By  on August 14, 2014

PARIS — Men’s wear is taking a page from women’s wear — at least when it comes to fabrics.

Buoyed by fleets of more fashion-conscious customers, high-end men’s wear designers here are turning to women’s wear for clues to elevate their collections. Sidestepping fancy frills and embellishments unlikely to raise their customers’ interest, they are increasingly embracing unique fabrics, cleverly melding creativity with comfort — an attribute that resonates well with their clientele.

“Fabric is for me one of the essential elements that make up a modern wardrobe,” said Neil Barrett, whose label has been on a winning streak for the past several seasons, striking a chord with press and retailers alike. “We all have our methods, and I really believe in comfort, not just cutting a garment for design’s sake,” he said, adding that comfort comes with the composition of a material.

Barrett, a former design director at Prada men’s wear when it launched in 1995, has a track record of employing high-tech fabrics in his tailoring. He was among the first to use polyester stretch for Prada’s minimalist-chic suits, now a common men’s wear staple. “But back then,” he reminisced, “it was a women’s wear thing.”

Today, with his own label, Barrett manipulates textiles to create sculptural silhouettes with a masculine aesthetic. “Starting in autumn-winter 2012, the idea was to bring women’s couture into men’s wear, like an opera coat, but made simple,” Barrett explained. He took to “emptying” the fabric to preserve the construction but reduce weight, essentially conjuring garments as comfortable as travel clothing, and whipping up new surfaces. For fall, he introduced his version of an ecologically friendly “fur,” digitally printing a photograph of a black and a brown bear and multiplying it on various pieces — a duffle coat, a sweatshirt, a bomber. “I tried real fur, but it looked too retro, and eco fur was so pantomime,” Barrett said, eager to explore further options. “Every season I’m like: What’s next?”

For fashion designers keen on bringing novelty to the table, working hand-in-hand with specialized mills has become a must, and some immerse themselves in it more than others.

Tillmann Lauterbach, who learned the ropes at Italian cult manufacturer Luciano Barbera, said the stint taught him “to appreciate materials and the range of possibilities they give you. Fabrics make 50 to 60 percent of the design, and they provide a certain rigor with which to express your thought.”

Lauterbach is a fan of natural materials, mostly wool and cotton. Last summer, he double-boiled seersucker, thereby exaggerating its 3-D pattern; as the fiber retreated under high temperature, it also enhanced the fabric’s cooling effect. “It sounds very geeky, but is actually very comfortable and more durable,” he noted.

The designer said that although the idea is not new, it has slipped into oblivion. “It was the Japanese who put a thin mesh of bamboo on the back of a kimono, which was heavily layered, to produce natural air conditioning,” he said.

Lauterbach, who was nominated for this year’s LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, laments a lack of innovation in textiles over the last three or four years, but said he has sensed a big shift in attitude and progress in the eco department. “Today it’s important to create a story. It’s not just about the look, but about how the garment was made, who made it and was it good for the planet.”

Using synthetic fiber made from recycled PET bottles may almost appear basic, considering that Lauterbach has long been creating arty sweaters knitted from second-hand denim threads and turning down fabrics that do not meet his production criteria.

Although it’s difficult to place a figure on how much money and time fashion labels invest in textile development, all designers queried acknowledged that it was “substantial.”

Berluti’s artistic director, Alessandro Sartori, said the company invests “a lot” in fabric research and development in an attempt to create “a new generation of garments,” employing a number of technical quirks on luxurious fabrics, melding elegance with functionality.

Perhaps its most innovative concoction thus far is a triple cashmere, developed with a small Italian supplier who, according to Sartori, is not present at any textile show. “Every layer is there for a reason and together they weigh only 700 grams,” he said of the fabric, which premiered in Berluti’s fall collection.

The outside layer is made of cashmere felt and is water resistant; the inner part is cashmere flannel, replacing a lining and keeping the wearer warm, and sandwiched between the two sits cashmere poplin, providing construction without weight. Consequently, a chic men’s coat becomes as technical as a sportswear item.

Other fabrics such as the house’s “grand cru,” a term taken from the wine and spirits department, is reserved for its bespoke line. “It’s the finest wool fabric in the world,” Sartori said of the 13-micron wool with a yarn count of 201 (meaning, with one kilogram of yarn, one can spin a thread 201 kilometers long). “It’s super fine yet resilient, light yet warm,” explained the designer, adding: “Fabrics are a fantastic playground; I consider them as important as design.”

Kris Van Assche, artistic director of Dior Homme, said that in men’s wear, fabrics have always been important, both as a sign of social identity — “[Consider] the white poplin of the 19th century bourgeois elite versus the blue denim of the working class,” he said — and as a sign of masculinity.

“The fabrics have been and — to a certain extent — remain a strong frontier between men’s wear and women’s wear. Lace is not exactly regarded as the most mannish of fabrics,” he pointed out, but as “lightness and comfort are essential to men nowadays,” fabrics constitute “a strong source of inspiration as they can shape the silhouette and enhance the allure.”

For Van Assche, “the interesting route” is to use them in ways least expected — such as employing denim for a suit, which is what he did for spring 2015. He sees mixing fabrics, in general, as a way of deconstructing men’s wear conventions and codes.

“It can go as far as [pairing] embroideries — which relate in the first place to couture — with the sartorialism and bespoke codes of a three-piece suit,” he said, pointing to the lily-of-the-valley motif embroidered on Dior Homme’s winter suits this season.

Sometimes a new fabric is born out of a technical problem. “Often a technique does not work the way you want it to — it slides when you sew it or it doesn’t sew at all,” said Lucas Ossendrijver, who grew men’s fashion at Lanvin beyond its traditional bespoke business after taking over as the house’s creative director for men in 2006. “But then you have to find a solution together with the mills. It’s almost like being a doctor. You have to find a [cure].”

This summer, Ossendrijver had a double fabric in mind, but wanted it to be cotton voile — light, yet sculptural. “First, I thought about bonding the two layers, but it was too stiff. So we started experimenting with a very thin layer of mousse in between the cotton voile [sheets], and we ended up with a fabric that was transparent, quite bouncy and breathable,” he said, praising it as the perfect result of an exchange with the manufacturer. “It’s all about communication,” he added.

Ossendrijver said in men’s wear, shapes remain largely the same and things shift “by a millimeter, more or less.”

“What really changes are the fabrics. They are one of the building blocks of men’s wear. With them, you can go and express yourself. That’s why we develop our own colors, textures and patterns, and that’s what’s quite recognizable about Lanvin,” he said, pointing to the house’s founder Jeanne Lanvin, who bought a dye factory to mix her own palette and moved the studio in-house to avoid copycats.

Among the most experimental designers is Damir Doma, who believes fabrics create value. Eighty percent of his fabrics are designed exclusively for his collections. “Today everyone wants to be and do luxury, and it turns into such a cheap word — it doesn’t mean anything anymore. What is important is the idea of longevity, and you can create that through substance. Our substance is our fabric, it’s what makes the piece; it’s a great tool,” he said.

Doma believes the possibilities of working with materials are endless. Stone washing, boiling wool or rubber finishes are just the basics, he argued.

He is his best advocate. Last winter, he took images of dried, pressed leaves and created an exclusive jacquard, ramping it up with a fil coupé, steering strongly into haute couture territory.

“I think in our case the customer comes for the fabric. We made it very clear from the start that this is our signature,” he said, lamenting the fact that not enough designers are pushing the envelope. “Most materials are still very conservative and very safe. This has to change. We always talk about how great men’s wear is doing, but compared to women’s ready-to-wear it’s still nothing.”

Known for going against the flow, Doma launched his men’s collection proposing softly tailored, relaxed silhouettes at a time when Hedi Slimane’s slim fit at Dior Homme set the tone. His goal is to up the exclusivity factor of his textiles to 100 percent, but he said, “It only makes sense if the value of the fabrics is visible, otherwise people don’t get it.”

Wanting to be creative means having to do it yourself. “I personally don’t go to Première Vision anymore. It’s too late in the season. If I waited until September, I would never get the fabrics out in time from the mills,” he said. Also, what the textile fairs propose is “standard,” as most mills realize that designers want to create their own fabrics anyway.

Instead, Doma combs through the archives of a few trusted manufacturers. “Their archives are like treasure troves. It’s especially interesting to see the things that never made it to the market, they are often the most creative; and then you take what you find there and you push it one more step. It’s really intense. I think it’s the reason why our men’s wear is doing so well.”

What he enjoyed most last season was the idea of painted canvas. He took a heavy-weight cotton and gave it a full spa treatment of cold-washing, dyeing and over-painting, creating a feel and surface that was intriguing. “For me, it’s not about decoration, it’s about texture. I want fabrics not to look vintage but worked,” he said.

After all, said Doma, “In fashion we try to make people look attractive, uplift them, make them look better than they usually do. [Our] main goal is beauty.”

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