Men's Fashion

Hitting a verve

Spring kicks into action with powerful designs that radiate energy and optimism. Damian Foxe picks up the vibe.

March 23 2010
Damian Foxe

If one word could describe the men’s collections for spring/ summer 2010, it would be “energetic”. Designers in all the major capitals have focused on sportswear, from the novel influence of bicycle couriers at Louis Vuitton to Americana-inspired baseball players at Bottega Veneta. Techno fabrics have experienced a rebirth, with nylon firmly leading the field, while decorative zippers, snap fastenings and even harness-inspired straps make appearances at collections as diverse as Burberry Prorsum and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Menswear this season is youthful rather than young-looking. It is fresh, vigorous and forward-looking. There is also a sense of optimism that has been missing for the past few seasons. This can be seen in a marked move away from the money-making, workaday wardrobe staples that the majority of fashion designers have been banking in recent years. In their stead is a bold new sense of experimentation and an unequivocal feeling of energy and fun.

For a literal interpretation of this redirection, look no further than Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection. If last season’s sea of menacing grey pinstripe suits represented the dark skies of economic uncertainty, then his models this season, decked out in vibrant red, white and blue sailor stripes, have clearly upped anchor and set sail for bluer horizons. Gaultier’s contemporary mariner looks almost dandyish in his jaunty interpretation of classic sailor stripes (from €670). Giorgio Armani, by contrast, is conventional in his semi-formal, Rhode Island-inspired nautical-but-firmly-anchored-in-port look (from £195).

Meanwhile, at his second collection for the brand Moncler, New York designer Thom Browne interpreted the sporting theme in a more technical way. Staged at Milan’s Olympic-sized Cozzi swimming pool, built in 1934, the collection was inspired by summer sports in all their technicolour glory. What Browne does brilliantly is to juxtapose conventional fabrics with high-tech alternatives, including nylon, rubber and neoprene, to create clothing that would look equally at home in a trendy New York bar as it would competing in the America’s Cup.

Nylon first came to the fore in “high” fashion back in the early 1990s when an emerging brand called Prada elevated it to the status of luxury fashion fabric. Not since then has it been so ubiquitous. It appears in almost every major collection this season, in everything from practical outwear to tailored suits. At Lanvin, designer Lucas Ossendrijver uses nylon as a tailoring alternative to create laid-back, semi-formal suits (from £1,500) that are perfect for unpredictable spring weather.

At Gucci, nylon bomber jackets (£730) and leather car coats (£4,510) boast enough zips and stud fastenings to render them suitably rock’n’roll for the brand’s fashion-forward customer base. At Calvin Klein, tailored nylon shorts (£253) and smart shirts (£90) are teamed with a nylon parka, while at Giorgio Armani a nylon gilet (£350) worn under a classic suit (from £1,700) offers an easy entry into this emerging trend, being both practical and subtle.

Neoprene has also been appropriated from its everyday use as an endurance fabric and crafted into surprisingly wearable clothes. At Calvin Klein Collection, designer Italo Zucchelli uses the structure of neoprene performance sportswear to inform his pieces, which employ panelling, bonding and contouring to reflect human anatomy. At Louis Vuitton it is used to make clever cropped hooded attachments (£665) that fit on to a conventional tailored suit jacket (£1,050), which, if not quite rendering said jacket fully practical, at least lends it a modern sporty twist.

Baseball is also given an outing, this time at Bottega Veneta, in the guise of luxurious suede baseball jackets (£2,720) worn with American-style linen chinos (£500). The chinos are elasticated at the ankle, updating a very classic garment as well as reinforcing the sporty vibe.

The message at Louis Vuitton seems to be that the days of turning up to a business meeting in a power suit and chauffeur-driven limousine are over. The modern Vuitton businessman is dashing about on his Brompton bicycle, eschewing the conspicuous markings of success in favour of a reduced carbon footprint. Whether it’s a slouchy waterproof parka (price on request), a zip-front nylon bomber jacket (£1,050) or a more complex tailored jacket with high-tech, sports-inspired reflective panels worked into the garment’s structure (£995), what all of the garments have in common is a sense of function and being fit for purpose, clothes that perform on an everyday basis come rain or shine.

And it is this sense of functionality that underpins the entire spring/summer season. Even the most luxurious fabrics are given the techno treatment. Gucci’s creative director Frida Giannini has taken the construction of scuba-diving apparel as a starting point for her luxurious second-skin leather jackets (from £2,760). At Prada, knits are woven into Aertex-style fabrications and used for polo shirts (£555), some of which are sleeveless (£470), but even more unexpectedly are woven into tailoring fabrics used for formal suits (suit trousers from £330) and overcoats (£850). At Dries Van Noten silk organza is crafted into light-as-a-feather parkas (£593) and at Yves Saint Laurent military fatigues seem to be the inspiration for slouchy zipped jackets (£2,715) and overalls (£1,285) made from beautiful fluid silk that are redolent of parachuting regalia.

By contrast, Burberry Prorsum is far more literal in its treatment of functional clothing, offering coats in bright red and yellow performance fabrics (£695) that could have come straight from an extreme outdoor sports store. Its waxed cotton jackets (£1,095) are fresh, modern and incredibly useful for everyday wear. As counterplay, designer Christopher Bailey also uses more unexpected sports detailing, including harness straps on T-shirts that suggest climbing gear or combat fatigues.

Adding even more energy to the season’s already enthusiastic outlook is the colour palette. The combination of orange, yellow and blue suggests that the sun is rising again on the fashion industry after the greyness of last season’s sombre workaday suits. Paul Smith decks his models out head-to-toe in tones of red, purple, turquoise and sky blue. Rain capes (£405), nylon trench coats (£635) and waxed rain jackets (£379) are all rendered in this rainbow of exuberant shades. The two colours that define the season, however, are electric blue and bright orange, which appear at many collections including Z Zegna, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bottega Veneta.

Sharing the spotlight with bright colours is the season’s neo-ethnic trend. Without any sporting influence, this look nonetheless has a similarly strong sense of being outward-bound. Designers have trekked the globe in search of inspiration, which comes across in batik patterns at Bottega Veneta, Madras fabrics at Dries Van Noten, signature paisley and ethnic-inspired prints at Etro, intricate hand stitching at Lanvin and complex ethnic-inspired damasks and Jacquards at Gucci. There is also a strong sense of ethnicity in the cut of many garments, with djellaba-style elongated shirts at Versace, Giorgio Armani and Kris Van Assche. The options are either to look as if you already live in your country of destination and have appropriated its traditional clothing, or else to appear as if you have trekked the whole way there, over mountain and through valley, on foot.

Taking advantage of the notion that men like that which is already familiar to them, designers have created collections of clothes that look as if they have been worn many times, all crumpled and pre-distressed. The fashion industry has dubbed this trend “rough luxe” and it is as prominent among the new womenswear collections as it is in menswear. (It is also an important influencing factor in the newest wave of interior design.)

This is essentially a manifestation of the design world’s continued eschewal of conspicuous consumption and an attempt to weave intrinsic value into the very fabric of a garment. Patchwork garments give both a sense of reusage and a sense of being loved and having time spent on creating them. The best are at Kenzo, where a super-soft cropped trench jacket (£1,400) has been pieced together from patches of suede in varying shades of cream and antique white, and at Missoni, where patchwork knitted sweaters (£410-£1,370) feel both precious and already broken in. At Alexander McQueen super-complex patchwork shirts (£475) and tailored jackets (£1,395) echo the traditions of quilt-making; while at Comme des Garçons, tailored jackets (€887) have panels of traditional cable knit as well as silk work ties appliquéd to them, as if the whole sense of what is precious in a piece of clothing has been turned upside down and inside out.

As part of this trend, designers also experimented with traditional and naïve decorative techniques such as tie-dye, splash printing and colour grading to give a unique, precious feel. At Louis Vuitton, tailored jackets look crumpled and pre-worn in dip-dyed shades of blue, pink and grey (from £1,050). The Alexander McQueen collection focused on all things art-based, using splash prints and hand-painted trompe l’oeil on suits, shirts and jeans (from £2,765, £275 and £375 respectively). Dip dye also appears at Kenzo in the form of three-piece suits (jacket, £1,215, trousers, £400, waistcoat, £525) and at Bottega Veneta in the guise of luxurious tricolour knitted linen sweaters (£475) and scarves (£255).

Each year a handful of brave young designers try to anticipate fashion’s next move and offer clothes with a vision for the future. But this season the heavyweights have taken up this modernist mantle, most importantly Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent and Kris Van Assche at Dior Homme. Both were left distinct sartorial legacies by their predecessors, Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane. But now both new designers have emerged from those shadows with collections that forge a challengingly modern aesthetic in men’s fashion, based on layering, drapery and playing with conventional proportions. There is a sense of physical ease to this way of dressing. However, the addition of a cap-sleeved or draped-front tailored jacket – which both collections offer – to the average working man’s wardrobe is perhaps unrealistic. But each collection also had lots of wearable pieces with a strong enough sense of modernity to show that you’re not afraid to have left the past behind – where, in fashion terms at least, it belongs.