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Like the first crocus that pops its purple head through the sludgy ground to signal spring, the floral shirt is a bellwether -- of a shift in men's fashion.

"I'm all about colour for spring," says Toronto restaurateur and fashion stylist Arturo Gayle, 36. "Florals are back."

It's early, but it's here. From tiny green sprigs to larger blossoms, early adopters have turned their sights on blooms to set themselves apart this spring.

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We're not talking mai-tai-worthy Hawaiian prints better left to surf shorts here. Instead, the new shirts have colourful, chic patterns from designer labels such as Yves Saint Laurent, Paul Smith and Etro that GQ or the recent New York Times men's fashion issue are trumpeting as the next big thing.

Toronto's David Daniels considers the floral shirt a staple. But then again he is used to being the sartorial loner in a sea of navy blue and black.

"When I'm in a room like that, women come up to me and say, 'That looks great,' " says the retail/real estate/entertainment entrepreneur. "It's tasteful. I usually wear them without a tie, but depending on the shirt, I might wear a tie."

Sally Scott, director of marketing at the Bloor Street Holt Renfrew in Toronto, says her husband wears Paul Smith and that other Brit staple, the densely patterned Liberty print. He often gets compliments from other guys.

"It's always men who tell him how nice his shirt is," she says.

Daniels, 50, favours small, subtle patterns including Liberty. He's also a big fan of the tone-on-tone floral in white or cream and plans to add one to his growing collection.

He has a tip for shoppers: A Toronto shop called Via Cavour carries a line called Pal Zileri. "They're a fabulous example of a tasteful floral shirt. They're very sophisticated, Milanese Italian."

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Still, the floral obsessive concedes that he had a head start -- Daniels was once one of the owners of Toronto menswear shops Brogue and Nicolas. He understands why the floral trend isn't spreading like, well, weeds, just yet.

"A stripe is a lot more masculine than a flower," he says. "But I have fewer stripes than florals in my wardrobe. It's nothing to be afraid of."

Gayle, who runs Toronto's Avocado Supper Club, shopped New York for the blue-green-yellow fabric for his first spring shirt.

"They're much further ahead there and much more outgoing when it comes to fashion," he says. "We're much more conservative here, which is why it's easy to stick out. Any man wearing colour is amazing-looking. If he does, he's usually gay or metrosexual."

Marlon Durrant is the man behind Gayle's bespoke shirts, which soon will number four. "His first shirt came out hot," Durrant says. "It has to be somebody that's willing to be a little adventurous.

"It used to be that nobody would wear the pink shirt," he says. "That's where the floral shirt is now."

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It's not surprising that the look is still relatively fresh to Bay Street, which is still struggling to reconcile business casual with chic. "Floral to work? It's early," Durrant says. "Floral after work and on weekends, that's a go for sure."

But the nattier Bay Streeters are primed for petal power. Raymond Goldie, an analyst at Salman Brothers, says that the last time he wore a floral shirt, other than one of his "dreadful collection of Hawaiian shirts," was when he was in university.

"I haven't worn a floral shirt since 1969," he says. "But I'd like to see some."

He is known for wearing a flower in his lapel daily. His interest piqued, he asked for some visuals. I directed him to the New York Times men's fashion magazine site, which features a jungle-esque green floral Calvin Klein cotton voile shirt ($325 U.S.) and a Paul Smith blue floral shirt (shot in black and white, $395 U.S.).

"I suspect I'd wear both, but I'd need to see the Paul Smith one in colour. Both should look good with a cream suit and muted tie (silver?)," he e-mailed.

Over at menswear stalwart Harry Rosen, they haven't gone long on florals for spring. They're banking on bright colours and stripes to be the edgy choice for their more conservative customers.

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"We're showing a tremendous emphasis on vibrant colour this season," Larry Rosen says. "I don't think you're gonna be seeing Bay Street in florals too much."

One way men are sneaking floral into their wardrobes is via linings on coats and cuffs. Paul Smith is known for this kind of flourish.

"I was at a party the other day and a gentleman was wearing a Paul Smith jacket inside out," Gayle says. "That's what I love to see. It's refreshing."

Durrant suggests that the easiest way to wear a floral shirt right now is with jeans. But he warns that men better get used to blossoms and buds sprouting in the mainstream.

"It's on its way. Either you embrace it, or it's gonna run you over."

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