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Menswear Collections For the Boredroom

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998

   


menswear From John Bartlett's menswear show. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
   
NEW YORK—The American menswear industry looks wretchedly bleak.

So far, as designers present their spring '99 collections here, their visions are uninspired, the clothes repetitive, their souls coolly distant from their work. If there is any wonder why American men cling to a manner of dress that seems stubbornly bland, it is because Seventh Avenue offers them little alternative.

Except for a few spots of light here and there, it seems as if designers showing in this city have relinquished the rich field of creativity to the Europeans. The best ideas spring from labels such as Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier and a host of lesser-known European housesthat still seem excited about designing men's clothes and not just churning out the same blasted three-button suits, camp shirts and pitiful crew neck sweaters.

    menswear From John Bartlett's menswear show. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
Oh, the Americans know how to make a business suit. They know how to reassure a man that no one is going to comment on his clothes when he steps into the boardroom. But outside that structured environment, where a man should be able to have a little fun with his wardrobe -- maybe wear a color other than blue, for instance -- nothing entices. When having to choose between a boring $400 sweater and a boring $20 Gap pocket T-shirt, a man would be a fool not to go with the T-shirt.

Consider, for example, the new collection from Johnnie Walker, the maker of Scotch whisky. The company has decided to leverage its brand name, and with the help of Marvin Traub, former chairman of Bloomingdale's, it has launched a line of men's sportswear designed by Jeffrey Banks.

The collection, shown Tuesday evening, is filled with classic cotton sweaters, rugby shirts, quilted jackets and polo shirts aimed at dressing a man for the slopes, the golf course and the tennis court.

menswear From John Bartlett's menswear show. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
   
Banks is a wonderfully talented designer whose aesthetic sensibility blends American classics with youthful vigor and Old World elegance. And his work for Johnnie Walker is beautifully executed, particularly his lush sweaters and his sophisticated watch line.

Still, when one considers that stores already are filled with similar lines such as Polo, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger and a slew of private label knockoffs, what on earth would draw a man to a collection bearing the name of a liquor company? Traub suggests that a clothing line is a natural extension of the brand's success in the liquor industry. Both Banks and Traub cite the quality of the product and the value of the company name as ensuring the success of these polo shirts bearing the signature "striding man." Exhaustive marketing, however, is more likely to sell these clothes. That will put money into the Johnnie Walker coffers, but it does little to raise the standard of American menswear design.

Traub says t people are always interested in sportswear. That may be true. But they're not always interested in buying it, especially when they can't figure out what niche it fills. The company would do better to take its name off the label, and, if it insists on being in the fashion business, simply invest in Banks's singular vision and his well-established reputation.

British designer Nicole Farhi has been showing her urbane and painterly menswear collections here for years. But the American aversion to fashion creativity finally seems to have taken its toll. The line she presented Tuesday evening emphasized dour sport shirts in steel gray and linen processed to look like denim. Why do such a thing when natural linen is so exquisite? Her most interesting offerings were shirts with short sleeves that ended in a band of elastic. The simplicity in this line failed to stand up to the runway.

Gene Meyer's collection this morning released a hopeful shaft of light in the week's proceedings. A splash of sequins sparkling from short-sleeve shirts in diluted colors hinted at vigor. These sequins weren't as flashy as one might expect. They weren't startling or too Las Vegas. They were pure froth, like a more sophisticated version of a novelty tie.

But that was it for the frivolity. Rarely is the word "unflattering" used to describe menswear. A garment might be called garish or vulgar. Silhouettes, however, almost always respect the male form. For spring '99, however, many of Meyer's shapes were too saggy and ill-fitting to do much for a male physique. They left most of the models looking as if they had yet to grow into their ensembles.

One wonders how long it will be before designer John Bartlett packs up his garment bags and begins showing his menswear line in Milan. He already has shown his women's line there. Now that he is designing for Byblos, he has become a frequent visitor to the northern Italian city.

Besides, it must be awfully tedious being such a New York rarity: a menswear designer who actually understands that the runway is a place to offer ideas. Some of them will fail -- his logo trousers and shirts, for instance, are unnecessary gimmicks for a man of such rich imagination. Some will succeed. The point is to make the suggestions. To try.

His collection for fall '98 was inspired by iconic images of masculinity: sailors, soldiers, hunters. In the spring '99 line he showed Tuesday evening, he continues that exploration but goes further afield to include horsemen, deliverymen, farmers and such. His palette goes from black to creamy white, through shades like raspberry pink, lilac and lime green.

His muscle shirts have a hint of padding along the shoulder. Full cargo trousers, with a back bellowed mesh pocket, are cropped at the ankle. His urban jodhpurs are loose-fitting, tapered slightly at the ankle and easily unhooked for a personalized ankle slit. His paratrooper shirt has an elasticized bottom. A ranger shirt is fitted through the chest.

Bartlett electrifies polo shirts and trousers by cutting them from hot-pink cotton. He allows a pattern of bright green pop-art flowers to explode on trousers, a padded vest and a pair of surfer jams. Most men will guffaw at the idea of wearing floral trousers or a raspberry pink windbreaker. Only a few will be ready to embrace such good-humored clothes. But after the searing parade of pink, Bartlett's offering of pale lilac sportswear looked mild and welcoming -- almost neutral.. As Bartlett has retreated from his flashier, more outra geous past to focus on blending sophisticated fabrics with adventurous shapes, he also seems to have become more adept at discerning the differences in what men wear, what they might wear and what simply makes them laugh. A good designer judiciously mines that middle ground -- but is unafraid of the margins.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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