When designer John Scher dressed a male model Monday in pale peach--the sort of unflattering shade generally reserved for bridesmaids--one couldn't help but wonder not only why he thought men might want to wear a jacket in this bland pastel, but also why they'd want that jacket to have gathers at the neckline, thus transforming it into an adult-size bib with sleeves.
That same evening, designer Marc Jacobs presented his spring 2000 menswear line, with models strolling around in baggy corduroy pants, cotton cashmere sweat shirts, and T-shirts with contrasting necklines. Here and there would be a suit, cut to fit as if it had been salvaged from a used clothing store. For this, a man needs a designer?
Jacobs is championing a look that ultimately may prove lethal to the menswear industry because it embraces a relaxed, unstudied--indeed haphazard-- style. Jacobs's models don't look good. But they do look comfortable. The problem, however, is that everyone already knows how to find something comfortable to wear. Heck, that takes no more effort than rolling out of bed in your pajamas and hopping on the Metro. Menswear designers are charged with helping gentlemen look their best and feel confident about their appearance. It is no more complicated than that. But it is also not an easy task.
The spring 2000 menswear shows have been humming along here without any surprises and without the presence of major forces such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Lauren and Hilfiger will present their collections at a later date; Klein showed his menswear line several weeks ago in Milan. The week also is missing the drama of John Bartlett, who will show his menswear line in September with his women's collection. So New York's menswear week is dominated by boutique businesses and mainstream manufacturers known for their ability to knock off a good idea rather than their skill at conjuring one on their own.
The importance of commercial appeal and bottom-line common sense loom large this week. Can the behemoth companies such as Claiborne and Nautica--whose collections will be shown later this week--allow for daring and spice? And can companies such as Jacobs's or that of Sandy Dalal, another young designer, be savvy enough to realize that creativity counts for nothing if the clothes can't be counted on to sell?
Just yesterday, Patrick Robinson, one of the industry's brightest talents, announced that he was closing his company this week after three years in business. His financial backers, impatient for profits, were ready to move on.
"It takes years to get a fashion company going," Robinson said. "Technology looked more interesting to them." Robinson will, of course, look for new backers. But the warning to independent designers is clear: If a collection doesn't sell, nothing else matters. And it had better sell sooner--and at full price--rather than later. The clock is ticking.
So far, the week is a tug of war between those wide-eyed enough to believe they can reinvent the shirt and those so cautious that they measure their risk-taking by centimeter increments in lapel width. The Claiborne collection, for instance, has a new designer, Paul Lafontaine. While the company is touting him as though his presence has dramatically altered the look of the line, that is misleading. This is a collection that gives men perfectly pleasant-looking clothes that are virtually indistinguishable from all the pleasant-looking clothes found at Banana Republic or J. Crew.
There are fluid suits in shades of sulfur, dust and powder gray. They are worn with shirts and ties in a similar hue for a monochromatic company-man look. A handful of shirts and trousers have a military sensibility; they owe a debt of inspiration to designers such as Miuccia Prada and Bartlett. There is a vein of ethnic styling running through the line, with homages to Morocco and Latin America. And of course, there is a cyber section filled with "technical" fabrics that are coated with one resin or another designed to make them look futuristic, dramatic and important. The Claiborne collection hits all the right notes. But finding the notes and making breathtaking music are two completely different things.
Kenneth Cole, Max Azria
The Kenneth Cole collection also is built on a foundation of smart business, but it has a point of view that distinguishes it. The clothes occupy the same niche as Cole's successful shoe line: It has a more sophisticated design sensibility than the average mass market merchandiser but it doesn't thrive on the snob appeal of high-priced designer labels. The clothes are for men who want fashion in their wardrobe that won't draw stares and won't break their budgets.
Cole has built a reputation for offering just that in the men's shoe market and he has handily translated it into ready-to-wear. In the collection that kicked off men's fashion week Monday morning, Cole showed cropped, loose-fitting trousers, narrow Bermuda shorts, double-layer windbreakers with a faded floral print in pale gray, and sport shirts that are inspired by pajama tops, cut-off T-shirts, djellabas and guyaberas.
For an elegant summer evening out, Cole suggests a fluid four-button black suit with a crisp white shirt and a white silk four-in-hand. It's a look that gives a nod to tuxedos and white dinner jackets but recognizes there is room to expand men's formal options.
Designer Max Azria of BCBG seems perfectly suited to joining Cole in that niche market between tailored suits and chinos. After all, Azria transformed his BCBG women's line from knockoffs to one loaded with of-the-moment styles for young professional women. But in the men's collection that Azria showed Monday, he missed the mark, mainly by trying too hard.
From the fabric--satin--to the cut--sleeveless jackets--everything seemed to be an attempt at making a bold statement. And if history has shown the menswear market anything, it is that there are few things that gentlemen hate more than being asked to make a "statement" with their clothes.
Jason Bunin, Sandy Dalal, Marc Jacobs
Encouragingly, two young designers, Jason Bunin and Dalal, provided the brightest sparks so far this week. Bunin presented a collection Monday that would be at home on the streets of South Beach or the docks at Key West. With his bold orange plaid shorts, persimmon trousers, pale rose burlap shirts and white trousers with their raveled hems, Bunin created a collection that invokes images of well-to-do beach bums whiling away an afternoon on a sailboat.
Dalal, in a collection that was more reserved than past efforts, offered his signature floral print shirts paired with glen plaid trousers, Converse All-Star sneakers and black skullcaps. The collection benefited from the savvy styling of Bill Mullen, who deftly combined the trademarks of hip-hop aficionados, surfers, skateboarders and gentlemen for a look that evoked the many influences driving men's sportswear.
No American designer is as adept as Jacobs at translating the somnambulant attitude of jaded young men into contemporary sportswear. The collection is described in Jacobs's program notes with the poem "Stain Boy" by Tim Burton, about an odd little superhero. "He can't fly around tall buildings, or outrun a speeding train, the only talent he seems to have is to leave a nasty stain."
Like the poem, the collection is filled with the attitude of a sly schoolboy with a penchant for rotten tricks and impractical feats. The collection is sprinkled with T-shirts, chambray pants, canvas coats, twill raincoats and a dark indigo jeans coat. Notable in this line is a group of remarkable leather pieces, including a short jacket in a mouthwatering cherry red.
Jacobs ought to continue to focus on the outerwear pieces that form the most distinctive part of this collection. While one admires his decision to take the most comfortable and reassuring elements of a man's leisure wardrobe and rework them in luxury fabrics, he should proceed with caution. Jacobs may intend for a fellow to indulge in a pair of designer-made baggy corduroys. But the more likely reality--a financially ruinous one--is that men may embrace the pants, but without the designer imprimatur.