Male models move in style but without grace

February 14, 2011

NEW YORK - One of Fashion Week's awkward truths: Male models can't walk.

They look a lot better off the runway. Take this group: In a waiting area near the show space, a half-dozen beautiful young men lounge on sofas, relaxed and floppy and slightly overlapping one another, like puppies. Nothing runs on time during Fashion Week, and Saturday's Loden Dager show in a hotel basement on West 58th Street is no exception.

So while the guys wait for the signal to get into their "looks" - say, a mink-and-leather biker jacket or adjustable-leg jeans - they're chilling out with earphones and cellphones, and trying not to think about their walk.

Because that will absolutely make it worse. "If you overthink it, then you'll screw it up," says Robert Jackson King III, known as RJ. (In the traveling gypsy band of press, buyers, stylists and publicists who careen from show to show, the models are known by first names only. It's like high school.)

RJ is 18, with a devastating smile and broad cheekbones, newly arrived from St. Louis. He has been modeling for only a month. He's a little concerned about the show that's about to start, not because of the hand-knit cardigan and trousers he'll be wearing, but because he has to carry a book bag down the runway, too.

"I've never walked with a bag," he confesses.

"When I was first learning to walk, they told me to move the arm forward that's opposite to your leg. And I was like, 'That's obvious.' Then I was like, 'What?' And I was screwing it up, and they were like, 'No! Forget it!' 'Cause I am definitely the person to overthink things."

Grace isn't much in evidence here. It's not that the clothes aren't inspirational. The fall 2011 looks at the menswear shows around town are hedonistically rich in buttercream textiles: moleskins and melton wools, shearling flight jackets, tartan waistcoats and hand-knit sweaters as thick and lush as swan's-down. In most cases, the models look magnificent in them - overlooking the fantasy-heritage warrior-huntsman-thug look at Rag & Bone and the prim belts on just about everything at Robert Geller. The models look great - that is, until they start to move.

Once the guys head down the runway toward that bank of flashing cameras and flanked by hundreds of onlookers, all their personality and swagger, the confidence of being young, fit and exceptionally hot - poof. It's gone.

In its place: tight steps, wooden torsos. Oddly pitched-forward gaits. Stiffly held shoulders or too much shoulder, torquing the body with an exaggerated sway. And "the brood," that grim, ticked-off look in the eyes that is industry standard.

Granted, you send a dance critic to Fashion Week and you're not going to get a nuanced analysis of tailoring trends and pleating quality. I've been looking at performance. So, too, are the detail-driven designers: Their shows are like rock concerts, with aggressive lighting and pounding music. The models march at a swift pace to boost excitement. Inasmuch as fashion trades on feelings, fashion shows are all about high-pitched emotion, even sensory overload.

"Directional statement" is the buzzword. Even if the drawstring pants and toggle hoodies don't wind up in stores, they send out a signal about the designer's vision.

But the most important directional statement has been missed. It's a muddled direction on the runway. Lurching rather than strolling. It conveys discomfort, not ease. If the models don't move well, the clothes, like the men, lose their power.

Minus a great walk, the spectacle fails.

To be sure, designers have studied every last nuance of their looks and their shows, and many are aware of the motor issue with male models.

"The thing about men and movement is, the more natural the better," says Michael Bastian, whose collection for Gant features frisky mountainwear with a firm sense of purpose - brushed alpaca sweaters, snowboard pants, down motorcycle jackets.

"The minute a male model looks like he's doing a runway walk, it falls apart. It should look like they're just walking," Bastian continues. "The minute you see a guy doing one of those Naomi Campbell catwalk-action kind of things, it falls apart. A lot of hips and the scissor walk? No! Men always need to be men."

Soon to branch out with a Georgetown store, David Neville of Rag & Bone is also going for a masculine projection: "Even though these clothes are a little pushed" - he means the kilts, the streaks of electric blue and all the flapping leather - "we don't want anything too frail. We want more of a guy's guy."

Code for "not gay," perhaps? That's an issue in menswear, which doesn't want to alienate straight shoppers. But going butch has clearly gone too far. An effort to edit out swishiness has left the field with bizarrely stiff-legged soldier boys. The long-legged ones are generally the worst afflicted. We are talking about 18-to-22-year-olds mostly, and absent a sense of body awareness or skilled training, getting grace out of all that length and youthfulness is . . . harder than it should be.

This is one reason a Russian model named Arthur Kulkov stands out. Jim Moore, GQ magazine's fashion director, spots him as having the best walk on the runway: "He walks with determination, like he owns the clothes already and he's just going out for a walk down the street. It's not martial, not regimented."

He's right. Kulkov held all eyes in the impressive Band of Outsiders show, in which the first few models descended onto the runway from ropes in the ceiling. (That's one way to improve their moves.) When it came to walking, Kulkov turned his oxford-cloth peasant shirt and chinos into pheromones in motion. He could have been wearing a bath towel and the effect would be the same - magnetic. Graceful, relaxed and on top of the world. A former soccer player, he has a broad-shouldered, muscular build, but the secret was in his legs, which are compact, even short. They sailed him forward with an athlete's confidence. Soccer's fluidity scored on the runway.

Style vs. emotion

"Girls' walks are a style," says the endearing RJ, chomping on a granola bar as he describes the way female models stomp on their heels and crisscross their feet when they walk. "But guys' walks are an emotion. You're intense, or relaxed, or angry." He walked in one show where he was told to clench his fists and look tough. For another, he was told to walk as if he were heading for a store that's three blocks away and is about to close - "You're in a hurry, but there's no tension in your face."

For Loden Dager, the models were more on the casual side, picking up the musical vibe: The show started with Vivaldi, then Metallica. The collection of puppies from the sofa walked fairly well, particularly an Asian man named Sen, in an oversize red sweater and backpack. RJ, bless his heart, was he even breathing? Sometimes you get the sense they've adopted the 50-meter-freestyle mode - a sprint to the end of the pool without coming up for air. Deep breaths, lads. Think Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." There was nothing he couldn't do in that suit.

One fast fix for busy designers who don't want to reinvent The Walk is to have each model stand in one place for an hour. In presentations, which happen more often in menswear, there's no assigned seating for visitors, no choreography, no worrying about pace or gait. It's surprisingly more human to see the models that way, a version of their relaxed puppy pile. All they have to do is look natural: stand up straight, reward eye contact without encouraging anything more.

Take the male harem around Rick Klotz, one of six finalists for GQ magazine's Best New Menswear Designer award. Bouncing around the lobby of the Ace Hotel in midtown, at a party for the finalists, Klotz is considering the models GQ hired to wear his surf-inspired, California-based Warriors of Radness line. One of them is wearing little besides a string of tattoos up his spine and a ski cap. Maybe shorts, too, but truly, all you notice is the tan, baby-oiled skin.

Klotz says he normally uses his friends as models, and he brought a few along, sunburned guys with grungy hair like lions' manes and bloodshot eyes. He'd do a runway show only if he could do it his way, he says. First, no models. Just his beach buddies and . . .

"I'd get a lot of drugs and alcohol, and the Surf Punks would be playing, and we'd cover the floor with sand, and we'd party," Klotz says. "And we'd bring a wave pool."

In his tamer, tailored looks for Gant, Bastian's presentation was all about fresh-faced outdoor-readiness. A German model named Dennis is his "face of the season," with wispy blond curls, blue eyes and a Zen-stoner look Bastian calls "the new young Viking."

"I had problems with walking," Dennis confesses from his phone booth-size niche at the back of the room. He's wearing a nylon "snorkel coat," a wool hat and chinos. "I was bouncing too much." He took private lessons from a woman in Holland, a specialist in walking, who filmed him, came to his shows and gave him pointers.

Few male models put that much time into fixing their walk. "For most of the boys, modeling is kind of beneath them," says Paul Marlow of Loden Dager. "They're just doing it on the side. The girls take it more seriously; there's more future in it."

Marlow is sympathetic to how unnerving the runway can be. "To their credit, I walked in a show once and it was terrifying - the bright lights and all the people, and you have to walk and you're the image." He and a stylist helped one model named Sebastian figure out how to maneuver out of the pose for the cameras and head back down the runway - by swinging one leg behind for a quick turn rather than shuffling around with stutter-steps. Sure enough, Sebastian now stands out with better-than-average smoothness.

Designer Billy Reid, who also has a store in the works in Georgetown, has fashioned the best solution. On the penthouse level of a converted warehouse in the meatpacking district, his presentation Saturday night brought movement into a manageable space - like a mini-runway in a chocolate box. The models moved around in a room-within-a-room, decorated like the parlor of a Southern mansion, complete with faux fireplace. Encircling their airy set, the models had to take only a few steps at a time, moving slowly around the perimeter, leaning on the furniture, a few steps and a stop, then a smooth stroll down the middle, as if they were approaching visitors whom the butler had just announced.

Men and women shared the show, and the look was improved-upon-vintage, romantic and strong: a calfskin trench over silk georgette, double-breasted camel-hair jackets and chalk-stripe wool trousers. William Faulkner meets Jay Gatsby.

Smart setting, smart clothes - and guess what, the guys could walk. No one looked stiff. Even in this exceptionally attractive collection of humanity, one man stood out: a 6-foot-2 model named Reid Prebenda, wearing a dark brown leather blazer and plaid flannel trousers. He resembles a blond Tom Cruise. Square jawbone and intense, narrowed eyes. Add a few years and you might actually trust him with your funds. He owned the clothes, or so that confident attitude told you. And he took your heart with him whenever he turned a corner.

"We want a little bit of gracefulness, an air of refinement," says Reid, surveying the tableau from the back of the room. "We started with refined and mixed in rugged. We wanted a very polished look. That's the mood I was into; I wanted things more subtle, a little more toned down."

Behind him was a glorious view of city lights over the Hudson. But Reid's quietly engrossing presentation had a glow of its own. The clothes fitted splendidly and the models oozed elan. It was theater, all right: There was plenty of livable grandeur in the clothes. And also, happily, in every step they took.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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