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Menswear issue 03/03/2014

The strict look is fading as a new attitude emerges among men’s clothing designers. Fashion is taking a turn toward soft blazers with lightweight constructions, and comfortable pants. The trick is not to lose elegance as menswear goes easy and soft.

Take the new Lanvin collection. Alber Elbaz and menswear designer Lucas Ossendrijver slip past the boundaries separating formal and informal to create a fashion realm in which old-school tailoring and skater influences coexist in harmony. Among the other designers now setting off in search of a more casual look and feel are Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier, who lends the classic gray office suit an artsy touch; Salvatore Ferragamo’s creative director, Massimiliano Giornetti, who delivers a range of cool, sporty suits (which, on the catwalk, came paired with white T-shirts); and Sir Paul Smith, whose signature British eccentricity brings together blazers with tailored sweatpants. The list could go on.

This story first appeared in the March 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As the relatively short popularity of the Mad Men–inspired business look recedes, a renewed call for soft tailoring emerges. “I think that the boom of soft tailoring reflects a huge shift in people’s social habits,” says Nino Cerruti, president of Lanificio F.lli Cerruti. “Once, men, sticking to a sort of uniform, dressed themselves to respect the etiquette and affirm their role in society. Nowadays, men use clothes to express their personality and individuality.”

According to Cerruti, we should look back at the late sixties to see the roots of the soft-tailoring trend. “I can say we have been pioneers with our brand Hitman, even if soft tailoring took a while to be commonly accepted,” he says.

A big transition occurred in 1980, when a softly tailored Richard Gere—playing Julian Kaye in American Gigolo—stole the hearts of women while pushing men to burn their old wardrobes. The sophisticated suits he wore in that movie were made by Giorgio Armani, who cut his teeth as a men’s designer at Hitman from 1964 to 1970.

“My entire work revolved around the jacket, which represents the ultimate must-have of menswear,” Armani says. “My strength lies in the decision to remove any stiffness from this piece, showing an unexpected naturalness. I took out the padding from the linings, changed the disposition of the buttons, and, season after season, I worked on the proportions, because I wanted my jackets to be comfortable, lightweight, and also sensual in their constructions.”

We can go back even further than the era of Hitman, to the thirties, when Neapolitan tailor Vincenzo Attolini broke the rigid rules of classic British sartorial tradition. His jackets were elegant, fresh, and more casual. “Armani succeeded in creating a commercial reinterpretation of what my grandfather realized in the thirties, making it available to a larger audience,” says Massimiliano Attolini, grandson of Vincenzo. “About eighty years after my grandfather invented the soft and deconstructed jacket, we are now collecting the fruits of his revolution. Following the excess of the eighties and nineties, men are now looking for elegant suits of high quality. Men are not fashion victims, and the fashion industry is understanding this.”

“The fashion world is taking our direction,” adds Antonio De Matteis, chief executive officer of Naples-based tailoring company Kiton. “We are now ahead of the game, because we perfectly handle those difficult techniques fundamental to give softness to the pieces.”

Confirming Leonardo da Vinci’s motto that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Cerruti says, “When you get into the soft tailoring, all those structures that stiffen the pieces, giving a perfect shape to the body, are significantly reduced—so imperfections are dramatically disclosed. Tailors must be extremely precise, as well as the associates on department stores’ men’s floors.”

The contrast between the relaxed look of such apparel and the complexity of its manufacturing creates a “paradox,” according to Costume National’s creative director, Ennio Capasa. “The soft-tailoring trend is forcing us to raise the bar on quality because, to obtain that effect, we have to use precious materials and high-end details,” he says.

The easygoing look helps make formalwear more desirable for a younger audience, Capasa adds.

“Today, customers approaching tailoring for the first time grew up in extremely casual clothes. They are the result of the sneaker-and-casualwear culture, so soft tailoring offers them a great chance to be at ease in a suit.”

“The soft-tailored trend knows no age or generation,” says Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing. “The customer’s lifestyle needs are changing, no matter his age. Designers are responding to how the customer lives his life today. Fashion is a reflection of the times. Many of our customers are responding to the casual elegance that speaks to luxury and comfort.”

Let’s give the last word to Armani: “An Armani suit is well appreciated,” he says, “because it never has a stiff and rigid look, and it also helps young men feel comfortable in formal occasions.”

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