Menswear at Fashion Week: A bundle of contradictions

February 14, 2012

At the Fashion Week menswear shows, every day is opposite day. The assembled parts of each outfit are arranged in some elaborate conflict. Oxymoron rules. Antonyms are needed.

“Classic but modern” is the usual pairing, a phrase heard from such epic interpreters of American progress as Ralph Lauren or Tom Wolfe or the architect Robert A.M. Stern.

“Polished but not spic ’n’ span” was the phrase GQ attached to its review of Loden Dager’s colorful runway looks. It could be a joke straight out of “Bruno,” this hedging, contradictory language. Billy Reid’s Alabama-accented suits and sweaters were praised for being “soft” but also “rugged.” It’s not a men-only challenge: Richard Chai told the New York Times his women’s looks displayed “handsome femininity.”

The conflict is exciting — and tiring! Sexual vagueness is gimmicky, except when it works. Designers bend genders with care, and only the skilled will survive. California guru Scott Sternberg again showed his Band of Outsiders collection for women that is appropriately called Boy. And no one mistakes his models for anything but girls. Paul Marlow of Loden Dager required his three dozen models to sit still pregame for applications of guyliner. The young dudes hated it, he said, and then slowly they saw how hot they looked. They were into it.

For decades, designers have employed this ambiguity to stave off ambivalence, the most lethal reaction to Fashion Week’s many stimuli. And ultimately, it’s tough to do well, balancing formal and casual, darkness and light. To convince the skittish male customer, they have to both honor and trample tradition with every creation. The hope: Maybe someone will discover discordant elements that change everyone’s concept of harmony, like when peanut butter first met chocolate.

Antithetical styles

Sporty but formal. Michael Bastian is the former Bergdorf Goodman exec who witnessed all these male customers buying baggy clothes that rarely reflected their personality, athleticism or success. On Monday, his clothes let men show off all the above, employing plastic gardenia boutonnieres, pinstriped hip-huggers and even shawl-collared, double-breasted white vests. His swift, sleek crew marched out of some backlighted trees and onto a chandelier-lighted runway, reviving studly touches from 30 years ago: A little Ryan O’Neal in the black-watch plaid nylon blazer with corduroy trim, and a little Jean-Claude Killy in the striped sweaters and puffer vests with each tier a different color.

Taken apart but put together. Bumsuk Choi looked to that same era, specifically the 1968 Grenoble locker rooms, to invent his rah-rah outfits. Headquartered in a later Olympic city, Seoul, Choi was more determined in making every deconstructed part pop: Down coats had not just different colors but different textures at each level. Pockets on a coat didn’t match the torso, which didn’t match the sleeves, all in dusky orange, navy, beige. He marshaled different fabrics to fight the elements: fleece, canvas, quilted nylon, reverse-weave sweatshirt material.

Indoor but outdoor. Scuttled by a downturn a decade ago, Billy Reid rebuilt a genteel brand out of the Alabama wilds, and he projected, in person and through his tweeds and cashmeres, an affable magnetism. He offered skeet-shoot weekender options in sweaters of camel and Carolina blue, and windowpane wool suits that work in the boardrooms of the New South. Put the top down on the Jeep, his quilted coats insisted, because we don’t get many days like this.

Patrician but streetwise. Rag & Bone invited Americans to its own country-house shooting party years before anyone learned to pronounce Downton Abbey. But seen through their shiny-collared peacoats and leather-lapel cardigans, maybe it really is “downtown.” David Neville and Marcus Wainwright, two young New York dads originally from the U.K., offer boots that can weather stables or gutters. In their show’s finale, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” blared, and a model stomped down the runway in a long coat that started off dark and ended up red down below, with a herringbone pattern emerging.

Gasp-worthy

Is any look allowed to be just one thing? The suits of another natty Brit, Simon Spurr, are fitted and traditional, except that the micro-pattern gets magnified into something macro: Huge houndstooth rows and thick vertical stripes dominate otherwise Savile Row-savvy suits. Patrik Ervell’s blue sweater had black leather shoulder patches, and black windbreakers had sparkly gold trims at the cuffs and collar.

Marlow’s Loden Dager show rolled out a blood-orange suit, and another in palm-tree green and — let the buyer be bold — with a little biker-gang hardware. Scott Sternberg’s Band of Outsiders dirtied up his prep staples with desert colors, Jeremiah Johnson shearling coats, and Native American prints. Robert Geller’s brand of amalgam favored pullovers with pale ombre color schemes, and some crotch-patched knickers. His models stomped down dirt clumps strewn on a concrete floor — earthy but industrial!

And what if a designer goes in his own direction, away from any gender or beauty or marketing convention? Then, he earns a gasp, like the one that greeted the shirtless kid in leather pants and statement necklace, with hair that was slicked flat in the front leading to Carolyn Bessette-like butter tresses down his back? That not-great reaction was for clothes made by Alexandre Plokhov, whose earlier excellence at Cloak prefigured a lot of chunky cable-knit sweaters often seen these days over tight jeans. What he’s saying is next, if he’s to be believed: long black-leather skirts; gray Cosby sweaters that land about mid-thigh. After their turn, his speedy, jittery models seemed to be running away from the cameras, from the moment they were embodying.

Then, on Sunday, at Timo Weiland, a radical pairing walked by: a model in a heather-gray button-down. Nothing attached to it. Gray all the way. And below it, green jeans that stayed green, hip to heel. Then another: a spare burgundy work shirt over camel twill pants. That’s it.

Backstage, Alan Eckstein, one half of the design duo, kissed his grandma, whose upholstery and drapery samples he used to sew into cut-up sweatshirts. He was wearing a color-blocked shirt himself, but, really, what gives?

“Minimalism inspires a very human reaction,” said the young F.I.T. grad from Great Neck, N.Y. “This is the first year that simplicity was our deal.”

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