March 26 2011
If you invest in one single outfit to update your wardrobe this season, then make sure it is a white or cream single- or double-breasted suit. The sheer proliferation of this particular sartorial offering confirms that any fears about its impracticality have been cast aside. Rarely over the past few years has one singular look appeared in so many diverse catwalk collections, indicating a collective shift of fashion consciousness.
But where has it come from and why right now? The white three-piece suit is a grown-up aesthetic, and it reflects a parallel industry-wide move towards featuring older male models in catwalk shows and advertising campaigns. This trend hit the headlines recently when a 50-year-old carpet fitter from east London was spotted sunbathing and was signed by one of the largest model agencies in the world. (He is still a stripling compared to David Gant, in our menswear shoot, who didn’t start modelling until he was 57 years old.)
Meanwhile, younger male models are cultivating beards in order to be taken more seriously in the increasingly manly world of male modelling. Coming to an end, it would seem, is the popularity of the smooth-skinned teenager, and into his place has stepped a real man, with hair on his chest and face. But what, you might ask, does this have to do with the resurgence of the three-piece white suit?
Fashion’s obsession with youth is not a new phenomenon. Recall Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice. In Visconti’s 1971 film adaptation, Dirk Bogarde in the leading role struggles about the sweltering streets of Venice dressed in exactly such a white suit. The object of his interest is a young boy of extraordinary youth and beauty with whom he becomes obsessed, ultimately leading to his demise. There is an unmistakable parallel to the fashion world, wherein customers of an age and income appropriate to its luxurious wares are fed images of young, thin and arguably impecunious teenagers, in order to seduce them into spending great quantities of cash on designer goods.
However, it seems that designers have finally cottoned on to who their real customer is. The older gentleman dressed in white has been cast as the hero, rather than the victim who keeps falling for the “youth is beauty” myth. Mature models have taken to the catwalk in droves, sending out a clear message that the time has come for grown-up clothes worn by grown-up men.
Impracticality aside, a white suit is, in fact, a rather lovely, sophisticated look. It harks back to the glamour of the early 1900s when men dressed for the heat in clothes that were both functional and good looking. Today’s ubiquitous khaki shorts and cotton T-shirts may boast a similar functionality, but they have no sense of style. Dressing head-to-toe in white also calls for a certain amount of commitment, not least of which involves keeping your garb clean.
The most extreme interpretation of this look was at John Galliano, who for the shows decked his dandyish men in veiled straw boaters, powdered their faces and rouged their lips. At Dolce & Gabbana the look got a more rugged treatment in pre-crumpled linen in more practical shades of beige (suits, €1,958). Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta and Ermenegildo Zegna, by contrast, all opted for a more high-maintenance shade of crisp white. At Salvatore Ferragamo, the use of subtle stripes added a note of urbanity.
But it wasn’t just the white suit that dominated the catwalks. Tailoring came in multifarious guises, some familiar and some totally new. Suits have been pushed and pulled beyond their conventional boundaries, yet they remain surprisingly wearable in their new incarnations. By focusing on traditional tailoring – suits are the staple of every man’s wardrobe – designers have found a way to be adventurous without alienating their customers.
If the subtle stripes at Salvatore Ferragamo were amuse-bouches, then the variations served up at Calvin Klein, Versace, Thom Browne, Junya Watanabe and Z Zegna represented the full tasting menu and showed the extent to which designers can explore a single theme. Stripes and checks, both mainstays of Savile Row, were dramatically updated by designers who steered well clear of conventional pinstripes and Prince of Wales checks, focusing instead on bold, bright, graphic reworkings.
The tailoring at Junya Watanabe was collegiate in influence with bold, horizontal stripes in colourfully contrasting shades of red, blue and white or yellow, grey and black (striped jacket, €1,090). Calvin Klein’s offering was halfway between a check and a stripe, with graphic patterns that looked like a dramatically enlarged section of a windowpane check (jacket, £540, trousers, £400). Vivienne Westwood clashed checks and stripes within the same outfit (suit, £953), while Kenzo experimented with strategically placed blocks of stripes on an otherwise plain jacket (£995). At Z Zegna, lengths of different fabrics were panelled together for a sophisticated patchwork take on the striped theme (price on request). What married all these looks was their sense of fresh, youthful and sporty exuberance.
While these trends reference the past, others seem to come out of nowhere and are completely new. One such is the printed, patterned and heavily textured suit, an emerging look showcased in our fashion shoot. Proponents of this include Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Paul Smith and Gianfranco Ferré. Suiting fabrics have either been woven to create complex patterned finishes and unusual organic textures, or they have had abstract patterns printed on top of the finished weave.
Kris Van Assche has been championing draped and layered tailoring at Dior Homme for several seasons now (draped jackets from £2,000, tailored trousers £660). When it first appeared it was so new as to be totally alienating. However, its influence seems to be taking hold. Other advocates of this unstructured approach include Damir Doma (jacket, about £900, trousers, about £400) and Haider Ackermann (suit, €966), who, like Van Assche, are attempting to reinvent the accepted proportions of conventional tailoring. By loosening and lengthening the normally strict lines of suiting, using draping and wrapping techniques and experimenting with asymmetrical structure, they have created a sense of effortlessness that is extremely comfortable to wear.
Still not convinced? Well, you can always gauge men’s fashion by what Paul Smith shows on the catwalk – and the unstructured harem pants (£179) teamed with oversized silk shirts (£375) and unlined, structure-less jackets (£679) in his latest collection may signal that this approach to tailoring is creeping into the heartland of acceptable menswear. Even glamour merchants Dolce & Gabbana, famed for their sharp, slick suiting, have softened their look with dropped shoulders on black linen jackets (€1,004), and the lightest tailoring fabrics.
As an antidote to these future-focused offerings, designers have also explored the more conventional concept of modern-day sportswear. This type of semiformal dress is very popular in the US, often as work attire, and is gaining momentum in the UK. It involves the teaming of a tailored sports jacket with complementary yet mismatching slacks – however, one shouldn’t underestimate the careful consideration required to make this look work.
The approach was slouchy and effortless at Salvatore Ferragamo (jacket £1,349, trousers £1,285) and Louis Vuitton (trousers from £670, linen shirts £435), with the focus on natural textures and lightweight, breathable summer fabrics. Cerruti and Gucci took a far slicker approach, with alternatives for day as well as for evening. Dunhill offered up some of the chicest, most work-appropriate alternatives (from £795), mixing pattern and plain and juxtaposing subtly different colours – never easy to do. And, as you would expect from Giorgio Armani, who bases a substantial part of his business on such easy tailored pieces, all of these alternatives were present, plentiful and beautifully interpreted. Armani has never gone in for teenagers on his catwalk – so when it comes to dressing grown-ups, nobody does it better.