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A Bridge Too Far

As runway shows test the limits of men’s fashion, a question arises: Where is the line between edgy and over the edge?

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Special Issue
Menswear issue 09/26/2011

Miniskirts printed with tropical flowers. Regal, sleeveless evening columns. Billowing, pleated culottes.

This story first appeared in the September 26, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Those are among the fashion propositions for men that stalked the Paris runways for spring 2012—from Givenchy, Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto, respectively—reigniting an old debate: How far is too far in men’s wear?

Despite, or perhaps because of, an era of Mad Men conservatism, designers seem in a mood to push gender boundaries. In Milan, Raf Simons showed flaring shorts and see-through plastic raincoats for Jil Sander; in Paris, Thom Browne incorporated lamp-shade fringe, pearls and hobbling silhouettes into a cabaret-themed collection. At the edgy Japanese brand Julius, the offerings included asymmetric man-bras.

Retailers regard such experimentation with a jaundiced eye, saying showroom collections rarely echo outré show looks—and thankfully so.

“I thought Jil Sander this season was very extreme, with high-waist, multipleat shorts teamed with cropped knitwear. The looks on the runway were difficult, but in the showroom there was a hugely commercial collection,” notes Stephen Ayres, head of men’s wear buying at London department store Liberty. “For me, the focus has to be ‘Will we sell it?’ in order for me to buy it.”

 

Designers, by contrast, are unapologetic, and mostly blithe to the idea of men in skirts, whose shock value has dulled since the Eighties, when renegade designers like Jean Paul Gaultier proposed them as modern-day attire.

 

“Men’s wear has always been boring, [with] its traditional pants-shirt-jacket formula. But in the last few seasons, it’s been particularly boring and traditional,” laments Nicola Formichetti, the Lady Gaga stylist and creative director at Mugler, who has populated his men’s runway with tattooed zombie boys in streamlined suits, muscle gods in tight glitter pants and, in a nod to layering, one model wearing a black jockstrap over a thong. “I don’t know what to wear anymore. There are all these rules and brackets to fit into. That’s what, for us designers, makes it more of a challenge.”

 

 

Whereas women’s fashion can jump from bohemian to futuristic from one season to the next, charting new directions in men’s wear is a much slower process, Formichetti explains. “With men’s, you can’t really introduce a new silhouette that doesn’t feel comfortable,” he adds.

Indeed, it took several years for Hedi Slimane’s skinny, rock-influenced look for Dior Homme—introduced in 2001—to take hold, and its influence on men’s wear lingered for several years after his exit from Dior in 2007.

 

For Marc Jacobs, who wears a skirt or kilt “six out of seven days a week,” questions of what’s appropriate attire for men today are practically moot. His wardrobe includes pencil skirts from Prada and full-circle styles from Comme des Garçons—both from the women’s department—in addition to men’s kilts from the CdG men’s collection. The designer says he’s a little oblivious to reactions in the street. “Kilts get the least reaction,” he adds. “Some people who do respond say, ‘Oh, are you Scottish?’ ”

“I do think the boundaries of what’s masculine and what’s feminine have really blurred,” Jacobs continues. “Even a young man who wears a headband to hold back his hair: It doesn’t mean they’re gay or effeminate. It just holds their hair back. Rock stars wear makeup. Guys wear eyeliner or black nail polish. It doesn’t seem outrageous in a club or in a group of young guys.”

Belgian fashion renegade Walter Van Beirendonck, whose first large-scale retrospective, “Dream the World Awake,” will open at the Antwerp Fashion Museum this month, maintains that designers are less experimental now than they were in the past. “If you think back to what happened in the Seventies and Eighties with Courrèges and even Jean Paul Gaultier, it was a very adventurous period for men’s wear at that time, and now it’s coming back a little bit, but it’s not that adventurous in general,” he says.

For his spring show, Van Beirendonck collaborated with Austrian artist Erwin Wurm on a series of bulbous, wearable sculptures covered in tulle flowers—imagine giant pompoms with legs. The bulk of the collection, however, was less wacky: tailored patchwork suits with a geeky Fifties flavor and tribal touches.

New York-based Browne has been toying with extreme proportions since he introduced his first shrunken jacket and trousers six years ago.

“I have always been as provocative as possible in order to really almost make the most basic things seem more interesting,” he says. “I thought the reason for being a designer was to actually show things to people in a way that they hadn’t seen before.”

Browne doesn’t hold back with his offbeat productions either. On the runway, he displays hints of satire and a heightened sense of theater. “For me, a show is not about showing the commercial part of what is in the showroom, but it’s more about introducing new ideas that make people think and make the world of fashion move forward,” he says.

 

The tactic, he argues, eventually makes the more extreme men’s trends seem more pleasing, even to the conservative eye. “Especially with guys, it’s not an overnight thing, it takes them a little bit more time,” Browne says, suggesting the men’s wear industry has become more daring in recent years. “But you just can’t expect everyone to get it immediately. And if you want to do something really interesting, you can’t expect everyone to get it.”

 

Still, retailers aren’t buying into it—much.

“Our customer tends to react well to new trends and silhouettes, but their main focus is on quality and cut,” says Liberty’s Ayres. He notes that “out there” runway pieces are great to generate press interest, but they’re a hard sell.

Show looks represent a small percentage of Liberty’s buy, with the store selling a large proportion of its more adventurous pieces to Asian customers. The ideal formula, as Ayres sees it, is a brand that can both generate buzz and give buyers access to a commercial range to drive sales in store.

Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s at Barneys New York, says he bought skirts and dresses from designers such as Rick Owens, Givenchy, Yamamoto, Alexandre Plokhov and Ann Demeulemeester. From his standpoint, it’s not about defining gender with garments. “Rather, what we view as a dress in fashion collections today is seen more as a costume of sorts that appears in history and in many different cultures, and has a relevance as an icon today,” he muses.
So how to pull off the look in the 21st century? In the spring collections, skirts were often layered with tights or accessorized with Birkenstocks in an active sportsman way; dresses were layered with blazers and rugged boots with a monastic undertone, notes Kalenderian. “The men’s wear industry is known for falling back on the focus on uniforms,” he says. “Whether they emanate from the military or an existing ethnic culture…these icons can become a basis to create trends.”

Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, allows that gender-bending has not made great progress since the New York institution mounted its “Men in Skirts” exhibition in 2003, give or take the odd beach sarong here or Highland kilt there. “You’re still not seeing very many men in the streets wearing skirts,” he says, adding, “The parameters of men’s wear are much narrower than women’s wear.”

But while men’s fashion might not have a modern-day provocateur, à la Lady Gaga, to popularize more daring styles, the likes of Jacobs, David Beckham—and a swath of hip-hop performers with their “dandified aesthetic”—have all helped to move the needle toward a broader range of expression for men, Bolton maintains. Designers including Browne, Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo, and Paul Smith have also been slowly “chipping away at gender categories” in prints and materials, not only forms.

Owens looks at it another way. In showing jackets layered over priestly raw silk robes, or long straight skirts split open at the back, the designer says that he was thinking of history rather than sex, with Gustav Klimt’s painting smock among the references.

“I don’t expect to change the way men dress. I was just suggesting an option,” Owens says. “I liked projecting a formal dignity in a timeless and borderless way…I was thinking of myself and a week alone on an island.”

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