September 19 2009
The terms “common sense” and “fashion industry” often seem at odds with each other. But this season designers have taken a long, hard look at the world around them and decided it’s time to concentrate on simple, practical, wearable clothes. Apart from a Barack Obama lookalike at Lanvin, gimmickry has been banished from the catwalks.
The most potent message being sent out by every one of the major fashion labels? When economic times are chilly, then investing in practical, timeless pieces is the way to go. Collections duly focused on the staples of men’s clothing. The overcoat was omnipresent, as were the simple, single-breasted suit, the basic blouson, the traditional T-shirt and the conventional cardigan. The devil was in the detail and the fabrication. Cuts were updated, proportions given a modern spin, volumes tweaked with almost scientific precision, whilst luxurious textiles made sure that everything felt fresh, new and well worth investing in.
Paramount among these canny investment pieces is the overcoat, which is the hero of the entire season and set the businesslike tone that prevailed throughout. There are a plethora of coat possibilities on offer. But how do you invest in the right one? An overcoat can be a particularly tricky purchase because of the pressure we put on it to work with every other thing in our wardrobes, but this season saw designers concentrating on simple, classic, match-all styles, including Lucas Ossendrijver’s super-classic navy blue option (£1,228) touted by the Obama doppelgänger at Lanvin. This classic, streamlined, single-breasted Chesterfield coat fits quite snugly over a suit, and looks lean, modern and youthful. At Prada and Bottega Veneta, designers Miuccia Prada and Tomas Maier respectively opted for the classic double-breasted city overcoat (£1,605 and £2,380), which fits comfortably over a work suit and whose generous volume and sophisticated drapery give immediate physical status. In classic grey you can’t go wrong.
Meanwhile, at Burberry Prorsum, creative director Christopher Bailey – a recent recipient of an MBE for his contribution to British fashion – ran the full gamut of coats (from £795), from three-quarter-length, double-breasted top coats in tweed and wool, to shortened trench coats (from £1,195) and a modernised version of the military great coat. What ultimately holds all of these new-season pieces together is their sheer, everyday accessibility.
The theme of business and the city is reflected in almost everything on the catwalks. Take the suit. At many shows, the models looked like real-life bankers strutting down the runways in battle-ready power suits. There are certain labels that you expect to deliver this City-appropriate look – Dunhill and Ermenegildo Zegna, for example – but when the fashion-forward conceptualists Dries Van Noten, Prada and Raf Simons (wool double-breasted suit, €1,547) get in on the act you can be certain that a significant shift has taken place.
In some cases the presentation of this City-bound attire is less literal: sharp suits layered with multicoloured Lycra cycling shirts at Paul Smith (£1,445, jersey £95), teamed with neon knitwear at Hermès, worn bare-chested with jumbo scarves at Louis Vuitton and modelled with jaunty bowler hats and bow ties at Moschino. These are simply styling tricks that served to lighten up the look – but the message that still comes across loud and clear is, whether you’re selling or buying, you can’t go too far wrong with a beautifully tailored suit.
If that suit isn’t crafted in super 180 wool (a very fine, smooth yarn), then the alternative is traditional tweed, rugged enough to stride across a moor in but with enough urban sophistication to see it through a Saturday night on the tiles. If tweed in town seems an unlikely proposition, then take a look at Gucci’s offerings. Its slim-cut black-and-white flecked tweed suit (jacket £900, trousers £370) worn with an optic print shirt, striped tie and multicoloured loafers has a new-wave urbanity which cuts like a freshly sharpened tailor’s scissors through the traditional associations of this erstwhile heritage cloth.
This look is echoed at Burberry Prorsum where lean-cut sports jackets, slim-fitting flat front trousers and single- and double-breasted city coats are cut from black-and-white flecked tweed (from £1,495), in keeping with the collection’s monochromatic colour palette and advocating that most classic combination of black and white. On the other hand, the creative director of Jil Sander, Raf Simons’ take on tweed (suit from €2,070) is so modern as to be almost futuristic. Flecked and herringbone tweeds are hewn with the finesse of a sculptor to create silhouettes that exaggerate the masculine form and are as good as anything Savile Row offers in the way of sartorial armour for the modern man.
This sense of supermodernity offered the sole counterpoint to what was otherwise a very conventional season. Its main protagonist was Raf Simons, who played with the classic proportions of menswear to create something modern, accessible and fresh. And at Yves Saint Laurent, designer Stefano Pilati also played with proportions, cropping his deeply pleated trousers (from £410) and shortening the sleeves of his tailored jackets (from £900). Over at Dunhill, Kim Jones, who recently took up the design reins here, has made an immediate impact. Double-breasted jackets with covered plackets (from £950), and shirts with embedded collars (to order, from £150) were just some of the strongest pieces in this forward-looking show.
But for the main part the collections concentrate on the here and now. While designs are kept simple and straightforward, intrinsic value is added with super-soft and sensual fabrics, such as double-faced cashmere, washed silk, butter-soft suede and finely worsted wool. There is an air of effortless elegance and a relaxed fluidity applies to the drape of conventionally structured garments. At Ermenegildo Zegna this translates into soft cashmere suiting in tone-on-tone shades of camel (from £1,600), burgundy and charcoal grey. Pinstripes provided a hard-edged counterpoint to this otherwise fluid treatment of the classic suit.
The tone-on-tone palette is also central at Lanvin. Laser-cut jersey suiting (from £1,604), fluid silk shirts with contrast ribbed collars (from £319) and pegged trousers with relaxed volume (from £299) were all layered in complementary shades of cement grey, sandstone, midnight and berry. The fabulous feel of the cloth and the understatement of the cut give away the true value of these garments.
Fluidity of style is also Giorgio Armani’s signature. No one does it with quite the same conviction. His soft suede car coat with high-waisted, drop-crotch, pleat-front charcoal trousers (from £850 and £400 respectively), and plum velvet sports jacket (from £950) and waistcoat (from £350) teamed with fluid, soft-grey trousers (from £375) balance sensuality with masculinity. This sense of ease and effortlessness epitomises where luxury in menswear is right now.
One, perhaps surprising, side effect of the economic downturn has been the growth at the very top end of consumer spending. It’s the value-for-money “investment piece” phenomenon for the truly wealthy: high-ticket items, although they necessitate a larger initial outlay, offer quality and longevity. This might explain why many designers have focused on expensive – some of them fantastically expensive – skins with a timeless quality. Leather, of course, is a perennial in menswear, but crocodile, python, ostrich and eel skin are growing in popularity, as is fur. For example, Louis Vuitton’s military-inspired burnished bronze crocodile jacket with epaulettes and brass buttons clocks in at a whopping £53,000. At Gucci, Frida Giannini continues to appeal to the rock star in most men with hip jackets in crocodile, pony-skin and astrakhan in purple, burgundy, silver and black (£2,980-£31,960). Dolce & Gabbana’s crocodile bombers and trench coats also have ultra-luxe appeal (from €48,599), as does Trussardi’s croc jacket (£30,000). And while Moschino’s shaved brown mink parka (from £2,500), and black and silver astrakhan top coats at Salvatore Ferragamo and Gianfranco Ferré (from £13,999 and £13,300) may be de trop for many, they are certainly opulent.
Exotic-skinned accessories are more modest in appearance, though not necessarily in price. With no visible hardware, Bottega Veneta’s black snakeskin briefcase (£6,150) is pared back and ultra-modern, as is Dunhill’s crocodile-skin sports bag (£17,500). At Zegna an old-school front-buckling briefcase in tan crocodile (£14,000) looks like a family heirloom, while its eel-skin sports bag (£2,139) feels totally modern. It may seem an unlikely material from which to craft luxury accessories, but it’s soft and hard-wearing. Apparently, you can even bite it without marking it. At that price, though, you’d be better off snacking on fish and chips.