By  on January 22, 2009

MILAN — Italian men’s wear designers played it safer on the runways for fall, offering commercial rather than conceptual collections — but adding just enough newness to keep buyers interested.

“I think designers toned down, but appropriately. It seems everything needs a reason for being. They are thinking about the value proposition, and giving the impression of value and quality,” said Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I came in thinking I would see a bunch of boring clothes, and it was dark and serious, but designers pushed the envelope just enough for where we are today,” said Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman.

“You don’t need drastic change to look new,” added Colby McWilliams, vice president, men’s fashion director at Neiman Marcus.

Despite the sobriety and dearth of dramatic new fashion direction during Milan Fashion Week, which ended Tuesday, most retailers were pleased with what they saw, particularly in terms of investment pieces.

“Milan did a great job catering to the department stores. Let’s face it — they had to,” said Kevin Harter, vice president of fashion direction for men at Bloomingdale’s.
The double-breasted suit, often paired with roomier and/or single-pleat trousers, was a key trend, while soft-shouldered jackets and overcoats in luxury fabrics featured in many collections.

“This season, many designers are focusing on classic cuts, sturdy fabrics and overall reserved style — ‘conservative chic’ — so as to enforce the notion that their designs are long lasting and durable amidst the current unrest of our times,” said Terry Betts, international collections and accessories men’s wear buyer at Harvey Nichols.

However, the lack of color did disappoint.

“Milan seems to be in a deep freeze, and I don’t mean the temperature.…There was too much black, navy and gray; too much tweed, flannel and fur,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandising manager, men’s and home, at Barneys New York.

Many buyers said they would be trimming their budgets marginally or reducing the mix of vendors, putting a premium on quality, not quantity, and sticking to houses with which they had long-lasting relationships. Where retailers did cite increases, they were conservative.

Standout collections included Jil Sander, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Burberry Prorsum, Tom Ford, Moncler Gamme Bleu, Etro, Ermenegildo Zegna, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani, retailers said.

The following is a rundown of what buyers had to say.Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager, men’s and home, Barneys New York: Jil Sander had amazing pressed velvet. Etro was the happy collection. It was all about the beautiful fabrics and colors that result in looks that provoke impulsive shopping.Some good trends were chunky sweaters, dandies with a touch of Jack the Ripper, fancy great coats, long johns for loungewear, jacquards, over-the-top leathers. This season there was a plethora of formal pieces, even tails. Double-breasted was the suit of the season. In terms of business, we’re planning a conservative increase for the third quarter. It’s not the season to make big changes. Most collections [in fall ’08] did not perform as in the past, but it’s difficult to attribute it to the buy versus the economic malaise.

Tommy Fazio, fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman Men’s:
I’m inspired by the focus and the attention that all the designers put on the collections. They took the challenges seriously and took their collections to just the right level. The new architectural form for Jil Sander was really exciting. The McQueen man now is a little more serious but still has that edge and is able to have his individual approach. Prada was probably the most creative, and it was very focused. I wish I’d seen a little more transformation at Burberry Prorsum, but the outerwear was exquisite. And my God, Tom Ford [who didn’t do a show] is the height of luxury to me. I didn’t expect so much color. I loved that. It was groovy. He still has the English tweed thing, but he also went Seventies fab and very American. We can all change and grow and move forward in fashion, and that’s what we need to do right now because we need to intrigue the customer to want to come in and shop. Some of our buys will be smaller, but they’ll be more focused and compelling. We’re not dropping anyone.

Bob Mitchell, co-president, Mitchells/Richards/Marshs: We’re obviously looking at things with a slightly different mind-set. We’re still looking for quality. I use the word quality now instead of luxury. And we’re cautiously optimistic that next fall we could begin to see business turn around a little more. People are not going to look for basics, they’re going to look for things that stimulate buying, but not over-the-top. The mood will continue to be more restrained. And most of the collections I saw found that balance. We still see the biggest trend as fit.…The trimmer silhouettes are finally going to become mainstream and I still believe that’s the biggest opportunity in America. And we think there’s more customer interest in knitwear again. Some of the fashion knitwear may replace some of the fashion woven business that’s been done. Our budgets are going to be challenged. We’re definitely going to be editing more cautiously and certainly any lower-tier people who haven’t performed will be edited out of our mix.…We’ll probably reduce our vendor mix by 20 percent.

Colby McWilliams, vice president, men’s fashion director, Neiman Marcus: I thought the designers played it a little too safe for the runway. But when we get to the showrooms, we find beautiful detailing and tailoring that makes things special, and wearable in different situations. There are good investment pieces in the collections, things that a man could buy and wear for many seasons to come. I certainly think that’s important. But there was not a lot of color….Again there’s a lot of gray. But I did love Prada. Important trends were all over the place, but the way people are dressing now is mixing daytime and evening.A wonderful concept with a lot of these collections, like Tom Ford and Brunello Cucinelli, is you build upon a wardrobe and it’s something you can have and wear for a while. You don’t need drastic change to look new. The budget is considerably less than last year. I think we need to be very smart in how we edit collections for our customer, but I think it will all be fine. As far as dropping any collections, we’re analyzing as we go. The merchandise has to speak to us.

Kevin Harter, vice president of fashion direction for men, Bloomingdale’s: All I’ve heard is how subdued it is, quite honestly I thought it was one of the most beautiful seasons ever. The clothes were really masculine and luxurious. We saw some trends get stronger, like the single-pleated pant and the soft-shouldered jacket. We thought double-breasted suits looked really fresh. My favorite show was Alexander McQueen — coherent, with beautiful tailoring, masculine, but pushing the envelope. I loved the interesting proportions, beautiful tailoring and fabrics at Jil Sander. We think we’re going to have a challenging spring, but we’re optimistic about the fall, so we’re buying flat to last year.…Most shows played to more of our core customer than they have in the past. We’re obviously looking at our vendor structure closely, but we’re still looking to pick up newness. If we dropped anyone, it was no one of importance.

Eric Jennings, men’s fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue: There were some surprises. The shrunken suit is still important and still out there, but really the double-breasted jacket and pleated trouser made a big comeback. All the tuxedo-inspired details stood out. I feel like I saw satin piping on trousers everywhere. I loved Dsquared, D&G and Etro. Certainly some collections had a much more somber mood and I didn’t respond so much to those at this time. The world needs some happiness and fashion should provide that. This gives us an opportunity to take a close look at things that are not performing, and step away from those so we can bring in some freshness. I loved the burgundies and chili reds. Another color done well was green. Emporio Armani comes to mind for that.

Terry Betts, international collections and accessories men’s wear buyer, Harvey Nichols: Prada, Jil Sander and McQueen were strong, standout collections on account of their refusal to let the current financial climate force them to compromise the quality of their designs.…Blazers, structured trenches, bold overcoats and tailored jackets all in luxe fabrics such as herringbone, wool, shearling and wool exude high levels of subdued luxury and quality which infiltrates throughout many of the collections I have seen.…Going forward, the concept of buying quality over quantity is more relevant than ever, where classically inspired design and practical everyday wear is where investment buying is at its most prominent.

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