand Needles and cargo pants from the French label Y/Project, not just on set where they help keep lenses and batteries handy but also when he’s just walking through the city. “From an everyday standpoint, it saves time and makes organizing myself easier,” said Mr. Hicks.
As artistic director Lucas Ossendrijver of Lanvin Homme said, “In the end clothes are there to serve you.” For fall, the Dutch designer took inspiration from the practical storage concepts on vintage military and fishing gear. Though a zippered breast pocket on a Lanvin sportcoat resembles something you’d find on a vintage Orvis vest, it’s perfectly sized for an ID card or curled-up headphones. One of the brand’s sophisticated gray parkas is endowed with practical cargo pockets. Still, Mr. Ossendrijver is not immune to the charms of an ornamental pocket: that parka’s largest pouch has been dramatically supersized to the point that it could absorb an entire lunchbox. Reality check: When you’re stuffing Tupperware in your coat, it’s probably time to grab a bag.
It’s worth pushing beyond your comfort zone when it comes to this new pocket frontier. By rejiggering familiar pockets in new ways, designers are making truly modern garments. Daniel Pacitti, 19, a brand consultant in east London, was turned onto pocket-packed jackets from South2 West8 and North Face Purple Label after a trip to Japan, where such garments are popular. “I like the look, but also I do use all [the pockets],” said Mr. Pacitti. Whether he’s camping or strolling in the city, he fills them with everything from his phone charger to headphones to a snack. If he needs it, he has a pocket for it.
Top image credit: Jacket, $4,750, Sweater, $875, brioni.com; T-shirt, $95, handvaerk.com; Pants, about $428, White Mountaineering, 81-333-521-111; Falke Socks, $28, Harry’s Shoes, 212-847-2035; Mr P. Shoes, $485, mrporter.com; Watch, $3,575, tudorwatch.com. Fashion Editor: Rebecca Malinsky
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com