Workingman chic gets a pink slip for spring 2011

By Robin Givhan
Monday, September 13, 2010; C01

NEW YORK -- In the past few years, as the womenswear industry has moved swiftly through an exhausting list of fashion trends -- saucy secretary, rock star wannabe and now elegant femininity -- menswear designers have remained stubbornly in one place. They have been stalwart in their revival of and attachment to lunch-pail brands such as Red Wing boots and grandpa labels like Penguin.

Change has always happened at a slow, virtually congressional pace in menswear, but the ongoing celebration of legacy labels -- and their aesthetics -- has been bordering on obstructionist. Is there no place in the menswear universe for a company not already deep into its 25th year?

As designers unveil their spring 2011 collections here, it seems that finally -- thankfully -- the obsession with work shirts, denim jackets and plaid has begun to wane.

The timing is fortuitous. The New York fashion industry is presenting its collections for the first time in a new warren of tents and courtyards at Lincoln Center after saying farewell to Bryant Park in February. The new venues, in the heart of the city's arts district, provide for a more efficient system of sorting thousands of invitations and seating throngs of impatient guests who aren't in the mood to stand on their stiletto heels any longer than absolutely necessary. The new system is all high-tech bar codes, laser scanning devices and sleek iPad software. The future of catwalks, tableaux vivants and streaming video has arrived and it's only right that designers, including those who focus on menswear, start looking forward rather than back.

There's nothing wrong with celebrating the rich tradition in the attire of laborers, of course, but so much of that sweet nostalgia was buried beneath self-conscious sentimentality and revisionist history. It was easy for a young man whose hands have never known calluses from gripping a pickax eight hours a day to find something charming in a plaid shirt that has been artfully faded to just the right patina. And certainly there was a degree of reassuring familiarity in a sturdy pair of work boots and the fantasy that they were now welcome in the fanciest conference rooms. Power to the people! But that was really only true if one took meetings in the glossy media ghettos of midtown Manhattan.

Bugs are back

Spring 2011 blows in with menswear that is both familiar and lighthearted but that draws upon sources of inspiration that have nothing to do with lumberjacks or assembly-line crews. Some of the most delightful garments on the runways so far have been at Duckie Brown where, on Friday afternoon, brightly colored, slouchy lounge pants mixed with pimp-alicious blazers. Checked jackets collided with abstract-patterned pants. And bug-print shirts, in black and white, floated down the stage. In a city currently under siege by bedbugs, if they cannot be eradicated, then at least let them be inspiring!

Designer Patrik Ervell, who likes models who are especially young and waifish, continues to cut his jackets short -- just barely scraping the hips -- and crops his trousers to boldly bare a man's ankles. (Is the hairy ankle the new waxed chest? Discuss.) But while his clothes have a boyish sensibility, they refrain from slipping into the category of fey or twee. One retail consultant compared his work to that of Raf Simons at Jil Sander because of its emphasis on simplicity and cut. Perhaps. But there's a whimsy in Ervell's work that distinguishes it from the more sober European.

Saturday afternoon, Ervell's models marched along a runway constructed of stacks of the pink-hued Financial Times. The Hudson River sparkled through the wall of windows behind them and New Jersey spread out in the distance. But this wasn't a reference to master of the universe grandeur. Greed is not good, no matter that the premiere of "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" hovers in our pop culture future.

Ervell offered blazers flushed with a hint of light pink. Pale pink shirts looked the results of a laundry mishap, as if a white button-down shirt had had an unfortunate tumble in the Maytag with its brightly colored kin. And sharply tailored overcoats were worn with turned-up collars or overstuffed backpacks, which should come with instructions that they be removed on crowded Metro trains where no one -- not even Washington's self-important do-gooders -- should be allowed to take up double the space of their own body.

Gangsters and glitter

Men have been swaggering on the runways here. Not because of their power or wealth, but in celebration of pure physicality. Indeed, these days, a job -- well paying or otherwise -- is a gift, a blessing, not a bragging right. At Phillip Lim, black vests and tank tops sparkled as though they were embroidered with beads, and models looked like slim dandies in skinny suits in shades of peach. But scarves hung from back pockets as if in homage to a Broadway gangster: "Don't let all this pastel and glitter fool you. I can handle my b'ness." Swagger, strut, gangster lean.

The Thursday evening presentation by the brand Johannes Faktotum, where muscled young men stood stoically dressed in sailing-inspired gear that included austere shorts and anoraks, left one sensing that these are actually sailors who do something more strenuous than mix martinis on their boats. Hell, they built these boats! The models at Robert Geller, who found his inspiration in Berlin, wore wide-leg walking shorts, black leather blazers and even the occasional garter around their hairy calves. At Loden Dager, tight jeans were striped with studs and belted with silver chains.

And at Simon Spurr, quadriceps strained against close-fitting trousers and dark denim jeans. The models were often dressed in three-piece suits, sometimes in conservative banker plaids. But the cut was self-consciously close to the body. Not obscenely tight, but snug enough to cause one's gaze to linger with, shall we say, curiosity.

Part of what made Spurr's collection particularly intriguing is that he pointedly bridged the gap between the two conflicting sides of menswear. On the one hand, there's the craftsmanship of tailoring. Who can cut a blazer that falls with knife-like accuracy to affect the illusion of a perfectly V-shaped torso? Who can cut a pair of trousers with just the right break across the shoe?

Those are the considerations for brands such as Zegna and a designer such as Tom Ford, who can cut a tuxedo with such aplomb that it can make a schlub feel like a king of the world.

But in that detail-oriented approach, a man's physique isn't so much celebrated as it is upholstered.

Designers who focus on creativity and on breaking tradition often spend their time emphasizing the male body -- oiling it up and putting it on display. That has often made their work a difficult mass-market sell. In the vernacular of straight, masculine culture, the archetypes for the male "body beautiful" have been limited and mostly suspect. There's the oversexed rock star that every baby boomer wanted to be, the strutting pimp who has fascinated the hip-hop generation, the caddish playboy as epitomized by the Hollywood idol and finally, the athlete whose muscles may, in fact, all be a doped-up lie. None of these archetypes help a man who's just trying to dress for eight hours in his insurance company cubicle.

The straight man, even now in post-metrosexual society, has few examples of how to happily, healthily, uncontroversially, physically preen. All that healthy eating and gym time are going to waste as these men insist on wearing baggy jeans, too-big Dockers and shirts the size of pup tents.

Biceps and bank accounts

Perhaps that's why the lust for old-school blue-collar brands has lasted so long. Physical laborers honed their bodies every day. They built their biceps along with their bank accounts. There's something inherently muscular, tough and physical in their standard attire. More than a shrunken pink blazer or a nearly sheer tank top, legacy style allowed men to indirectly flaunt the idea of their sweaty, macho selves. The torso hiding below that plaid shirt might be as wispy as teenage boy's, but the message it exudes is that the wearer has been engaged in heavy lifting and has the body to prove it even if you can't see it.

Men may be sad to bid that rough-and-tumble style goodbye. They may miss the coziness of a well-worn flannel shirt. But perhaps they will move forward embracing the spirit of the factory worker and the soul of the outdoorsman. Perhaps they will use them as confirmation that it's possible to indulge in fashion that celebrates the beauty of the male body while maintaining one's respectability in the bland, gray world of office parks. At the very least, one hopes the average man will commit to wearing clothes designed to fit rather than to camouflage.

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