RYE, N.Y. -- The smoking jacket is dead.
Sensitive to the antismoking movement, menswear manufacturers are calling it the "cocktail coat" or the "TV tux." So named, one can only assume, because men desperately need help with at-home wear. Some of the most heinous fashion crimes are committed at home ... while sitting in front of the television. The remedy: a silk-satin or velvet jacket, belted with a tasseled silk cord. It will disguise the most common undershirt or boxer shorts, and make any can of domestic beer look imported.
Sumptuous loungewear for men was an important theme of the Men's Fashion Association fall shows at the Rye Town Hilton last week. "The gentleman is now physically fit and entertaining at home," said Tom Julian, assistant fashion director of the MFA. "He wants to go from his apartment to the beach and look good. He wants to walk around in luxurious robes."
Most of the lounging styles -- 7/8-length satin dressing gowns, paisley-printed or panne velvet jackets -- were shown with gray flannel pants, white shirts and patent leather dress pumps. Maybe a bow tie or an ascot for good measure. There were also some Hugh Hefner-style pajamas.
"C'mon, nobody dresses that way," said Ron Sprick, designer of a men's underwear line in Santa Monica, Calif., called Under Construction. "I don't know anyone who wears an ascot." Sprick believes in more sensible stuff -- soft cotton boxers, pajamas and nightshirts. There was plenty of that shown at the MFA, too, enough for a thousand Father's Days to come.
"The entire loungewear category is growing. Designers are finding that the women are buying the men's garments," said Julian, and it's a big boost to the business.
Men are not only getting more dressed up, but they are wearing more luxe fabrics, according to Julian -- lots of loden and cashmere wools. This news makes the Camel Hair and Cashmere Institute of America people very happy. They had a booth at the MFA.
Alexander Julian showed more luxurious wools than ever before. His high-priced line, the Alexander Julian Collection, which the designer said was inspired by Cary Grant movies and William Powell's "Thin Man" series, featured mostly jackets in cashmere and baby alpaca. Their shape has changed, too, moving toward a broad-shouldered silhouette with wide lapels.
There were no surprises in the rest of the Julian show, which was a replay of his previous collections -- classic American styles with just a touch of unexpected, bright color. Purple is his trademark.
Great mood swings came from the French Menswear Federation, which showed a wide variety of inventive styles. The overall theme was nostalgic -- either mod or zoot suit. The new wave designers (or nouveaux createurs) such as Roelli-Testu and Etienne Brunel featured the usual somber Left Bank garret look -- ultralong and draggy coats, black shirts, wrinkled baggy pants and berets. Several French labels, New Man for one, used a '60s-style wide-wale corduroy in coats as well as trousers. The two eras converged in Nino Cerruti's "business" suit with a Beatles-style green plaid, double-breasted jacket and baggy zoot suit pants.
Avant-garde French designers supplied some wonderful beyond-the-pale clothes. The fashion press and buyers loved Lucien Foncel's black cotton velvet blazer (the French still call it "Le Smoking") with white piping over cream-colored jodhpurs. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac tastefully redesigned the tuxedo jacket with a short velvet Mao collar and compact satin lapels.
What the French cannot do well is copy American sportswear. Instead of looking fresh and inventive, it looks studied -- like hearing Edith Piaf singing a college fight song. The French parkas, windbreakers and Eisenhower jackets looked silly compared with those by American sportswear makers Robert Comstock, Tommy Hilfiger and Ruff-Hewn.
Comstock, who has for three years running won the Cutty Sark Menswear Award for best sportswear design, continues with his "Rugged Southwest" theme again for next fall. He uses woven Indian designs with deluxe leathers such as "naked deer," "stone-washed lamb" and "pebbled shearling." "I'm not a drugstore designer," said Comstock. He brought along his model, Rob Hunter, a Shoshone-Paiute tribal judge in Idaho and Nevada, to wear his Navajo blanket coats with shearling trim.
Tommy Hilfiger's fall sportswear is very simple and untricky -- no gimmicks or themes, just reworked classics. The best are his terrific navy-blue wool melton stadium coat and a very long, lightweight khaki-nylon raincoat.
Making garb for the aristo-sports like fly-fishing, shooting and hacking on horseback, Ruff-Hewn, a manufacturer based in High Point, N.C., creates a kind of traditional-looking sportswear with an Anglo-American twist. Like Banana Republic, the trademark colors of Ruff-Hewn are military -- khaki and olive drab. There are also lots of field jackets, equestrian shirts and turtlenecks, all with no style innovations.
"The philosophy of Ruff-Hewn is to recreate authentic clothing," said its designer, Dennis Marchman. "We do deviate from that theme, but we keep it traditional. To me traditional is to bring back the past."
There are few concessions made to high-tech fabrics at Ruff-Hewn, either. And the sales growth, 275 percent since 1981, might suggest that many people out there don't need all the weather protection of Gore-Tex or Thinsulate. One of Ruff-Hewn's best items is a hunter-green car coat in oiled cotton. "The only way we will deploy high-technology is to recreate an old-style fabric," said Marchman.
At a time when most riding pants are stretchy, Ruff-Hewn would not consider going synthetic. No matter how difficult they would be to ride in, Ruff-Hewn's jodhpurs and riding breeches are made of cotton twill -- uncomfortable, yet authentic.