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Robin Givhan on Tough Times for Men's Fashion at the New York Shows

Designers are in the gray zone, says the Washington Post's Robin Givhan, dressing men for gym visits and informal dinners. The cool has been taken out of these collections.

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NEW YORK -- Pity the poor gentleman who dares to defy mainstream cultural expectations about how men are supposed to dress. He will not merely be the subject of curious stares from street corners and taxicabs. He will be viewed with a combination of pity and disdain.

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In this unforgiving economic climate, the highly judgmental masses -- the same ones who once declared that all those boys in saggy pants were thugs -- do not chuckle at male iconoclasts the way they might smile in amusement at a woman with a penchant for Deauville millinery or Twiggy miniskirts. And of all the cruel glares, the most penetrating come from the brotherhood of men who believe that a pink tie is borderline effete.

As the spring 2010 designer collections are unveiled here, the tents pitched in Midtown's Bryant Park are one of the central gathering spots for the fashion industry's most exotic creatures. The strait-laced men who make up the security staff there spend their days admiring the bright plumage of lithe female editors and retailers -- but let an unabashed peacock strut by and in his wake come guffaws and sneers.

An extreme example of this kind of prejudice bubbled up Friday, the second day of shows, when the rain and wind blew in a slender young man with a mohawk who was dressed in a black and silver body suit with winged shoulders of the superhero variety. Any man willing to go out on a brisk day with little more than a thin scrim of spandex separating his family jewels from the unkind world is brave indeed. Our young hero swaggered through the door with his head thrown back in a display of haughty self-confidence. As Captain Fashion made his way through the crowd, it was impossible not to notice a security guard -- wearing a boxy, form-camouflaging black suit -- giving him the once-over, shaking his head in dismay and finally settling on an expression of disgust.

The average man has a problem with fashion risk-taking. And that means the menswear designers who have been unveiling their spring 2010 collections here have the usual hurdles to overcome and then some.

This season is even more challenging because so many men don't have jobs, have watched helplessly as their career trajectories have nose-dived and are in an angry lather about everything from health care to corporate bailouts. They are not in the mood for fashion witticisms. So it's understandable that there's very little silliness and fun on the menswear runways this season.

But there's not much good humor, either. There's minimal tailoring and almost no suits. It's as though designers didn't want to focus on office wear for fear of reminding men of the jobs they no longer have. But Seventh Avenue isn't rolling out luxurious vacation clothes, either. Because who can afford a lavish getaway?

The designers are in the gray zone, dressing men for trips to the gym, for informal dinners out, for loitering at the corner Starbucks while browsing the job listings on Monster.com. The cool has been sucked out of these collections. And so has the confident swagger. The result is that shows and presentations are less like a display of a designer's wares and more like a 15-minute exegesis on the state of masculinity, on the shrinking male ego and on how far a man can go in the pursuit of comfort before he really is wearing his pajamas all day.

Is it too terribly retro to wonder: Where did all the manly men go? Where is all the derring-do ?

The two sets of brothers who make up the five entrepreneurs behind the label Bespoken still believe a man has a reason to put on a suit. Their work is inspired by the aesthetic of Britain's Savile Row. They tweak shirt collars so they are round and barely visible; they taper pant legs so they can be turned up at the hem and still look tidy. They produce limited-edition blazers lined with cotton shirting. (Once the edition sells out, they re-introduce it in a different fabric or color.)

For spring, they found luxurious seersucker that shimmered with texture under the lights at the Museum of Arts and Design, where they presented their collection Saturday afternoon. They tailored that fabric, which has a hint of stretch, into a slim, three-piece suit and put it on a lean model who had twisting coils of kinky hair sprouting from his handsome noggin in that splendid, anti-corporate way.

The suit is rooted in the kinds of traditional three-piece styles that men in Washington love to wear with a Panama hat during the steamiest days of August. But the Bespoken suit is leaner and more urbane. It exudes youthfulness while maintaining its dignity. Surely a regular sort of fellow -- or at least one who can and will spend $1,500 or so on a suit -- can see himself moving about the nation's capital in something like that? After all, the designers have only politely suggested that men upgrade their look. The designers have not behaved like aesthetic bullies. (Men don't take kindly to dictates. They are not Ken dolls, after all.) The Bespoken suit is the 2010 model of a style already in a lot of Washington closets -- only this one gets better mileage.


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