By and  on June 6, 2012

PARIS — Could fashion be suiting up for a new era?

With acclaimed men’s wear mavens now piloting storied women’s houses — headlined by Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent and Raf Simons at Christian Dior — it just might spark an important change in female style.

Giorgio Armani, perhaps the industry’s most compelling example of a designer who successfully made the leap from men’s into women’s, said of the overall trend, “A men’s wear designer never loses sight of the relation between shape and function, which, transferred into women’s wear, can give great results.”

And what else might a men’s wear designer bring to the table that a women’s wear specialist might lack?

“I think the sense of reality, the elegance translated into a clean and bold line,” Armani replied.

Massimiliano Giornetti, who was named creative director for all product lines at Salvatore Ferragamo in 2010 after a decade in its men’s department, agreed that “the idea of construction and functionality — a concept banned from women’s fashion for years,” is something second-nature to designers formed in men’s wear.

“Men’s fashion always had the necessity to combine aesthetics and functionality, because men refuse to wear pieces featuring details with no function,” Giornetti noted.

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Slimane and Simons have yet to unveil their first women’s looks for their respective houses. (Slimane is slated to show men’s and cruise collections to buyers this month, while Simons’ Dior debut will be during Paris Couture Week in July.)

Yet a variety of observers — from designers and retailers to headhunters and educators — agreed that the advent of more men’s wear specialists in the women’s universe is an exciting development.

“We need change in fashion; the world is changing,” said Karl Lagerfeld. “I think it’s a good thing.”

“Change is progress and there is no better time than the present to be viewing women’s ready-to-wear through a new 21st-century lens,” added Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Toronto-based Holt Renfrew. “From what I have seen, designers from men’s wear definitely have the requisite skills to create what today’s female customers want in terms of apparel and accessories, mainly because men’s wear is based on a foundation of precision, mastering construction and technical details.”

Strategic luxury adviser Concetta Lanciaux, a former adviser to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and the French group’s longtime human resources chief, said fashion today needs a jolt, having spent the last 10 years reviving recent decades — from the Fifties through to the Nineties. The arrival of Slimane and Simons at two storied houses also comes at a time when women’s wear sales at retail are flagging, spurring many stores to call out for a new direction. Meanwhile, men’s wear sales are booming, driven by a new, slimmer silhouette and a younger, more fashion-aware consumer.

“Since Armani, we have not really had a new silhouette; we’re revisiting the past. Big changes in fashion always come around structure and cut. Who are those who make structure? It’s those who do men’s,” she said.

She noted that Simons, who was at Jil Sander before joining Dior, and Phoebe Philo, creative director of Céline, have already been pointing fashion in this direction — an emphasis on form and shape rather than surface decoration.

Slimane, who electrified men’s wear with a brief stint at YSL Rive Gauche Homme and then seven years helming Dior Homme, has remained mum on his intentions as YSL’s new creative director, and plans to show “transitional” cruise and men’s lines this month to retailers only.

He and Simons declined to be interviewed for this article.

However, sources suggest Slimane is obsessed with tailoring and plans to make that a key style statement when he stages his first women’s show this fall during Paris Fashion Week. YSL has two ateliers on Avenue George V here devoted to “tailleur” and one for “flou,” which refers to fluid or dressmaker garments.

Several observers suggested that turbulent economic times have nudged consumer tastes toward more enduring fashions — and tailoring has been a feature in fashion for centuries.

“We are seeing a shift in the gender register: Men are getting more feminine and women more masculine,” Holt Renfrew’s Atkin noted. “That, along with the postrecession demand for classic, timeless pieces, has pushed designers like Phoebe Philo for Céline to design stealth collections that can be described as more masculine than feminine in their aesthetic.”

Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, agreed that men’s wear designers — coaxed into the women’s arena — will “add something to the equation.” She was referring to the “rigorous design process” and “formal vocabulary” of men’s wear — the trouser, the coat, the jacket, the suit — all garments that are appealing to women.

Asked why there seems to be an influx of men’s specialists to the women’s realm now, Golbin noted that men’s wear became “very creative” in the Nineties when women’s wear was mired in minimalism — roughly when Slimane and Simons came onto the radar as innovators with their edgy, occasionally androgynous styles, influenced by music and street culture.

To be sure, many men’s wear practitioners have segued successfully into the women’s domain — Ralph Lauren and Armani among them.

Among men’s wear specialists industry players would like to see spread their wings into women’s wear in the future are Kim Jones (men’s style director at Louis Vuitton), Lucas Ossendrijver (men’s designer at Lanvin) and Véronique Nichanian (men’s designer at Hermès.)

Why do fashion designers ultimately focus on one gender over another?

“It’s a matter of natural instinct: Some designers always put in their mind the body of a woman — hips, waistline, bosom. Some others are thinking more to architecture, construction and volume,” said Paris-based industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart.

As for the ability to cross gender lines, “It’s just a matter of a clear vision: Will he be sensitive enough to the women’s world, her behavior, needs and expectations, to be inspired in the right way?” according to Picart.

“Don’t forget that today men and women share a lot of mannerisms in terms of the way of thinking, lifestyle and the way of dressing,” he added.

“Femininity, luxury and style are the key elements for a woman to dress with personality,” said Linda Loppa, director of the Polimoda, International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence. “Some designers overdress a woman, make her a sex symbol or make her vulgar. If the designer respects that a woman doesn’t need to be overdressed to flatter, he has the key of success in his hands.”

Loppa has detected a spike in interest in men’s wear among students lately. “It seems easier to express an idea, a mood, a volume, while women’s wear is more complex,” she mused.

Mary Gallagher, Paris-based associate for New York search firm Martens & Heads, pointed out that, “Men’s wear is being looked at very closely now. Thanks to business in China, men’s wear is growing faster than women’s wear at many brands.”

She noted there are potential risks engaging a designer who has no experience in women’s wear for a house with feminine roots.

“Men’s wear designers tend to have more training in tailoring and less in draping and flou, which could lead to a one-note collection,” she said. “Also fabrics for women’s wear are much more diverse and generally richer, and various colors and prints tend to be used much more.”

Beyond that, observers agreed that strong talents are capable of bridging the gender divide.

“Probably an important factor that they all have is a very clear global creative leadership, a unique ability to invent and decide with no compromise what are the creative signals that make sense for a given brand today,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs an executive search and consulting firm in Paris. “Impact and success don’t come just from creativity. It comes from impeccable, fresh and timeless design supported by the most impeccable quality. This current mutual respect between luxury brands and their clients is a key success factor that I find very interesting to watch.”

Gallagher agreed, noting: “If a creative director has a vision of the person he-she is dressing and that vision dovetails with the DNA and customer base of the brand, and if the creative director has had a great success and attention with men’s wear, management are betting the magic will cross over to women’s.”

Ferragamo’s Giornetti allowed that buyers and press were initially skeptical when he took over the women’s collection, given that he came from inside the company and from the men’s team. (Cristina Ortiz and Marc Audibet are among previous designers of Ferragamo women’s.)

“But I think that the choice was pretty natural, because, growing with the company, I had the possibility to catch the essence of the brand,” Giornetti said.

“For me the creative process is exactly the same,” stressed Armani. “For sure women’s wear has more elastic and wide codes compared with men’s wear, but I can say that in my search for a style linked to reality and which refused eccentricity in itself, I have never considered the design of women’s and men’s collections in a different way. The challenge was to adapt sartorial codes to women’s wear, making them liquid, fluid and graceful.”

In Giornetti’s estimation, hiring men’s wear designers for more “feminine” houses is a relatively new avenue for the industry.

“I think this concept is linked to a more modern view of men’s fashion, which was pretty rigid and static. In the last 20 years, many prejudices fell. Men’s wear is now influenced by design and it has introduced innovative fabrics and new techniques,” he explained.

But might an influx of men’s wear mavens ultimately lead to a “masculinization” of fashion?
Pshaw, observers agreed.

“I think it’s fascinating to interpret tailoring in a feminine way and my goal is not to masculinize women but to bring both a sartorial approach and comfort to women’s wear,” said Giornetti.

“I’m excited because it signals the possibility of a new era in fashion beginning now,” said Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty in London. “Fresh ideas from fresh eyes with a modern perspective — wonderful!”

He stressed that customers ultimately decide if new propositions and directions in fashion flourish or fizzle.

Loppa, for one, argued that women’s fashions could afford to lose some of their frivolity.

“A woman can be sexier with flat shoes and a nice garment or a beautiful hairstyle,” she said. “I see many women in the street walking on those terrible high heels and looking ridiculous.”

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