By ERIC WILSON
LAST December John Martin sat in on a focus group for a trend-forecasting company at which young professionals were asked about their grooming habits. Mr. Martin found he had nothing useful to contribute. His shaving regimen involves the use of a razor about as frequently as the seasons change.
"Everyone else was chiming in about the products they use," said Mr. Martin, the advertising director for Vice, a lad magazine based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I was totally mystified. I blanked."
Mr. Martin's idea of a style symbol, seriously, is Ulysses S. Grant, whose beard he came to admire after watching the 2003 Civil War-era drama "Cold Mountain." Two years ago, when he began experimenting with different beard styles, which he described as ranging from neat to burly to unkempt, his facial hair was an expression of individuality in a tide of metrosexual conformity. Now 10 of his 15 co-workers at Vice wear full, bushy beards. In that, they vie with the pro-facial-hair contingent of an editorial rival, Spin, where a rash of new beards has broken out.
"It's a sign of the times," Mr. Martin said. "People are into beards right now."
At hipster hangouts and within fashion circles, the bearded revolution that began with raffishly trimmed whiskers a year or more ago has evolved into full-fledged Benjamin Harrisons. At New York Fashion Week last month at least a half-dozen designers turned up with furry faces.
"This is some sort of reaction to men who look scrubbed, shaved, plucked and waxed," said the designer Bryan Bradley, who stepped onto the runway after his Tuleh presentation looking like a renegade from the John Bartlett show, at which more than half the models wore beards: untidy ones that scaled a spectrum from wiry to ratty to shabby to fully bushy.
"It's less 'little boy,' " Mr. Bradley said. "For a while men have looked too much like Boy Scouts going off to day camp."
On city streets, too, trends in scruff have reached new levels of unruliness, a backlash, some beard enthusiasts say, against the heightened grooming expectations that were unleashed with the rise of metrosexuality as a cultural trend. Men both straight and gay, it appears, want to feel rough and manly.
Other designers who appeared in scruffy beards during Fashion Week included Brian Kirkby of Boudicca, Nathan Jenden and Matthew Williamson. Santino Rice gave the look national exposure on "Project Runway" this season, with weekly variations. Among the models that Ralph Lauren cast in his men's show was a wildly bearded young man with long tresses, like Brad Pitt circa 2002.
And with their fully furry chins Ariel Foxman and Bruce Pask, the editor in chief and the style director, respectively, of Cargo magazine, the metrosexual manifesto, seem now to be endorsing a lumberjack ideal.
"It's a nice masculine aesthetic," said Robert Tagliapietra, who with his similarly bearded partner, Jeffrey Costello, designs a collection of pretty silk jersey dresses under the Costello Tagliapietra label. "We both like that aesthetic of New England cabins with antlers on the wall, plaid shirts and a beard."
Beyond the fashion world, any number of celebrities are exhibiting luxuriant facial hair, including George Clooney with a Hussein-like beard in "Syriana"; Heath Ledger in GQ, looking like Snoopy's sad cousin, Spike (the beagle with a skinny mustache who is always depressed); and Mel Gibson on a good day. At the New York premiere of "V for Vendetta" last week, Hugo Weaving appeared (with his co-star Natalie Portman, an adopter of last summer's iteration of the Mohawk) in the beard of the moment, grown for the stage production of "Hedda Gabler."John Allan, the owner of several clublike grooming salons in New York, reports seeing newly bearded customers, but not enough to warrant concerns for the health of his shaving business.
"It will be interesting to see over the next six to eight months what mainland America is going to do with it," Mr. Allan said. "For the past several years we've been stripping guys of their body hair. Maybe now it's time for the pendulum to swing the other way."
Whenever a countercultural trend becomes a mainstream one, there is a natural tendency to look for deeper meaning. Do beards that call to mind Charles Manson suggest dissatisfaction with "the system"? Are broody beards, like the dark and somber mood of the fall fashion collections, physical manifestations of a melancholia in the air? Are they a reflection of the stylistic impact on mainstream fashion of the subculture of gay men known as bears, who embrace natural body hair?
But such theories seem to have less relevance — and beards less shock value — than they once did.
"Style has separated itself from viewpoint," said Tim Harrington, the lead singer of the rock band Les Savy Fav, who is known for his full beard and balding head. "This is not like when beards were worn by hippies. Now you pick a style for aesthetic reasons as opposed to a viewpoint. I wonder if beards can have the oomph they once had when it feels like someone will ask you: 'Where did you get that beard? Is that beard from Dolce & Gabbana?' "
No survey ever conducted about women's attitudes toward beards, even those not underwritten by the Gillette Company, has indicated that more than 2 or 3 percent of women would describe a full beard as sexy. ("I hang out with those girls who are in that 2 or 3 percent," Mr. Martin, of Vice, said.)
Yet the return of the wild beard carries a certain erotic charge that has been missing from beards since the Furry Freak look of the 1970's, or at least those who grow them hope they do.
Andrew Deutsch, a designer of interactive Web videos, swears that having a beard has changed his life, giving him an air of confidence. "I met my current girlfriend a week after I started growing my beard in November," Mr. Deutsch said. Now he finds himself constantly touching and stroking the beard, as if it were a talisman. "It's like a security blanket on my face," he said.
That a full beard can suddenly look right — or, more accurately, not so awful — illustrates how quickly ideals of masculinity can change.
"You know, it's funny," said Lola Phonpadith, a public relations manager for the fashion company BCBG. "I've been talking about this with my friends for weeks. I'm kind of into guys with beards today, and I'm embarrassed to say that. But the pretty-boy look can only last for so long."