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PARIS — Hard times don’t always call for conservatism, and French men’s wear designers took more risks on the runways for fall than their Italian counterparts, offering just the right dose of je ne sais quoi to keep retailers inspired.

This story first appeared in the January 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Paris didn’t play it as safe as Milan, and that’s a good thing,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“Milan was definitely more safe than Paris,” agreed Cindy Ho, fashion and merchandising director for Kuwait-based Villa Moda.

Whereas Milan riffed on old-school tailoring and a return to iconic pieces, designers during Men’s Paris Fashion Week, which ended Sunday, looked to push the boundaries of men’s tailoring in intelligent ways, leaving retailers pleased with the results.
“The mood in Paris was one of understated intelligence. Collections centered around the suit in a modern way, which offered a new solution, not a retro solution as in Milan,” said David Walker, Selfridges’ buying and merchandise director for men’s wear and beauty.

Retailers agreed the men’s suit was a focal point during the Paris shows, as was somber romance.

“There’s still a move toward dressing up, however, as, especially for the business sector, it’s not good to be seen dressing down right now,” explained Richard Johnson, Harvey Nichols’ men’s wear buying manager.

Still, buyers agreed that designers — even those with the most avant-garde aesthetic such as Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe and John Galliano — were concentrating their efforts on striking a balance between wearability and innovation.

“Everyone is making clothes to be worn. That doesn’t mean classical. Comme des Garçons was wearable, but still had a strong fashion element,” said Carla Sozzani, owner of Corso Como 10.

Many buyers said they would be trimming their budgets marginally or reducing the mix of vendors, especially niche brands, putting a premium on quality, not quantity, and sticking to houses with which they had long-lasting relationships.

“Although we’re cutting budgets, we have strong partnerships in place with key brands such as Lanvin and Balenciaga, brands that we’ve been heavily investing in over the past few seasons and with whom we wish to maintain a momentum. Sadly, we have had to cut out some of the small niche brands as we really need to focus on our core offer,” explained Johnson.

Standout collections included Lanvin, Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten, John Galliano, Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garçons, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent, Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester and Balmain, retailers said.

Here, a rundown of what buyers had to say:

Tommy Fazio, men’s fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman: “Men’s fashion starts with Lanvin, one of the most exquisite collections on the runway, combining modern sophistication, classics, colors, fabrics — it had it all. And it was so well executed and presented, it almost brought a tear to your eye. Another really exciting collection was Junya Watanabe. What he’s done to evolve is so right on point — utilitarian yet fashionable and modern. The big secret of the season was Balmain. It has the perfect pieces of a fashion customer’s wardrobe in a cohesive, tightly edited collection with soul. I’m very excited to see that name come back to life, and I’d like to pick it up. And to see how John Galliano grew up was so refreshing. You still got the full Galliano experience, but it was actually wearable.”

Eric Jennings, vice president, men’s fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue: “I don’t think the Paris trends are as identifiable as they were in Milan. You still have the trench, the turtleneck, the three-piece suit and so on, but in a more creative, less commercial way. I’ve seen laser-cut details, interesting fabric variations, more extreme silhouettes. Paris didn’t play it as safe as Milan, and that’s a good thing. There was definitely more color. I also loved, in both cities, this dual fabric paneling, where you see combinations of fabrics in a garment. That’s a cool fresh look.”

David Walker, buying and merchandise director for men’s wear and beauty, Selfridges: “Raf Simons surprised everyone showing just suits on the runway. I loved it; it was very chic and clever. There was a similar kind of mood at Dries Van Noten, which seemed understated and conservative, but when you looked closer was full of innovative fabrics and new direction. On the flip side of the coin, Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester, which was all about layering, padding and quilting, was very dark and very much about protection, but with a beautifully strong attitude. A great surprise was Paul Smith, which was fun, quirky and colorful. He did what he does best, mix and match. We are being more thoughtful and concise about who our customer is, but we are pushing the boundaries. We are trying to offer different concepts and environments for our customers to shop in, a theatrical retail environment to stimulate tastes.”

Richard Johnson, men’s wear buying manager, Harvey Nichols: “We’re assessing each collection on its own merit. Our budget is down, we’re expecting footfall in the store to drop by around 20 percent, already we can see that spending is down. The absolute best collection was Lanvin, which was really elegant and sophisticated. For a collection that is really about the detail, it translates well onto the catwalk. Dries Van Noten was also great, he’s gone back to what he does best: simple, clean pieces. The best collections were those that captured the mood of the moment by toning things down. Even Galliano produced more toned-down versions of past designs for his showroom. There was more subtlety in general. The most interesting newcomer we saw was Umit Benan. It’s based on luxury fabrics turned inside out so that the rough side shows; the wearer knows, but it’s not apparent to the outside world. I think that really captures the mood of the moment.”

Carla Sozzani, owner, Corso Como 10: “My favorite collections were Raf Simons and Comme des Garçons. Raf Simons had beautiful tailoring. In a way it was something we were all waiting for. It was a perfect men’s collection. I loved Comme des Garçons, the mix of fabrics, but at the same time, it was incredibly wearable, which is not always the case. I don’t think designers are influenced so much by the current [economic] situation. It’s good they can keep creating and not be too affected. Men’s wear like Visvim, which is Japanese sportswear, is so perfect, so detailed and perfectly made. Overall, the real direction is classic tailoring with special details. Designers were focused on sportswear for so many years and in a way I think it was killing the business. The moment you see T-shirts, sneakers and jeans on the runway for $2,000, people wonder why they should buy the designers. It was very confusing for everybody. Things are going back. Street is street and fashion is fashion. I am trimming the brands and changing directions.”

Gérard Tesson, men’s wear stylist, Bon Marché: “I loved Lanvin; it was very chic and very modern, their silhouette continues to evolve into something very modern. Veronique Branquinho is a little more difficult to access, but it also offered a fantastic color palette and proposed new volumes. Forest green, burgundy and caramel will be key colors for fall. In terms of silhouettes, belted coats, wool leggings, tartans and exotic skins were present in many collections, but there was no drastic change as far as trends and style goes from last season. In a downturn, people need strong pieces, for that reason we are not changing our strategy. In difficult times you must propose new pieces with a strong identity.”

Cindy Ho, fashion and merchandising director, Villa Moda: “The Yves Saint Laurent collection has a young, energetic look but in very refined way. Dries Van Noten’s collection is beautiful in color and material, very rich textures. Designers definitely played it safe. I hope to see some collections with happier colors. In the shows, you saw many classic items but, on the contrary, in the showrooms there are a lot of sport items. A classic jacket with sporty pants [was a key look].” Villa Moda is trimming its budget, but declined to reveal by how much.


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