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Direct Male

After seasons marked by anorexic silhouettes and wisps of masculinity, male power made a comeback on the Milan Runways.

MILAN — On the last day of the Milan fall collections, Citibank, America’s largest bank, announced the greatest quarterly loss in its history—a staggering $9.83 billion write-down.

With hushed talk about the “R” word circulating in and around the fashion industry, the news sounded ominous. But for fall ’08, designers showing on the Milan runways seemed to offer an antidote: rugged, testosterone-charged clothes, luxuriously embellished and crafted for men. After seasons marked by anorexic silhouettes and wisps of masculinity, male power made a comeback. Shoulders grew more pronounced as designers heaped on raw luxury in the form of shearling, cashmere and fur.

“We know things are going to be expensive, but they look expensive,” said Michael Macko, vice-president and men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s okay if something looks like it warrants the price.”

“There’s a realness and nostalgia to this season,” added Bergdorf Goodman Men fashion director Tommy Fazio.

On the opening day of Milan Fashion Week, Dolce & Gabbana unveiled a forceful collection that embodied both of those qualities. Labels as varied as Bottega Veneta and Dsquared drew inspiration from basic workwear, and Versace was among those who opted for a strong silhouette. The designers hardly spoke in one voice, but collectively they signaled a change of direction.

Here, highlights from the Milan collections:

DOLCE & GABBANA
Last season, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana sent out cargo shorts with a built-in LED system. For fall ’08, they didn’t need high-tech gadgets to shine. In an inspired move, the designing duo abandoned the glossy surfaces and metallic extremes of the past two seasons and, instead. delved into two of their historical leitmotifs—Sicily and romanticism—to produce an unabashedly rich collection.

“There’s a sensuality to the collection,” Gabbana said before show. “It’s a bit of a memory of our first shows—the true Sicily,” Dolce added.

Of course, at Dolce & Gabbana, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. Although poorboy caps, slinky white tanks and a kind of idealized rustic sexiness marked the designers’ early men’s collections, the one they presented for this fall offered much more than just memories of their greatest hits. It was an inviting masculine dreamscape where men dress and act like primordial protectors in super-sized shearlings, chunky hand-knit sweaters and sturdy thick-soled boots.

Suits, too, took on new proportions and at times came veiled in organza. The coating was barely perceptible but cast a subtle sheen. Craftsmanship was evident in every piece, adding up to a whole that equalled the sum of its parts.

Let retailers cry foul over the exaggerated proportions, heavy weights and hefty prices. Runway shows encourage a suspension of disbelief and transport the audience beyond mundane reality. The Dolce & Gabbana show did just that. As in a dream, the designers returned home and proved it’s truly where the heart resides.

PRADA
 A psychologist would have a field day analyzing Miuccia Prada, though it’s unlikely the gifted Italian designer would ever grant anyone the opportunity.

Still, many try, season after season, to pick and prod and get at what she’s getting at. Most fail outright. Others think they’ve made headway only to be blindsided again. (It’s easy to imagine Prada taking a perverse delight in the attempts.)

For fall, the designer said she wanted to convey a sense of flat surfaces in her eccentrically sexy collection. But the show—staged on a sloping, elevated stage—was hardly flat. Once again, it left us scratching our collective heads in inspired wonder and awe.

Prada steamrolled surfaces and turned shirts on their backs. Ties and belts hung from the neck and waist, respectively, like perverse afterthoughts. Shirts—pressed to the chest like hot wax—buttoned in the back and featured optical stripes that swayed and swirled and grew bolder before fading. The compressed silhouette seemed at once emasculating and strangely enticing.

Backstage Prada reiterated her goal to stretch the boundaries of men’s wear and implement new perceptions. She insisted there was no message—which, of course, is a message in itself. You may never understand the “why” behind one of her collections, but you instinctually know when it’s right.

JIL SANDER
Has any other designer ever so deftly filled the shoes of his employer’s namesake as Raf Simons at Jil Sander? Only Simons could regard something as static, familiar and succinct as “marble” in such a variety of ways that he sustained an element of surprise throughout his riveting Jil Sander show.

The linearity and meticulous construction of the tailored pieces evoked the timeless grandeur of marble structures, while the molded shoulders of the outerwear echoed the soft contours of marble sculpture. Coats had internal construction inside oversized shoulders to create volume around the arms. Fine leather jackets skimmed the upper body so closely they could have been superhero costumes.

Ensembles in photo-realistic, allover prints of marble’s veins, pebbles and swirls were unexpectedly maximal for this quintessentially minimalist house. But their surfaces appeared so smooth, you could instantly recognize the strain of hermetic flawlessness from previous seasons.

Simons pushed the limits of pattern design in his exploration of marble’s natural inconsistency. In addition to the marbleized prints, he developed opalescent black fabric, check patterns composed of randomly wavy lines and totally woven “patchworks” of classic tweeds, integrated at random angles. Knits, lightly speckled with color, upheld the theme.

In contrast, a group of wool, tailored pieces was composed of fastidiously controlled, narrowly folded knife-pleating that registered on the eye much like pinstripes. These were said to suggest the corrugation of classical columns and pillars.

BURBERRY PRORSUM
In recent seasons, Christopher Bailey has appeared eager to flex his creative muscles and explore territory outside the precise tenets of the Burberry aesthetic he established early in his tenure. At times he seemed to have become averse to that which made him famous: trench coats, military might and a coolly modern interpretation of British style. But, for fall, he wisely let go of this notion and returned with a fresh eye to the hallmarks of the English brand. The great overcoat returned, and so did Bailey’s singular sense of British style, as seen in a smattering of printed silk shirts, flared trousers and kooky knit hats.

“It felt right to go back to tradition and explore the archives,” Bailey said. “But everything has a modern hand.”

Modern, yes, but the collection was also moody and warm, with moments of eccentricity. An autumnal palette of mossy greens, slates and muddy browns set the tone, while crochet insets on cashmere cardigans and dress shirts cut out of lace provided an offbeat counterpoint.

Bailey has an affinity for shine and texture, and both worked well when tempered with matte surfaces. Delicate plumes—they looked almost like fishing flies—fluttered romantically up the side of a black V-neck. Another sweater, made entirely out of them and then painted silver, was an exercise in overkill. But that was one of very few missteps. Bailey’s instinct to go back helped bring the collection forward.

VERSACE
“His name is Alexandre Versace,” Donatella Versace said backstage of her men’s wear design consultant, Alexandre Plokhov, before Versace’s striking fall show.

Donatella was joking, of course, but the alias was more apropos this season than last. In his sophomore effort for the house, the Russian-born designer did a better job of melding his own distinct design leanings—like graphic, dramatic cuts—into the Versace landscape. And he did so as DV made a compelling case for powerful luxury.

“We did a man who can stand next to today’s woman,” Donatella said.

Not only stand, but tower. Long, longer and longest was the message of the collection, and it came in several forms—from sweeping morning coats to floor-grazing toggle ones—all done in luxury blends, like cashmere and mink. Even the heels of shoes were accented with metal insets to aid in the illusion of length.

Suits took on similar dimensions, and here Plokhov’s handiwork was strongly in evidence. What worked less well was the color palette. The inky blues and bloody Bordeaux looked almost cartoonlike—as though they belonged in a Tim Burton movie—and detracted from the collection’s inherent luxury. Donatella would have been wise to take a lesson out of her own handbook and toss in some sensual neutrals, as she did with her splendid spring women’s show.

Still, Versace established a much more appealing men’s collection this season. Now Donatella needs to let the Versace man stand tall and have some fun while doing so.

GUCCI
Next month, Gucci will unveil its largest store in the world on New York’s Madison Avenue. Big, bigger and biggest seem to be keys to Gucci’s retail strategy—and to its aesthetic leaning.

Creative director Frida Giannini is a woman who embraces the embellished article. There’s not a grommet, a metal or a fur she doesn’t like. Her taste is not for everyone, but one must admire her unabashed gusto. Giannini doesn’t do anything in halves: When it came time to explore post-Tsar Russia for her fall outing, she did so in high-definition.

“[The fall collection represents] an irreverent man, unconventional,” Giannini said backstage.

The Italian designer mined both recollections of Cossacks and the distinct style of Ukrainian singer Eugene Hutz, the frontman of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. The mix translated into low-slung, slim trousers; long, fringed scarves, often in the same prints as untucked silk shirts; astrakhan coats; leather-trimmed cardigans; and enough roping and metals to outfit a royal army.

Maybe because Milan Fashion Week suggested a move toward a more ostentatious form of luxury or maybe because our eyes have now adjusted to Giannini’s point of view, her penchant for all things rich had more allure than in past seasons. At times this collection—a riotous panoply of dark-eyed gypsies, folkloristic prints and rock & roll steam—felt too reminiscent of period costumes. But when broken down to its parts, the pieces had spunk and retail appeal.

BOTTEGA VENETA
Fall has signaled a migration toward clothes that are authentic—rugged, rich and comforting—and no one executed the concept better than Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier.

Over the past few seasons, Maier has proven himself a singularly gifted men’s wear designer. This season he demonstrated his ability to move on from a prescribed silhouette and experiment with new proportions.

In his strapping fall collection, Maier relaxed his earlier slim, restrictive silhouettes and, in doing so, tore down conventional notions about class distinctions in the way men dress.

His base was the humble workman’s uniform: overalls, slouchy jeans large enough for a hip-hop mogul, and seamed barn coats. Yet in his hands they turned into sartorial gems, just as his suits swished with new purpose. Rolled, almost pagoda-like shoulders offset wide-legged trousers. A palette of grays, heathers, mossy greens and navy added palpability to the entire collection.

“I’ve always been very taken by the workman’s clothes,” Maier said post-show. “They have so much attitude and so much pride.”

So, it seems, does Maier, who ended the stellar show with a rousing round of formalwear. A tails-and-white-vest combo—in which the vest fell longer than the coat—was a standout. Only Maier, so confident in his own identity and BVs, could attack iconic work clothes and make us see them as pieces to covet. Using his outstanding sense of cut, color and texture, Maier twisted the worker’s everyday apparel into a new expression of luxury.

CALVIN KLEIN
Italo Zucchelli’s latest effort for Calvin Klein Collection was his strongest since taking the wheel five years ago. Sharp silhouettes and slim tailoring complemented the designer’s signature, innovative fabrics.

The apparent simplicity and body consciousness that are the hallmarks of the brand reasserted themselves at last. Strong shoulders and clean lines defined the silhouette. Reinforced stitching contoured super-slim, almost legging-like pants, especially those in leather and shearling. An ivory sweater added muscularity to the upper body. Contours were also highlighted by abstract patterns that emerged in heat-activated fabrics that changed from dark hues to white, or from black to a dark, reptilian green. Only an excess of flesh tones took the body consciousness to a discomforting level.

A handful of pieces featured cashmere flannel or classic camel hair as a facade, padded nylon as the back half. (Business up front, party in the back.) Both a laser-cut, double-layered T-shirt and a jacket sculpted from meshed, nylon ribbon (normally used for luggage straps) resembled industrial rolling shutters. The same webbing distinguished the details of a tuxedo. Zucchelli continued introducing industrialism to natural luxury by applying high-tech surface treatments.

This month, Calvin Klein Inc. takes the Collection license back in-house. Robert Vignola, the newly appointed division president, took in the show for the first time, and told DNR he was revved to leverage globally the designer collection’s “halo effect” over the pyramid of Calvin sub-brands.

DSQUARED
They’re just a couple of English blokes. Well, not exactly, but now that Dan and Dean Caten have taken up residence in London, the Dsquared boy finds himself swigging beer rather than sipping chianti; he’s more into punk than Italian disco pop. And the twins are the better for it.

For fall, their show, dubbed Ski Head, unabashedly melded the well-established and much-loved Dsquared sporty style with British clichés like punk, hooligans and tartan—the latter of which the brothers cheekily used to trim the seams of white shirts.

Outerwear, a Dsquared strength, looked particularly fresh for fall thanks to innovative patchworks and the mixing of technical and traditional fabrics. Jeans made a strong return, looking cool when cut trim and paired with great oversized knits. Suits stayed cropped and sharp.

“Aspen meets London street culture,” said Dean of the collection. “English kids are giving a lot to fashion,” added Dan.

The brothers are champions of literal references, and sometimes nothing more is needed to rouse a crowd. Upbeat, colorful, sexy and macho, the Dsquared collection was like a favorite bar. No matter how many times you revisit it, it’s still good fun.

GIORGIO ARMANI
“The show, in a very decisive way, marks a return to an assuring kind of elegance,” Giorgio Armani declared before his polished fall show, which closed the Milan collections. “There’s pleasure in beauty and aesthetics,” he added.

Armani can always be counted on to express a strong aesthetic point of view. In his 30-year-plus career, the king of Italian fashion has created and maintained a style that is inimitable and unmistakable. Each season he adds, subtracts, tweaks and brings his look forward. For fall, he demonstrated top form in a show he dubbed “Regal.”

The title hardly needed translation. The posture was buttoned-up, smart and proper, but came with an air of relaxed purpose.

Armani opened in a classic stride—four men standing tall in impeccable, textured beige jackets, paired with black velvet trousers. From there he began to explore traditional ideas of male dressing and, through stand-up collars that framed the neck, turned dress shirts into sartorial turtlenecks. Built-in

scarves on coats provided an element of drama, and new fabrications—like flocked velvet and quilted python—gave jackets depth without weight. Armani’s palette of grays, sands and chocolates looked especially rich, aided by touches of fur and hints of exotic skins.

There were few transgressions, save for an awkward-looking bellhop, laden in bags, which Armani used as runway prop. Apparently he wanted to underscore the idea of modern aristocracy, but this was not characteristic. Armani, more than anyone, knows that subtlety is the soul of luxury.

COSTUME NATIONAL
Designer Ennio Capasa infused Costume National with London street style, from early Rolling Stones to early punk. But not even in referencing the latter era was there any hint of menace. These young guys in genial sportswear were looking for a good time, or simply on the move. Even the ones in suits looked like jazz musicians, or junior investment bankers, rumpled after midweek partying.

Unlined wool bombers were light enough to layer under a coat. Biker jackets came in leather and shearling, and some featured hoods and removable sleeves. Thin, washed-cashmere sweaters were worn like long-sleeved T-shirts, with nothing underneath. Trousers varied between a lean and straight style, a five-pocket style and a baggy style with turned-up cuffs. They also came in washed napa leather. Classically cut overcoats in traditional English patterns were enhanced with practical details, such as zippers, knitted cuffs and extra pockets. Porkpie hats, fingerless gloves and “creeper” shoes finished the looks.

Capasa has a big year ahead. Both Costume National and its diffusion line, C’N’C, will launch e-commerce capability on their Web sites. In the brick-and-mortar world, Costume National will open a Moscow store and relocate its New York store to another spot in Soho, and C’N’C will open its very first store.

ETRO
Kean Etro’s enchanting show harvested fields of vegetables for a bounty of charming ideas. Never one to go halfway with a theme, he had models (shod in suede) trod on the spongy soil of a tidily varied vegetable patch that stretched the length of the runway and—mystifyingly defying gravity—straight up a soaring wall. The designer, who said he wanted to cultivate man’s respect for nature, honored the humble potato for its hunger-fighting heroism. The audience, some of whom had received invitations in the form of real potatoes, took home bean-print pocket squares sealed inside seed packets. Most importantly, the collection absolutely measured up to its elaborate presentation, making the gentleman farmer look anything but garden-variety. Tweeds, plaids, bow ties and dense, cableknit cardigans gave him a professorial air.

Etro’s signature pattern combinations—plaids, paisleys and vegetable motifs—were masterfully mingled with miles of the key fabrication, which was plush velvet in deep, earthy hues. Even wools, shearlings and suedes were probably selected for their velvety textures. A pattern of coffee beans and tomatoes registered on the eye as a brown-and-red plaid.

Satiny silks were a clever foil to all the earthiness. Lapel pins in the shape of peppers and pea pods lent a final, witty flourish.

MISSONI
For Angela Missoni’s first men’s collection since taking over from her brother, Luca, she steered the family-owned house toward a more mature sensibility while retaining its character. (She had designed the men’s collection in the late ’90s until her brother’s stint.) Even a change of show venue, to an area carpeted in acres of beige, contributed to the overall impression of a new era dawning.

The humorous motifs and riotous color of past seasons gave way to a light, dusty palette and a surfeit of camel. Sweaters of varying thickness were layered extravagantly. But the patterns were scaled down, the colors more tonal. Kaleidoscopic knitted patchwork radiated on crewneck sweaters. Single horizontal stripes divided color blocks on shawl-collar pullovers. Shawl collars, in fact, shone as the signature of the season.

Thick cardigans were flecked with color, and many had the heft and silhouette of coats. One even featured an astrakhan lining.

A distinctively roomy silhouette for tailored clothing emerged, reflecting the influence of Angela Missoni’s partner, who likes his suits oversized for comfort. Knitwear remains what this house does best, by a long lead. Despite odd styling choices that made the models look pillowy in the hips—or like refugees wearing all their clothes at once—the knitwear, when considered piece by piece, was some of the most cozy and wearable the house has done in recent memory.

ALEXANDER McQUEEN
Late last year, Alexander McQueen journeyed through India and Bhutan, and glimpsed Mt. Everest from a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. The photo he snapped of the mountain from the air was printed on show invitations and, with the sound of whooshing air piped in, the venue felt like a cavernous depot or terminal somewhere.

The show notes were a bare-bones text that outlined his travel itinerary, beginning with “London to Bangalore” and ending with “Delhi to London.” Significant? Of course. McQueen always tells his audience a story. Each look in the collection, simply called “Pilgrim,” reflected shifting balances between sharp English tailoring, and the exuberantly draped and detailed garb of the Himalayan cultures. Suits evolved into robes and wrappings—and then struggled to make their way back to form. Embroideries and sparkling embellishments, all produced in India, began as trim but became centerpieces, as in the case of a black coat that was embroidered with the outline of a gold-flowered jacket, creating a trompe l’oeil effect.

Double-faced cashmere and wool felt gave way to moleskin, fox fur, coyote and Mongolian sheepskin. Mufflers and ponchos of looped yarn were as shaggy as the furs and fleeces. Though richly dyed, the yarn underscored how natural materials lose their nobility through processing.

High-polished and tinted leather lace-ups stayed on throughout. The pilgrim never leaves his foundation, try as he might.

ROBERTO CAVALLI
Grand doorways and 14-foot walls filled with framed artwork set the stage for Old World elegance at Roberto Cavalli. A dark nocturnalism ruled.

This surprisingly subdued collection was purged of the designer’s biggest signature, his wild prints. In their place, tonal patterns were embossed on leather, burned into velvet or emerged from weavings, all by Florentine artisans. The shift represented a reasonable evolution for the brand. Eva Cavalli, who co-designs with her husband, said they had turned their attention to the wearer’s tactile sense.

But this is Cavalli, a man who knows how to party—and even how to show the Spice Girls a good time. (He designed the costumes for their reunion tour and they returned the favor by sitting in his front row.) And so the aristocratic, evening sensibility collided headlong with rock & roll attitude. (The emerging band called Rock & Roll attended, too, and appears in Cavalli’s spring ads.) Rocker-skinny pants, dramatic overcoats of shearling and fur, and heaps of leather saved the collection from too much quiet sensuality, which could induce sleep.

The designing couple’s 21-year-old son, Daniele, has had increasing input. Eva said he found the old photos that put them all in the hushed mood, and he was allowed to choose a grating, experimental rock piece for the sound track.


NEIL BARRETT

After exhausting the possibilities of punk, Neil Barrett’s tough guy now terrorizes the slopes in aggressive-looking skiwear. Yet there was a heavy undercurrent of tailored eveningwear throughout the collection, making a perfectly civil counterweight for the “ski warrior” styling. The show even opened with a tuxedo, in a way. The U-shaped neckline of black ski overalls made the white dress shirt underneath look like it had a bib front, combined with a black bow tie and jacket.

Barrett keeps turning out new versions of his signatures—waistcoats and faux-layered clothing. Coats and cardigans alike featured waistcoats attached either internally or on top. Hoods, collars and cuffs also came doubled.

Zippered ski pants were the key item, in nylon, wool gabardine and flannel versions. They were paired with washed sheepskin coats and bombers. Mohair sweaters with chalkstripes and cashmere cableknits served as an additional layer and softened some of the edginess.

SALVATORE FERRAGAMO
Taking inspiration from East Germany and abstract painter Brice Marden, designer Massimiliano Giornetti took a break from Ferragamo’s traditional sartorial splendor, and took the Florentine house in a younger, techy, citified direction.

Show notes referred to The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about the secret police’s surveillance of East Berlin’s cultural scene. Luxury in the collection was highly subtle—and at times altogether concealed from view, as it must have been in the former Eastern Bloc. After all, in the current age of plenty, more and more people of means prefer luxury that knows the importance of discretion.

On the other hand, a lot of people consider a major coat not a luxury but a necessity. (They might say the same of the crocodile-skin ties on show.) The Ferragamo customer can choose between wearing his fur on the inside or the outside of his overcoat, depending on which camp he happens to be in. Other double-sided items, combining flannel with leather or alligator skin, carried elevated value. Oversized outerwear and bags contrasted with one-button suits combining fitted jackets and skinny pants. Luxe materials mingled with technical fabrics, with everything dark as night.