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Even in the boom times a mere two years ago, some lip service was paid to “stealth wealth,” the art of having it without flaunting it. Now wealth must be more stealth than ever, at least until the temptation to blame the recession on men in power suits subsides.
This story first appeared in the October 12, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Conspicuous consumption may invite suspicions of exotic financial instruments, criminal recklessness and ill-gotten gains. Frankly, without moralizing, it just looks passé.The solution? Not to appear unemployed—heaven forbid—but rather like you don’t have to work. The kind of offhand, effortless elegance that says, “Oh this? This has seen me through a lot of times, let me tell you. It’s old, kind of like my money. That’s why I have nothing to prove, and no need to exert myself except, maybe, for recreation.”
The most ubiquitous emblem of lived-in luxury, and the most potent wardrobe update for spring, is tailored clothing that has been crushed or washed. Bottega Veneta defined lived-in luxury with wrinkled blazers and tie-dyed knitwear, things with a semblance of experience behind them.
“We wanted to offer clothes that are particularly individualistic,” says Bottega’s Tomas Maier.
Burberry Prorsum, ground zero for the aesthetic of disheveled elegance, offered featherweight trenchcoats and blazers with puckered seams, in pastel colors evoking anything but a crowded London train. And Prada? It appeared to ransack a haberdashery with a pair of scissors.
“Let’s make the city suit more relaxed,” Miuccia Prada says of the herringbone and houndstooth cutoffs. Prada and Calvin Klein Collection both riffed on mesh, something normally reserved for sports, since nothing conveys informality better than activewear. “Men unconditionally love sports, even those who don’t practice one,” says Stefano Gabbana.
As a result, bare arms came out of hiding all over the runways, often with gym-inspired skimpy tops. Gucci made references to wind sports, and Louis Vuitton to bike messengers. Paul Helbers, Louis Vuitton’s men’s studio director under Marc Jacobs, describes the collection as “aerodynamic silhouette cuts for the world’s most efficient traveler.”
Travel and escapism exerted a powerful allure across the collections, which looked downright nomadic at times. “The Missoni man is an explorer, who travels far and returns with a closet packed with memorabilia, classic fabrics, ancestral signs and work gear,” notes Angela Missoni.
A few collections channeled the hard-working, earthy appeal of cowboys in the West. But many more faced East. Orientalism took hold via non-Western silhouettes (especially in trousers), ethnic patterns, decadent silks and colonial themes.
“I wanted to find another approach to ethnic, making it very smart, elegant and sartorial,” says Dries Van Noten, who conjured soft tailored clothing out of batiks, ikats and block prints as well as traditional Western patterns.
Phillip Lim, showcasing men’s wear by itself for the first time, alluded to the Beatniks’ rejection of Western male values. “There needs to be a sense of vulnerability and transparency.
I want to see and feel that a person is actually human, not just fear the shoulder pads or the briefcase,” Lim says.
Yet, while fashion may have turned anticorporate, it hasn’t turned against the suit. Designers breathed new life into Mr. Two Piece for spring. One can’t use the term “leisure suit,” since it immediately conjures images of double-knit polyester Seventies relics, but a sense of leisure is exactly what pervaded the runways. No longer is razorlike precision the most prized quality of a suit. No longer must a suit provide custom-fitted armor against corporate aggression. Loose and light, the spring styles are perfectly appropriate for traveling, holidays or leisure pursuits.
“It’s about how a suit is composed, trying to respect the heritage, but making it more comfortable, soft and modern for today’s use,” says Dior Homme’s Kris Van Assche.
There will be beautiful business attire for spring, as well, of course. Giorgio Armani, the sine qua non of soft tailoring in the Eighties, was back on top of his game with impeccable suits. Il Maestro cited a general movement toward the timeless and low-key.
“Then, as always happens in fashion, the pendulum will probably swing in the other direction so that when the economy starts to pick up, we will see a return to glamour,” he predicts.
Ermenegildo Zegna delivered for the gentleman worker, too. “The collection captures an easy yet stylishly relaxed approach,” says Anna Zegna, image director. “Linen, silk and wool—the three purest of summer’s natural fibers—rediscover their essence as the core of a gentleman’s real wardrobe.”
“It’s a very casual approach to luxury,” adds Chief Executive Officer Gildo Zegna. “Clothing to be worn in a very natural and free way.” Ralph Lauren covered both ends of the spectrum, from washed suits in Polo to unwavering power suits in Purple Label. “Purple Label is for a glamorous guy, not a trendy guy who changes silhouettes when a magazine tells him to,” says Lauren. “It’s about confidence and individuality.”
Indeed, suiting the individual, especially when it comes time to buy, proved the ultimate mission this season. “I want to help men be a little more open with the way they dress, to shift the identity of tailoring…and work on finding a man’s uniform outside the conventional suit,” notes Stefano Pilati of Yves Saint Laurent.
For the eccentric gent, Paul Smith went all-in with brightly colored suits. Why not? It shows timeless flair. And longevity and ease are the tools smart designers will use to appeal to smart consumers this season.
“Now, more than ever, clients are informed, careful and critical regarding the item they buy,” says Dolce & Gabbana group managing director Cristiana Ruella. Domenico Dolce called their collection “an homage to male beauty.” Dior Homme’s Van Assche says he pursued the same ideal, having banished “androgyny and trashiness” from the house.
In the end, though, even designers admit beauty doesn’t necessarily come from clothes. As Van Assche says, “Beauty comes from a certain pride of walking with a straight back and your chin up.”