After two weeks of dipping into the menswear shows, I can say that I have witnessed a quiet revolution.
The male runway used to be either conspicuously wild and weird, or a timid attempt to freshen up the classics – which means that bland was the default position of the well-dressed male.
But this is what I have seen on the Paris catwalks over the last few days: a formal tail suit distinguished by pressed-flower lapel buttons (Dior Homme); a tailored coat in a vivid shade of Murano glass (Berluti); and a cashmere cardigan with silken sweater and glossy calfskin trousers (Hermès). Lanvin on Sunday included a mix of the oversized and tautly fitted; sleek simplicity and dense embellishment.
This menswear on the runway is the opposite of Normcore: a deliberately neutral way of dressing.
As a style editor, I have always questioned how unassuming clothes could be genuinely defined as ‘fashion’. Choosing a neutral wardrobe is a choice, but not necessarily a fashion statement. But in the last two decades of menswear shows, there has been a root-and-branch change, which I put down to three separate causes.
Firstly and primarily, there is the global spread of male style to areas such as Asia or the Middle East, where young men are not bound by the clichés of a European class system. The adoption of sneakers-with-everything and a mix of sporty with tailored proves how breaking with tradition can create a new dynamic.
Then there is the exploding financial success of menswear. Nothing encourages a buyer to invest in masculine coats of many colours more than the knowledge that in men’s departments, sales are soaring, while women’s are dragging.
But perhaps the most important change is the recognition that designers are the lifeblood of brand style for both genders: hence designer Stefano Pilati joining Ermenegildo Zegna in Italy; Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy putting the same heat into men’s and women’s shows; and burgeoning British designer Jonathan Anderson getting hired for Loewe.
Lanvin: uniforms, individualists and futurists
Designers do not just create; they also think about and conceptualise their initial ideas. I witnessed this when Alber Elbaz and his design partner Lucas Ossendrijver told me that the start of their collection was a discussion, which Alber had mapped out on a scrap of paper. “What does being a fashion designer mean today? What is our function, our power and our strength?” Albert asked, while Lucas explained the three different characteristics of the collection as “uniform, individualists and futurists”.
Putting the audience in the centre and the catwalk, with its towering classic statues, around us, reinforced the statement. So did the clothes, which were linear but detailed, so that a basic sweat top might have metal rivets or a simple coat be made dramatic with a furry surface and a floor-sweeping fringed scarf.
The see-saw was between the tailored, thigh-brushing jackets with loose pants and sharp sport shoes, or a patterned top with narrow trousers. As the male models marched out, they looked like they could take everything – different lengths, fits, colours and textures – literally in their stride.
Rei Kawakubo always offers the pure juice of fashion. Just when I thought that Comme des Garçons was becoming the experimental hub of a visionary, the men’s collection came back to, in the designer’s words, “the power of ceremony”.
Tailcoats are having a revival and were seen here shaped with intricate seams, made more complex as patchworks of pinstripes.
A similar technique shaped the body with painterly patterns. The effect of the close-fitted material was sexual, tracing the angles of the male body, even adding tiger skin. True creativity is in Kawakubo’s blood.
The blood-red glitter carpet, the heaps of oddities from wood to skulls and the African masks all convinced me that Riccardo Tisci was exploring voodoo territory.
“It’s just romantic,” claimed Tisci backstage, although that did not quite explain the darkness of colour and spirit in lean black suits or a leather jacket entwined with russet fur.
To balance the Givenchy tailoring, there were oversized T-shirts, maybe with wide stripes and in the spirit of sweatshirts, which have a cult following. Add women models in blood-red evening dresses or dense black and this sexually charged romanticism made for a fine show.
“Romantic without losing realism,” were Kris Van Assche’s words to define a powerful show.
The mood was set by an orchestra playing along the length of the runway, in formal evening suits with sneakers.
The show opened with morning dress or tailcoats – their formality softened with badges and hats.
Tradition, punched with modernity, included long, loose overcoats in sweet colours, or more precisely cut coats chequered with yellow bars. The designer seemed totally at ease in this collection, which showcased Dior tailoring without forgetting the sporty side – not least with the orchestra’s feet.
It is a long stretch from well-polished leather shoes to a polished menswear collection, but artistic director Alessandro Sartori has made that leap.
With a curtain of balloons at the entrance and a silvered backdrop, it was easy to get the message: light. The Venetian Murano glass pieces backstage formed a pool of translucent orange, green, royal blue, turquoise and orange – the same shades that lifted the simplicity of the classic designs, both formal and sporty.
Since Antoine Arnault has been behind the brand as CEO, he has found some ingenious venues to show the collection, such as the Museum of Natural History in Paris. This time, male visitors were asked to take off their shoes before dinner – and had them returned by a waiter on a tray with a box of polish afterwards. Never too late to learn to be a gentleman.
Hermès: a sharper take on luxury
For 26 years, menswear designer Véronique Nichanian has offered a vision for Hermès of soft luxury: simple, often square shapes made in the finest fabrics.
But things sharpened up this season, with more defined tailoring, ties in woven silk and a feeling that the Hermès man was off to work. (Although his office wardrobe might not include lambskin trousers in bordeaux.)
The concept of using the finest materials and putting simplicity at the heart of luxury is the road likely to be followed by incoming creative director of womenswear, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.
Strips of ribbon across the chest and upper arms of a sober coat; stripes across shoulders and hems of jackets. These horizontal lines gave the Dries Van Noten collection an almost military feel.
“I wanted to play with embellishment,” said the designer backstage in the empty storage hanger set deep in the depths of Paris.
Although the stripes on tailored clothes contrasted with soft tops, those embellishments soon appeared as metallic decoration on a checked shirt, and most of the clothes seemed sober, even sombre. But Dries had another, if more familiar, means of decoration: patterns that seemed to be embedded in the cloth, whether wool or silk. And, just occasionally, a touch of the ethnic. In sum, the collection had the unique Van Noten touch, if slightly on the darker side.
Loewe: the textures of Spain
Jonathan Anderson is throwing himself into an idea of Spain that represents his vision for Loewe. Initially that was of the sun-kissed holiday resort, Ibiza.
The designer kept the sand and russet colours, mixed with blue. But working with photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, he presented the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection with a combination of young men, old stones and naturally elegant elderly local gentlemen.
The result was an orgy of texture: a sweater with rough waves of blue and orange, or a coat woven in light Scottish tweed. Add deep pile blankets, smooth leather bags and abstract jewellery from Ramon Puig Cuyàs, and it is interesting to see how Jonathan has adapted to his new role.
Kenzo: a symphony of modernity
Kenzo’s design duo has defined its essentials: functionality and the sporty energy of colour.
The shades might be in blocks, stripes or patterns. Then add texture, especially for utility sneakers with three-dimensional patchwork surfaces. They were highlighted by the light streaming into the symphonic hall of the new modernist music complex, the Philharmonie de Paris.
“Men are so much more willing to do fun things,” said Humberto Leon who, with co-creative director Carol Lim, has created a fashion activism that seems to define the twenty-first century.
Things I loved? An orange nylon parka/cape; square, oversize tops with graphic lines of colour; and a smudgy collage of pattern on a fleece jacket that the duo called “cult scribbles”.
And I especially enjoyed the utility boots marching into fashion’s future.