Innovation In A Man’s World

PARIS-For a while now, people have been saying that the overheated fashion business needs to cool down. There are too many products, too many shows, too many points of entry.

Of course, the Internet is frequently blamed for turning fashion into a commodity. At the same time, online shopping has become a substitute for other addictive behavior. "It's like cocaine," a stylist said the other day.

Yet, when people talk about an overheated system, maybe what they crave is a more genuine sense of excitement. If that's true, then from where is it likely to come and what forms will it take?

Certainly the clothes created by Raf Simons in his couture debut at Dior, on Monday, portend a new feeling for beauty free of irony and postmodern tricks. But the women's side of the business has always been complicated, with deeply embedded habits, among them a tendency on the part of consumers to buy things based on what they see in magazines or on celebrities. And let's face it: many women today are satisfied with a new handbag or pair of shoes.

No, the change is far more likely to come from the men's side, and strange as it may sound, the companies in the best position to supply excitement are those that already cater to the superrich, namely, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

If those companies were resting on their laurels, there would be nothing to argue. But the designs of Veronique Nichanian of Hermes and Kim Jones of Vuitton are strongly linked to the same principles of quality and research that attract people to new mobile devices and other technological innovations.

To be sure, their clothes are extremely expensive, but more than that, the designs are highly considered. They may be playful, as with Jones' design for a life vest in black leather or a wet suit in cashmere, but they also acknowledge a serious fascination that men have with objects, from cars to laptops, and how they perform. (The life vest happens to be functional.)

The form of the suits at Hermes and Vuitton was dead serious: clean lines, a bit leaner this season. Generally, that was the story of the Paris collection, with a no-nonsense attitude at Lanvin, where the designer Lucas Ossendrijver showed suits in slightly wrinkled dark fabrics and used small gestures, like the blousy fit of shirts or sheer panels in a jacket, to toggle between the masculine and feminine. Ossendrijver also used so-called technical fabrics in a clear way. The clothes at Dior Homme were quite lean and mean, but the formula-first developed by Hedi Slimane, its former designer, a decade ago _has not evolved.

What made the Hermes and Vuitton suits stand out, as well as separates like knits and jackets, was the content. Nichanian's suits were made of blends of extra-fine cotton and linen canvas; a white windbreaker was made of chiffon calfskin-obviously, superfine leather. None of these garments looked pretentious. Jones used a lightweight seersucker, woven from kimono silk.

"Men love a back story," said Tom Kalenderian, the chief menswear executive at Barneys, describing the impulse among men to appreciate and pay for quality.

More companies, then, should be thinking about how to relate their products to men, young or old, who are broadly informed and who instinctively appreciate things for their level of legitimate innovation. Offering a novel cut or milking tradition is not enough. Berluti, the Italian shoemaker owned by LVMH, is making a move into menswear, and it staged a costly show in the Palais Royal. But the clothes were too weighed down with details to excite a progressive person.

Though in a different vein, the collections of Simons and Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy were also noteworthy. Simons handled transparency more imaginatively than anyone else this season, simply by using sheer wools and bonding cotton shirts in places to create subtle plays of lights and texture. He again returned to slim shorts, and reproduced paintings from the artist Brian Calvin on blocky tops, repeating the chalky pinks, blues and greens on sneakers and dip-dyed cream shorts. The latter, not shown on the runway, were fabulous.

Tisci drew inspiration from Madonna-the original one. That may sound dicey, but the images, which appeared on tunics and some suit fronts, were very well done. And like Simons, the Givenchy designer went for peony pink in couture silks cut with graphic precision.

It was a giddy season for prints, with new interpretations of camouflage at Dries Van Noten and Comme des Garcons, which plunked long frock coats over soft trousers in flashy leopard print and gold. As usual, Rei Kawakubo gave you something to ponder about the male animal: Did the camouflage and rock music represent a yearning for glory? Were the handsome coats trying to hide weakness? Were the leather crowns really a sign of defeat? Her two-word summary for the collection was "poor king."

Van Noten muddied up his camo, using it liberally for blazers, trousers and opaque vinyl coats. The effect was quite rich. And though in the groove with pure white and sheerness, including lacy knits, the dark earth tones of his tailoring stood apart.

Cloud patterns drifted onto jackets at John Galliano, where the designer Bill Gaytten gave the tailoring an unexpected Japanese twist-literally, pinching coats at the back and putting them with blossomy shorts. The clouds recalled Magritte, while a fat lobster hanging from a model's neck seemed a Koonsian nod to Dali.

You could probably link the snarled jackets to Galliano's early efforts at deconstruction; he also did a Surrealist collection for Dior. But in the end, the only way to read the results is that Gaytten clearly knew the label needed a new direction.

A Thom Browne show is often a little like watching a long fuse as it crackles and burns toward a pile of dynamite-and then, oops, no explosion.

On Sunday night, as the men's shows wound down and the women moved in for couture, Browne created a commotion in a formal garden on the Left Bank. Silver-haired models appeared in life-size Slinkies, each one sheathed in a skin of silver fabric. There were giggles in the audience.

The models slowly lumbered toward a square of grass, where shoes were set in a grid, and each stepped into a pair. Then, in unison, the helical covers flopped to the ground, revealing Browne's familiar short-pants suits, now in Easter-egg plaids, with whale and lobster motifs.

So, yes, it was quite a letdown. (NYT)


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