The three days of menswear shows here have been dominated by hip-hop. From Marc Buchanan's logo-heavy Pelle Pelle line to the loose fit and bold colors in the DKNY collection, the niche style that originated with young black men is the creative fuel driving the industry.
The shows this week have mostly been in Chelsea, with occasional jaunts uptown to the Garment District for an informal presentation in a designer's showroom. The back-and-forth between uptown and down felt like an aesthetic tug of war between an established menswear vocabulary of tailored suits and subtle sportswear and a newer language of roomy silhouettes, bold colors and patterns that plead for attention. Editors and buyers found themselves slogging through the city's heavy, hot air, from the cool, ivory linen of Joseph Abboud's sophisticated sportswear to the searing tequila sunrise colors in Cynthia Rowley's collection.
Designers here say menswear for the first spring of the 21st century will be a kaleidoscope of colors: grenadine pink, lapis blue, margarita green, saffron and carrot orange. Gene Meyer, who has always had a sophisticated and joyful color sense, presented a collection Wednesday filled with fluid sport shirts in robin's-egg blue, cotton shirts in teal and shirts printed with schoolboy doodles. Lacquered belts, with Velcro closures, are hot pink and lemon.
The collection highlights Meyer's most admirable skill: the ability to bring a boy's impish wit to the wardrobe of a man living with adult cynicism. Indeed, this collection works well because the cut and the drape of the trousers have a sexy, masculine look that offsets the whimsical nature of the shirts and vests. The pants, particularly in navy polyester, sit low on the hip and fit smoothly over the derriere only to become wider and more fluid through the legs. The silhouette is nothing extreme, but rather lies somewhere between hip-hop's loose fit and a suit's more restrained cut.
The collection that Donna Karan showed on Tuesday also was bursting with color, particularly in her DKNY collection. Karan continues trying to persuade men to dress sensually and to take advantage of exotic fabric combinations and silhouettes that offer increased comfort.
For example, in her signature collection, she offers lapis blue suits that are--by design--completely rumpled. They are stitched out of a cotton and metal blend that will conform to the shape of a man's body as he wears them, she says. They won't cling as though a gentleman has been shrink-wrapped in his clothes, but they will follow the outline of his physique. For women, who are more accustomed to clothes accentuating, rather than merely covering, their bodies, this is not such a foreign concept. But except for a small group well versed in the benefits of the weight room, blatantly emphasizing the body makes most men cringe in horror.
To Karan's credit, she makes her stylistic suggestions with sensitivity. These malleable fabrics come in navy, a reassuring shade. They are sporty trousers and jackets, silhouettes that a man understands. And except for the wrinkles, the fabric looks unremarkable. There is no metallic glow.
But the strength in this collection really lies with the DKNY line and its focus on spirited sportswear in bold colors such as raspberry and cobalt blue. Karan shows them mixed with such fundamentals as loose-fitting chinos and cargo shorts. The collection embraces all of Karan's well-known mantras about sensuality, light, earthiness and such. But instead of becoming a mishmash of New Age ramblings, both collections are anchored in a man's need for the familiar while feeding a designer's desire to create something different.
Rowley's menswear collection, which she showed around the rooftop pool of the West 57th Street Holiday Inn, was also driven by color and pattern. The mood was set by a group of synchronized swimmers who flailed about in the tiny pool. To be sure, this was more Palm Beach pool party than Olympic trial, but it set a charming tone. When the first model stepped out, he was dressed in a plaid blazer and elaborately embroidered slacks. He was followed by men in baggy linen trousers that laced up the front, bright yellow canvas clam diggers that looked splendidly worn, volcano print shirts in lime green, sea blue floral photo-print trousers and white nehru jackets. It was pure silliness down to the finale, when the entire parade of models--fully clothed--dived into the pool, followed by Rowley herself.
These, of course, are not the sort of clothes that the typical man would wear to the office, even on the most casual day. He probably wouldn't even wear them to an office picnic or pool party. But they are the sort of clothes a fellow might live in on vacation, when no one will care that he's wearing trousers printed with giant purple pansies. They are the sportswear equivalent of a novelty tie, meant to be worn when a guy's sole duty for the day is to drink, eat and laugh heartily at his own jokes. And somewhere in the midst of the suits, the khakis, the polo shirts and expensive four-in-hands, there has to be a place for honest-to-goodness play clothes. Indeed, Rowley asks: "Aren't you tired of being invisible? Blending your wardrobe until everything in it is some safe . . . earth-tone smoothie."
While Rowley identifies her inspiration as beach clubs and golf courses and Meyer says he was inspired by pool and cabana boys, one can't help but see the connection between these colorful, in-your-face collections and the tradition-shattering style that is the hallmark of hip-hop fashion. More than any trend, design house or manufacturer, it is hip-hop that has led the way in the transformation from invisible men to richly adorned peacocks. With its jeweled medallions, cocky hats, appliqued leather jackets and enormous screaming logos, hip-hop style has aided often ignored young men to yell, "Look at me!"
The collection that Buchanan had on the runway for his Pelle Pelle line, which began as an outerwear company, was loaded with geometric patterned shirts, denims printed with the company's moniker and oversize leather jackets with images of panthers on the back and flames shooting up the sleeves.
The audience at the Pelle Pelle show Tuesday was loaded with fans of the collection: boys in head scarves, girls in head wraps, guys who walked with a dip and a sway, men who feigned a worldly toughness but who broke into grins at the sight of a cherubic little boy walking the runway. The same party atmosphere accompanied the debut of the Rocawear line by rappers Jay-Z and Damon Dash. Instead of a formal show, a handful of models came out onstage in a room set up like a cocktail lounge. The models danced, preened and did their best to radiate urban cool. Was the presentation about the clothes? Not really. It was about fashion, the notion of what is in vogue, what represents the times and the spirit of the moment. And right now, the future of menswear is not being defined by the suits--either those who wear them or those who produce them. Instead, it is being shaped by these young entrepreneurs whose companies may or may not last, but whose influence certainly will.
If any single problem threatens their longevity, it is a lack of organization. While Eric Malik's collection does not have the same emphasis on logos and searing colors as others this season, it still has its roots in hip-hop with its emphasis on oversize shirts and Bermuda shorts. Unfortunately, Malik's Wednesday presentation came off like something directed by a novice party promoter hustling rap concerts in rec rooms. Guests struggled to enter the venue; the seating was confused; and the show was delayed in part because workers still hadn't printed the designer's name on the stage backdrop 30 minutes after the show was supposed to start. Perhaps if Malik had directed more of his resources toward managing the show rather than coming up with a moronic self-congratulatory rap, the presentation would have been executed more professionally.
Those who stand on the shore watching this hip-hop wave include designers such as Abboud, who admits that while the fashion industry is "in a state of flux, I've got a real responsibility to design from the heart."
"Now is the time to stay true to yourself," he says. "I don't want to be chastised for doing that." Indeed, Abboud should not be reprimanded for staying true to his vision of sexy but gentlemanly attire. His palette of sand, ivory, charcoal and milk chocolate is a soothing respite from the fireworks display coming from much of the industry. And his attention to tailoring, from the subtle narrowing of a jacket and pair of trousers to the removal of lining from a blazer, has an audience of appreciative fans.
There will always be a place for suits and other business attire in a man's wardrobe. Even as the hip-hop entrepreneurs build their companies, they admit that they like wearing suits. They like dressing up and feeling professional. The question though is whether their taste for tailored attire will be shaped by the traditions of Savile Row and the Ivy League or whether it will be a more complex hybrid of corporate America, European panache and ghetto fabulous.