It has become customary, it seems, to make some kind of connection between what is being shown on the catwalks and what is being shown on CNN. Thus you get endless nonsense, every time a pair of combat trousers appears on the runways, to the effect that this is a reference to “our military times” and that scowly models are some kind of commentary on “the paranoid times in which we live” (yes, those are direct quotes). Maybe I’m a conventional sort but, personally, if I want to talk about the war, I’ll do it orally, not sartorially.
Instead, if you really insist on finding one, the main reference in the menswear spring/summer ’08 Milan and Paris shows, which finished last week, seemed to be music festivals. Let’s see: there were the endless neon colours (very useful for your friends to find you), the fairy lights encircling the pockets on Dolce & Gabbana’s combat trousers (ditto, though the risk of electrocution would be a bit of a buzz-killer), the odd fondness for waterproof fabrics and the endless, endless accessories, from Missoni’s striped mini-champagne holder to rucksacks big enough to hold two Cath Kidston tents. And, of course, there was the influence of Pete Doherty, that elusive Thomas Pynchon of the musical world. He is the improbable new face of Roberto Cavalli, a designer whose look has always been based on the luxury yachting life – not exactly the milieu in which one usually sees Mr Doherty.
What this festival theme really shows, with its fearless embrace of bright colours and over-reliance on accessories, is how much menswear is becoming like its female counterpart. The shows themselves made this very apparent early on: whereas menswear fashion week has always been a far more easygoing proposition than the histrionics of absolutely fabulous prêt à porter, this time the shows were running a self-important 45 minutes late and certain members of the audience were getting dressed up in outfits that would have made André 3000 snort. The devil may wear Prada but the boys in the front row prefer Balenciaga knee-high gladiator sandals.
The emphasis on accessories over clothes was nowhere more obvious than at Gucci. Here, male models walked down the runway in Timmy Mallett-tastic tartan suits or patterned tops and swimsuits clutching simple weekend bags. Gee, I wonder which the brand really expects men to buy? But this seems a strangely old-fashioned approach, predicated as it is on the idea that men don’t buy designer clothes, only designer briefcases. In fact, a majority of the shows suggested otherwise: in the main, what you saw was the tactic taken by womenswear designers – crazy accessories, simple clothes. Thus, Marni featured the likes of lovely, simple pea coats and soft shirts in tandem with brightly coloured sunglasses; Lanvin’s increasingly strong menswear featured soft grey suits accessorised with bright metallic brogues, and Giorgio Armani had his usual American Gigolo slouchy suits but with enormous canvas bags I’m sure Richard Gere never touted around town. Possibly the best accessories moment came at Tod’s, a company that prides itself on making occasionally improbable accessories (a crocodile CD holder, boys?) at even more improbable prices. This season it excelled itself with bags made out of alligator skins and costing upwards of £15,000. Why is alligator more expensive than crocodile? Because, the PR speculated, “maybe alligators run faster”. And you thought fashion had no educational value.
What this all proves – according to designers, at least – is that men, like women, really do buy designer clothes; but when they make that financial commitment, they want things they will actually wear, and then allow themselves more extravagant fun with accessories. Hence the knee-high Balenciaga sandals. For this reason, menswear designers seem to find spring/summer far trickier than autumn/winter. For the latter, you can knock out endless black coats, but what to do in sunnier months without making men look like children’s TV presenters? By and large, menswear designers seem to have simply decided that that is unavoidable, and opted for endless neon colours generally more common in women’s summer collections, such as Paul Smith’s David Hockney-inspired collection and bright 80s neon details on the otherwise beautiful and more subtle Balenciaga and Burberry collections.
Others took a more elegant approach. At Yves Saint Laurent, the colours, such as pale blues, greys and golds, were a far better evocation of summer than neon orange. Calvin Klein hedged its bets with washed-out blues and beiges while Prada simply decided that men can only ever be persuaded to wear darks, but made a summery concession by featuring dark greens and plums instead of blacks. Whether this will make the floral boiler suit look a little more wearable remains to be seen, but it certainly made the slim-cut jackets and jumpers look very elegant.
But then, what do designers know? In the front row of the Louis Vuitton show Kanye West turned his Vuitton rainbow-coloured jacket inside out so the colourful swirls were even more glaring than those on the catwalk. “Colour’s cool,” the rapper said stoutly.
There was an overall sense that, in fact, designers have no idea what men want from summer clothes, which is strange, considering most of them are men. Certainly the press releases accompanying the show provided little guidance. For memorable ridiculousness, Louis Vuitton’s communique managed to beat even the one from Versace, which traditionally produces the most cheer. Sure, Donatella waxed incomprehensible about how “the concept of duality so dear to psychoanalysis and art in general is the challenge facing the Versace man in the coming spring/summer 2008 season”, though how this duality was reflected in the relatively dull show dominated by grey suits and lilac shirts wasn’t entirely clear. But I’m afraid that no matter how much “duality” the Versace man was facing, he failed to hold his own against the Louis Vuitton version, who next summer is “a space captain, somewhere between the moon and the earth, dreaming of the French Atlantic coast and transported in time to the Biarritz of Lartigue”. One can only assume this was written before the creative director Marc Jacobs finished his stint in rehab this spring.
The safest approach in menswear has always been to make luxurious basics. Bottega Veneta and Hermès are the masters of this tactic and if any man out there wants to spend more than a grand on a burnished orange hoodie or God knows how much on a beige suit, well, you know where to go – even if there is a danger that you will merely look like someone who’s a dab hand at picking out pieces from Gap. Alexander McQueen suffered from a similar problem with his 1960s Americana show, which, although nice to look at, had a decided smack of the high street. No bad thing, but perhaps not what you want from clothes with a triple-figure price tag.
Then there’s the Ivana Trump approach to fashion: buying expensive clothes for the sake of looking expensive. There is a pleasing kind of honesty to this approach, but as in womenswear, where you end up looking like Nancy Dell’Olio, in menswear you end up resembling Hugh Hefner. This old roué look was all too popular, with Dries van Noten in particular knocking out silken wrap shirts and trousers. Sometimes gimmicky dressing can be interesting, such as at Comme des Garçons, with its triple layers of jackets – unexpectedly pretty, but unlikely to translate well to the street.
For his debut collection for Dior, Kris van Assche took gimmicky to a whole new level, wresting the label back from the rock-star style given to it by Hedi Slimane and taking it back to its early-20th-century roots. All very historically commendable, I’m sure, but it seems unlikely that any man recently stood outside his wardrobe, smacked his forehead and said: “My God, you know what I need? I need trousers cut so high they sit under my ribs and then billow out at the thighs. How have I not noticed this gaping hole before?”
The truth is, what men want from their wardrobe isn’t so different from what women want: clothes that are wearably normal but better than normal. The best shows for this were Miu Miu and Raf Simons. At the former there were casual grey suits with a slightly stretched silhouette, with longer jackets and narrow trousers and beautiful 1920s prints. With Slimane out of the picture, Simons is easily the strongest menswear designer around and his collection for next season focused on simple, desirable basics, such as skinny trousers, sporty jackets and boxy shirts, but made more interesting with details such as puckering pleats, drawstrings and ruching. It sounds an obvious formula, and it is. Watch out, boys, you’ll be getting all fussed about It bags, soon.