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Designers in Short Pants

Dick by Richard. Fashion label or porn flick?

A host of intrigued guests filled the Elizabeth Street firehouse to get the answer. The menswear collection, by Richard Ruiz, is a mix of punk images, traditional tailoring and ethnic flourishes such as African prints trimming a shirt collar. A red Ultrasuede wrap is embellished with safety pins and promotional buttons. A green and blue plaid wrap over a tailored blazer has pinstripes delineated with hundreds of tiny brass safety pins.

Ruiz's thoughtfully conceived Dick is a nonchalant blend of Everyman sportswear -- including coveralls and work shirts -- overlaid with rebellious references. As much as the name of the label is naughty double talk, the collection is also a mix of dueling sensibilities. Banal basics are paired with aggressive details. It is both formal and informal, simultaneously grown-up and childlike.

Thakoon Panichgul's collection celebrates a kind of prettiness that in years past might have been defined as weakness or fragility. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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In addressing the needs of young men, designers such as Thom Browne and Tomer Gendler envision a customer who may still have a modified Mohawk, body piercings and tattoos, but who also wants to wear three-piece suits, hand-tailored coats and lush cashmere sweaters. This customer finds tradition subversive.

Gendler notes that it is always difficult for an unknown designer to attract attention during the onslaught of events during fashion week. He knew that people would look at the invitation for his third collection and wonder "Who's this Tomer guy?" He hoped the unusual backdrop of the Polish consulate would help draw them in.

He also liked the location because the clothes were inspired by postwar Europe and he wanted to contrast the sober shades -- black, charcoal gray, navy -- against the gilded salons of the Madison Avenue mansion.

Gendler likes lean silhouettes. His trousers, jackets and shirts are enhanced with subtle details. There is contrasting piping on the back pocket of a pair of trousers. At the shoulder of a navy shirt, a velvet leaf is pressed between crisp cotton and sheer organza. Gendler champions a style of cropped trousers that button at the ankle. He is quick to acknowledge that the idea is extreme, but like any designer in the beginning stages of a career, he is idealistic -- in his case, idealistic enough to believe he can convince men that breeches are a reasonable notion.

These new menswear designers have somehow gotten it into their heads that men have been wearing their trousers too long. Browne wants to crop them at the ankle, too, but he is not advocating anything akin to a pair of plus fours. Browne is known among a small group of free-spending, dapper gentlemen for his custom-made suits, which are priced in the vicinity of $3,000. But for the last year, he has been producing a hand-made ready-to-wear collection that is inspired by the style of John F. Kennedy and Americana. "It's JCPenney-Sears catalogue inspired," Browne says.

The armholes of his jackets are positioned high on the torso. The waist is also high and he cuts his trousers off at the ankle. It is a silhouette for a fellow who knew way back in elementary school that "floods" really were cool.

His showroom, tucked into a nondescript building in the city's meatpacking neighborhood, is dominated by shades of gray, navy and the occasional dash of sky blue. "I always use a muted palette," he says. "There are a hundred shades of gray. I could do a whole collection in gray." The sober hues hide impish details and teasing winks. A navy coat with brass buttons is trimmed inside with red-white-and-blue-striped ribbon. A traditional suit is cut from fabric typically used for a mackintosh -- and so the suit is water-resistant. A cashmere coat is lined with the same type of nylon used to make football jerseys.

Browne's collection is eccentric. Most men probably will never feel comfortable in short pants or a squared-off jacket that sits just at the hips. But there is another fellow -- and perhaps enough like him to make the collection a success -- who will look at the schoolboy sweaters in eight-ply cashmere, the flannel gardening pants with the elegant knee patches and feel right at home.

Perhaps what is so reassuring about these menswear designers is that they seem so at ease with their collections. They aren't compromising their vision to make their collections palatable to the broadest clientele. In many ways, that is the luxury of being new and small.

They should look at the collection from Joseph Abboud as a warning of the dangers of growth. Abboud has returned to his namesake label after finally putting an end to financial and legal wrangling with its owner. But viewing the collection on the runway Friday night was akin to watching a midlife crisis unfold in yards of cashmere, tweed and velvet. Abboud, a splendid designer and an elegant man, has always been known for his sophisticated mix of earth tones and textures. He combines conservative cuts with lush fabrics and a dollop of sex appeal, allowing a man to be both elegant and erotic. It has never been a young man's collection, but it wasn't an old fogy's either.

And then along came a stylist with a bag of silver biker jewelry and the phone numbers of models with more boyish swagger than cool confidence. This stylist, Bill Mullen, tossed out the steamer, the iron and the ironing board. He twisted blazers and jackets inside out. And the result was an endless parade of boys in excessively wrinkled, backward clothes with crucifixes and chains jangling around their necks and waists. At a moment when young men are cleaning up and standing up straight, here comes a self-consciously tricked up collection of seemingly lovely clothes made to look as if they'd been pulled off the bathroom floor.

The new wave of menswear designers aren't investing in sloppiness. Like the label Duckie Brown, they are playing with inventive ways to make traditional tailoring appeal to younger men. In lieu of styling tricks, Duckie Brown has a golden beetle embroidered on the inner portion of a jacket sleeve for unobtrusive rebellion. A dove-gray shirt sleeve is trimmed with a tiny band of white eyelet lace for a touch of androgyny.

Designers focusing on womenswear are championing a similar kind of polish for young women accustomed to low-slung jeans, cropped tops and a pair of trainers. Sari Gueron's presentation Thursday evening was a splendid collection of lace skirts with delicate tops, a navy halter dress with a balloon hem and a simple black dress with a U-shaped neckline trimmed in ruffles.

If there is anything that designers such as Gueron, Richard Chai and Thakoon Panichgul have in common, it is their desire to celebrate a kind of prettiness that in years past might have been defined as weakness or fragility. Chai focuses on tailoring, whether a trim skirt or a coat belted with a sash that twists into a blossom of satin, paying attention to the beauty of a seam. Panichgul -- whose collection is called Thakoon -- plays with intriguing fabrics -- such as clear plastic rendered to resemble lace -- and proportions. His squared-off jackets sit atop slim skirts or skirts with gentle tucks that encourage soft movement. If anything goes missing in their collections, it is humor.

Giberson alone seems interested in eliciting a chuckle from her customers. She called her collection "Magnification," and within the construction of each garment, a single element was exaggerated. A blouse was cut with French cuffs that dominated nearly the entire forearm. A black chiffon dress was designed with balloon sleeves that swung like sails in the breeze. At times the notion was executed with great skill and humor. At other times, it seemed trite and awkward, such as a trench coat with an epaulette that extended from the shoulder to the wrist, or a pair of trousers with slash pockets that ran from the waistline to the knee.

When turning away from the big stage, one makes choices based on the slimmest bits of information: an intriguing résumé, oddball inspiration. In the case of Holly Dunlap, the draw was her reputation in a related arena. She is the designer behind a successful Hollywould shoe collection, known for its quirky use of patterns and flourishes. She has launched a women's ready-to-wear collection. So it's off to the Algonquin Hotel for a presentation over tea. And oh, those petit fours were good! The tea was perfectly brewed! The seats! Has anyone mentioned how comfortable the wingback chairs were?

Oh, but the collection -- it was astonishing in its sheer tawdriness. Her models made their way through the Algonquin salon squeezed into paisley-patterned dresses in hot pink lamé, accessorized with fur, hair teased up high, looking like the hardest working of the world's working girls.

Could this be a kind of intellectual counterpoint to Dick? An example of empowered female sexuality? Only if dignity is so devalued it can be purchased on a street corner for 20 bucks and a candy bar.

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