On Saturday night, as the entrepreneur Sean Combs was conducting a run-through of his fall 2003 Sean John menswear show, he could be overheard inquiring about the time. At that moment, it was approximately 7:50. His show was scheduled to begin in 10 minutes and on that evening, when the cold had turned the air brittle, a mob of guests waited outside. Inside, Combs finally had approved the acoustic and visual "energy."
Only a lucky few were able to warm their fingers inside the foyer of Cipriani -- the elegant Midtown banquet space that was the setting for the presentation. Those gaining early entry seemed to include the lucky, those with all-access passes, several blow-dry blondes with the pinched looks that come from reducing one's nutritional consumption to raw almonds and Botox, and any number of burly young black men with cornrows and cell phones.
Waiting, shivering and rubbernecking are common when designers put on their runway shows, and so is the accompanying grumbling about disorganization, procrastination and hubris. It is, after all, difficult for a person of healthy ego not to be outraged when security guards part ways to allow Macy Gray and Mary J. Blige to step in from the cold but have no trouble watching as the less famous turn blue.
It used to be that this fever pitch of turmoil and disorganization was reserved for those who design women's frocks. They, after all, were the ones attracting stars such as Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro and Barbra Streisand. Menswear designers were happy if they managed to snag Bryant Gumbel for their front row. Combs, however, has in only four years managed to change that. He has mounted runway presentations that throb with energy, celebrities and the kind of sexual heat that once belonged solely to New York's womenswear industry.
This would be cause for celebration. Except, in that same time, the presence of menswear on the runways in New York -- and even in showroom presentations -- has dwindled to nearly nothing. And the creative quality of what remains has plummeted precipitously.
The familiar names that anchor Fashion Week -- Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren -- now premiere their men's collections in Milan. The Donna Karan men's collection has been suspended. (In fact one of her designers now works for Combs.) John Bartlett is out of business. Tommy Hilfiger has returned to preppy classics. Michael Kors's nascent menswear line is too young to resonate. Joseph Abboud is in a battle with his business partners. There are no menswear stars waiting in the wings.
Even the Council of Fashion Designers of America has begun to worry about the thin ranks of menswear designers and has discussed resurrecting a separate menswear fashion week so that what men's presence there is can more easily be felt.
There are any number of reasons for the decline of New York menswear. Like every other industry, it is feeling pains from a stressed economy. And menswear has never been fueled by the high-margin items such as handbags and shoes that drive the women's market.
William Garrett, who designs under the label Blue Khaki, wants to make chunky sweaters and pleated pants for blue-collar men, but that doesn't seem like the answer to the menswear industry's malaise, either. After all, those fellows can already find that sort of clothing at Eddie Bauer and Lands' End. Why would they choose to pay a designer premium?
It is easy to understand why menswear designers in New York would be tempted to take their wares to Milan. It gives them the opportunity to present their collections in front of a European audience and to, perhaps, broaden the scope of their business. It is part of the natural evolution of a global economy. After all, French designers sometimes choose New York rather than Paris to unveil their collections in order to gain a fresh audience.
But there is also a different sensibility abroad that can be attractive for menswear designers. In Europe, there is a greater sense of menswear design as a craft, as the creation of artful garments that bear a personal touch. And for a designer, being viewed as someone who sells art rather than commodities is an irresistible lure. The emphasis is on the quiet splendor of the garment, not on a lifestyle being marketed along with it.
"In Italy, in most of the presentations and runway shows, you can see the importance of the textile industry. You can see the input," says David Chu of Nautica, who has shown in Milan. "In the U.S., it's more about concept."
John Varvatos, Kenneth Cole In the past, John Varvatos has skipped the New York collections and shown his menswear collection in Florence at the invitation of the trade show there. For fall 2003, however, he showed his collection in New York on Friday evening. He has established himself as a menswear designer who balances an artist's eye for fabrics and details with a hardworking man's desire for clothes that are comfortable and comforting. Varvatos designs clothes that a well-to-do gentleman might choose, not because he noticed some flourish on the pocket or because of some exotic blend of Lycra and horsehair, but simply because the jacket has a nice hand, hangs well and allows him to be well-dressed without announcing his presence. Varvatos's customer could be elegant without being a fop.
But while there were splendid suede coats and weathered jeans and sweaters that didn't fit too snugly in this collection, there were also velvet suits in shades of chocolate and forest green that only Oscar Wilde or Ralph Lauren could appreciate. The mission of the clothes somehow got tangled up and lost in the scenery.
For a designer like Kenneth Cole, the clothes are secondary to leather goods and politics. Cole built his company on well-priced, fashionable shoes for men and women. He distinguished the company with his pithy advertising that weighs in on everything from presidential elections to AIDS research.
The menswear he showed Friday was notable for its minimalist palette of black, charcoal and ivory, with only flashes of yellow and a jarring green. It is one of his best menswear collections, in large part because it avoids the cumbersome detail, the attention-grabbing silhouette, the eye-catching zipper or pleat. It works because it is unremarkable, because it is inoffensive. But at least the man who buys it may find some satisfaction in the politics that it represents.
Nautica, Cloak, Marc Jacobs The frustration with much of the menswear that remains in New York is that it is a blur of commonplace pants and jackets. They are uninteresting clothes that stylists dutifully try to make intriguing with suffocating layering and incongruous pairings. At Nautica, where Chu has turned out his reliable parkas, pullovers and corduroys, there are track pants paired with tweed blazers for the umpteenth time. The only men who wear sport coats and track pants are those who are walking home from the gym, and they would prefer not to run into anyone they know.
The menswear here lacks a pulse. It has no spine, no humor, no guts.
The design team behind Cloak -- Alexandre Plokhov and Robert Geller -- favor narrow-hipped boys with lank hair who like to dress like they've dug their wardrobe off the floor of a thrift shop. The two mounted a runway presentation Saturday that featured faded shades of gray, Army-surplus-style jackets and trousers and scraggly scarves that could be considered attractive only by the sort of men who think that mullets are ironic.
The men at Marc Jacobs's show Monday night were far more fastidious in their grooming. But in Jacobs's collection for fall, in which the men dress in a mod silhouette that has been brushed with a Technicolor wash, they have an androgynous look. And with so much uncertainty in the world, it would be nice to at least take refuge in the certainty of gender.
Jacobs's men also seem trapped between boy and man. They are the kind of fellows who can't bring themselves to slip into a formal suit because they have a Peter Pan complex. That may have been charming during the golden years of a rollicking economy, before officials began advising folks to stock up on plastic sheeting, duct tape and bottled water, before Michael Jackson proved himself capable of freaking folks out anew. Now it just looks irritating and irresponsible.
Sean John While so many menswear designers seem to be enchanted by dandified notions of country estates or visions of wan young men who look starved for both nourishment and a good bath, Combs focuses on the importance of a man's swagger. Although his style certainly is informed by the young black men who hold so much sway in the hip-hop world, it is not a look defined by race. Instead it draws on a universal longing -- that some may find politically incorrect or embarrassingly satisfying -- for men who are strong, sexual and hard as nails. Combs's men don't cry and they find it very difficult to say "I'm sorry." And at a visceral level, there is something extraordinarily alluring about that.
Because Combs is fully engaged in the vernacular of fashion, the collection had a philosophy and message that had to do with waging an urban battle, coming through a storm, rising above the chaos. But that is a lot of mumbo-jumbo to describe wool blazers with flap pockets, silk jumpsuits suitable for the flight deck of a fighter plane, shearling trench coats, cashmere parkas, motocross jackets, shimmering silk suits in dark chocolate with matching shirt and tie, and fox-lined trench coats.
The clothes are gloriously self-conscious. They are the kind of clothes worn by men who take pleasure in their appearance, who believe that being well dressed is a sign of having one's house in order. There is nothing dandified or foppish about any of these clothes that sparkle or drape extravagantly. Instead they remind one that there are still peacock men -- Sopranos, kingpins, brothers, bosses, sublimely cool dudes -- who can cause others to cower under their gaze. And there is something exquisitely engaging about a man willing to strut his tail feathers under the spotlight.