NEW YORK — At the John Varvatos show, models did not wear grandpa socks with their sandals. But they were among the few.
This is a trend for spring 2017. It is not necessarily an awful trend. There is something comforting and proudly nerdish about walking around in black ankle socks and a pair of casual slides. There's charm in brightly-striped socks matched with floral-print sandals.
But it is a trend. And trends can look like affectations — especially in menswear. There is nothing worse than a guy who walks around with his polo collar popped and a tennis sweater tied around his neck or one who has his pants hanging "just so" off his hips. This may well be the footwear equivalent of fashion posturing. So really, tread carefully.
Or take a cue from Varvatos. Skip it altogether. Thursday evening he was the last designer to show his spring 2017 collection here and he squeezed his audience into a T-shaped nightclub in the bowels of a downtown hotel where everyone sat at cocktail tables and perched on bar stools. Waiters passed rosé and vodka gimlets and a gruff-voiced rocker provided the soundtrack.
Varvatos has always loved music and the crowded, dark halls where it is performed. He allows both to serve as his inspiration, and this collection — in shades of charcoal and dove gray with splashes of tomato red — was an eloquent expression of the style that the culture associates with musicians. To be clear, it's not the flamboyant stage attire or the self-conscious dishevelment that is the hallmark of pop stars. It's what we associate with pure musicians: the guys who play their own instruments, write their own songs and worry more about melody and lyrics than whether they're in sync with their backup dancers.
Varvatos doesn't change his style from one season to the next, which is not to say that his work is static. He emphasizes different notes and plays different chords, and for spring there are longish jackets and beautiful textures. Varvatos dubbed the collection "urban romantic," which really just means that the clothes look at home in the city but have a softer, slightly worn appearance. There are no sharp edges.
Varvatos makes menswear look easy. It is easy to imagine a fashion-loving man drawn to his work, but it is also possible to see a more fashion-hesitant gentleman find something enticing about it, too. His clothes have a reassuring familiarity: A man will not have to steel himself for possible stares if he wears them into his favorite dive bar. But there is also something about them — something subtle — that sets them apart. They are not business as usual.
That is skill. Perhaps, it is experience, too. It's certainly confidence. Varvatos does not have to shout in order to be heard. No tricks. No construction worker fluorescent hues, no virtual reality goggles, no gratuitous gender-blurring.
The best collections here proudly focused on just the clothes. The designers were confident that was enough. At Orley, the designers were inspired by the Detroit-born artist Mike Kelley. One of his last works, before his death in 2012, was "Mobile Homestead," a faithful recreation of his childhood home. The designers, Alex, Matthew and Samantha Orley, loved the timeless quality of Kelley's work, the sense that an image could be from the 1950s or from today. It's an aesthetic that drives their own work, Alex Orley noted.
They worked with a group of Italian mills to create the fabrics used in the collection, which is rooted in shades of pine green, sky blue and red. The weaves recall straw baskets and nylon shopping bags. The colors are muted. The feel of each polo shirt, pullover or jean-style jacket is lush.
Todd Snyder speaks with certainty, too. There's nothing flashy about his collection but he has done the hard work of getting his proportions just right, finding the perfect fabric with just the right amount of sheen, zeroing in on the exact shade of green that has depth but doesn't lose its vibrancy.
His collection, filled with baseball jackets, slim track pants, soccer shorts and easy trousers, was youthful as well as sophisticated. Todd Snyder. Men should remember that name.
The menswear shows here have been dominated by small brands and young designers who are still searching for their voice. Ralph Lauren, for instance, presents his collection in Europe, as does the influential Thom Browne. Tommy Hilfiger showed here, but it was a new version: Hilfiger Edition. Now in its second season, it was unveiled in a static presentation rather than an attention-grabbing runway show. The more subdued format allowed the company to make a nuanced argument that the brand can move away from its mass-market, muddled aesthetic into something with a stronger point-of-view that speaks to its all-American roots without turning every sweatshirt and T-shirt into a giant flag.
And Michael Kors showed his sophisticated menswear quietly with a handful of models and an informal chat about the geometric prints, the ease in which his clothes travel and the broader silhouette of his trousers. "This isn't Instagram. The best thing in the world is to see things up close," Kors says. "I love what I do. And I love to talk about it."
The absence of marquee labels, while disappointing, meant that Engineered for Motion, Cadet and Brett Johnson had breathing room. They drew crowds of people who wanted to see how they have evolved or who wanted to listen to a new point-of-view. And they are worth hearing out.
And rising talents such as John Elliott, Rochambeau, Stampd, Tim Coppens and Siki Im could shine. They all are focused on modern sportswear: merging athletic and street influences with luxury fabrics and streamlined tailoring. They make jackets, not blazers. Elliott and Rochambeau designers Laurence Chandler and Joshua Cooper incorporate more athleticism into their work. Stampd designer Chris Stamp worked in a darker palette and his clothes have a season-less quality, particularly the heavily detailed flight jackets. Indeed, three of his looks were available for purchase immediately following his show.
Coppens has long been a proponent of looking at street style with a designer's eye. This season, he was inspired by antique kimonos, not because he is a collector or because he is enamored with their history but because of his interest in Japan and its blending of high tech, pop culture and aesthetic traditions. "In the '80s, they had this punk culture and there's this street culture now," Coppens says backstage after his show. "It's super strict, but there's also a fluidity in the aesthetic. It's a zen-ness. That intrigues me."
Coppens was recently hired by Under Armour to create sportswear within its technical, performance-based world. He included compression shirts and sunglasses from that collaboration in this show.
Siki Im's work is the least influenced by athleticism but it has a street-wise sensibility that gives his models the look of urban nomads — folks who live their lives in constant motion. Instead of a runway show, this season, Im showed the work in a small presentation that had three groups of models standing nonchalantly in a large, empty loft with the sunlight streaming through the windows filling in for massive spotlights.
His models included friends and mentors, including Maxwell Osborne — half of the design duo at Public School and DKNY.
"It's about good products and my friends who wear them," Im says. He makes it sound so simple.
Fashion doesn't have to be complicated. But that doesn't mean it's easy.