Men's Fashion

A singular man

Singular statement pieces are this autumn’s hot menswear news. Damian Foxe selects dependable, desirable standouts with longevity.

October 14 2010
Damian Foxe

Some seasons in fashion are defined by seismic shifts, the kind of significant changes in mood that alter the course of how men are expected to dress. An optimistic and energetic sports-inspired outlook defined the summer just gone, which was itself a reaction to the recession-driven power dressing so in fashion a single season before. And then some seasons, like the one upon us now, are dominated by singular standout items, the kind of fashion must-haves that see stores resorting to waiting lists in order to satisfy the huge demand.

In periods like these the trends stand still for a few seasons, and designers fight it out to see who can come up with the very best version of what’s already about. Such a season should be approached with particular caution: one doesn’t want to ape the cover of a style magazine. The trick is to figure out what’s defining the mood right now and then to invest in a version that makes a nod in the right direction, but not so conspicuously that it will go almost instantly out of date.

Take the trend for pre-distressed clothing. Only those who can construct something perfectly should even consider experimenting with the concept of deconstructing it, especially when it comes to the backbone of a man’s wardrobe – the formal tailored suit. This is what made the suits that populated the runway at Z Zegna one of the season’s standouts. Suddenly, here was the perfect sartorial entry point for any man who has toyed with an intellectual approach to fashion, but who always feared looking like his suit was simply falling apart. Z Zegna’s signature luxury fabrics and immaculate finishing – and yes, it appears that it is indeed possible to have immaculately frayed seams – turned what is a potential fashion non-starter into a workable alternative for even the most formal of dressers (from £775).

Likewise, the recent penchant for cropped men’s clothing should be approached with care. Since Thom Browne introduced the shrunken suit several seasons ago, designers have become increasingly intent on cutting lengths shorter. This season it’s the shearling coat that gets the miniaturising treatment. And unlike the dramatically shrunken suit, this actually looks good on. Picture the coat that Brad Pitt wore when playing an Irish traveller in Snatch, lop two feet off the bottom of it, and you’ve got a perfectly on-trend shearling coat.

Arguably, a coat with its nether regions removed becomes a jacket, but the protective warmth of those shown by Christopher Bailey at the Burberry Prorsum catwalk show might well make you reconsider whether you qualify this particular garment simply by its length. There were three fabrications to choose from, in either canvas (£2,295) or leather (£2,495), both lined with shearling, and a final option that was shearling throughout (£2,995). The cropped silhouette, oversized collar and military-style leather detailing at the cuffs and waistband remained consistent throughout. For those adamant that a coat must cover their behind, there was a variation in mercury grey that finished mid-thigh. Go any lower, however, and you will miss this season’s mark.

The perfect accompaniment to a shearling coat is a pair of premium jeans. Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier once again elevated them to luxury status, teaming his crumpled dark selvage denim (£390) with chunky knitwear (£535), pea coats (£1,315) and rockabilly-inspired tailored jackets (£1,680).

All that’s needed to finish off the look is the perfect sweater. The most ubiquitous knit on the catwalk was the simple polo-neck in cashmere or fine-gauge wool in shades of charcoal, navy and stone. It is an incredibly versatile garment. You can wear one with a belted trench coat such as those at Jil Sander (from £1,380), or with the aforementioned pre-distressed suit from Z Zegna and shearling jacket from Burberry. My personal favourite is by designer Véronique Nichanian in the Hermès collection, where a turtleneck with a trompe l’oeil V-neck (£475) creates the effect of layering without the bulk – and is the epitome of masculine Parisian chic.

The second knit to secure is chunky and alpine in style. The best appeared at Gucci as both a button-front oversized cardigan (from £910) and a shawl-collar, chunky-knit sweater (from £260). Both feature traditional graphic chevron patterns and look rugged as well as warm. If pattern is not your thing, then Prada also offered chunky sweaters (from £260) and belted cardigans (from £585) in multicoloured melange wool and a traditional hand-knit style. Folkloric and homespun was the general mood of many collections this season, and these two particular options provide a way to get the look right.

Also continuing strongly on from last season is the functional sporting influence. Nylon, which was popularised as a fashion fabric by Prada back in the late 1990s, is the cornerstone of this trend. And there is a particular emphasis on quilting and padding, with the traditional puffer jacket gaining much favour among designers, who presented it as a luxurious urban outerwear alternative rather than merely a functional cover-up.

Paul Helbers, the menswear designer at Louis Vuitton who works under Marc Jacobs, offered the very best in functional utility clothing with an equally luxurious appeal. The basic windcheater (£1,600) was crafted in luxurious semi-sheen nylon and shown in shades of midnight blue and deepest brown. There was also a very light, knee-length nylon raincoat (£1,560), which is perfect for throwing in the bottom of a workbag and wearing over a suit when it’s raining. The traditional puffer gilet (from £1,560), this one with a protective funnel neck, was cut to fit snugly over a tailored suit, and came in both waist and mid-thigh lengths. My favourite of all the functional offerings, however, was Louis Vuitton’s leather version of the Pac a Mac (£3,800), which to my mind is the ultimate in luxury meets workaday clothes.

Footwear was similarly influenced by a sense of functionality and sporting appeal. There were riding boots at Louis Vuitton (£1,140), fur-lined biker boots at Giorgio Armani (from £395) and boxing boots at Jean Paul Gaultier (price on request). But the chunky lace-up or zip-front boot was the style that dominated, with either military-inspired or distinctly hiker looks. The most authentic were at Dunhill. Although the chocolate or navy options (£370) are the most versatile, the racing green alligator version (£5,000) is bound to be in high demand. They are as functional as they are high fashion, which is a rare mix.

Also unusual is a plaid or striped suit that does not make you look like you should be hunting in the Highlands or strolling around town in a bowler hat. Designers have solved this conundrum with what they refer to as “shadow plaid” and tone-on-tone stripes with which these traditional yet somehow ostentatious patterns have been subdued considerably by rendering them in fabrics in which the pattern and its background are variations of the same colour. Raf Simons’ success is based on his subtle, yet incredibly modern, aesthetic, and both his checked and striped suits (£1,650) are among the best and most understated around. He is emerging as one of the best young tailors showing at the catwalk shows, both with his eponymous label and his collection for Jil Sander, where he is creative director. Hermès (£2,750) and Paul Smith (jacket, £465; trousers, £225) also offer great alternatives – less minimal in execution yet equally wearable day to day.

Proportion is even more important than pattern in pure fashion terms and is something that many leading menswear designers, including Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent and Kris Van Assche at Dior Homme, continue to experiment with. The classic grey flannel suit is a fashion stalwart, and never more so than in the season ahead. But both of these more experimental designers have done completely new takes on this menswear perennial. Pilati’s version features a three-quarter-sleeve cutaway jacket (£1,840) worn over tailored grey flannel overalls (£920), while Van Assche cropped his trousers (from £350) several inches above the ankle and elongated the lapel of his suit jacket (£1,600) to create a draped-scarf effect.

But these are the more extreme examples of what comprised these two influential collections. At both of the labels’ catwalk shows it was the subtle addition of a petal collar on a double-breasted jacket (£1,840), the lowering of a trouser crotch or the miniaturisation of a jacket lapel that spoke equally loudly of these newly emerging silhouettes for men.

A good starting point for those keen to try out a new look is to experiment with a new trouser shape. At Lanvin, Lucas Ossendrijver pleated the front of his trousers (£457), raised the waistband and widened the leg. Pilati dropped the crotch of his trousers (£550) and Prada reintroduced the 1970s silhouette – a welcome relief from the skinny trouser that has hijacked fashion in recent years. The subtly flared shape of these (£360) lengthens the leg and slims the hips, making them one of the season’s must-have pieces.

No winter wardrobe is complete without a new overcoat. It is often impossible to choose from the myriad alternatives being offered. This season, however, designers have focused their attention on one particular fabrication, if not necessarily one particular style. Tweed is the fabric in question; it appeared in almost every catwalk show worth mentioning, but also in every conceivable variation and shape. There was herringbone at Yves Saint Laurent (£1,195), flecked at Louis Vuitton (price on request), tweed and leather combined at Dsquared2 (£705), tweed with knit inserts at Pringle of Scotland (£795) and patchwork tweed at Kenzo (£1,440).

My favourite, which is sitting at the top of my current wish list is… Actually, I’m not telling until I’ve got one firmly in the bag.