In the realm of luxury menswear, two factions—small artisan brands and prestige designer labels—peacefully coexist and even complement each other in a man’s wardrobe. While you cannot dispute the extraordinary quality of garments that are produced by artisan tailors working by hand, there is no denying that the designer camp, backed by brand recognition, is the engine that drives the fashion machine. These fashion gurus continually infuse the menswear scene with fresh creative blood, while emphasizing cohesive lifestyle-driven collections built on ingenuity and innovation. After all, how many gray suits does a man really need?
What distinguishes designer labels from their branded counterparts is that behind each of the world’s most prominent designer collections is a high-profile master draftsman, an individual whose singular vision continually breaks new ground and propels the entire men’s fashion world forward even while drawing inspiration from the past.
This spring, major players, including Roberto Cavalli, John Varvatos, and Paul Smith, achieved a perfect balance of old and new. Still, among the surplus of great menswear, only three names—Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Michael Kors, and Etro—topped the experts’ lists of the season’s most impressive presentations.
An italian fashion journalist previewing Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label collection told the American designer she was not convinced that European men would relate to his take on the modern tuxedo: a milk chocolate double-breasted jacket worn with sinuous cream-colored trousers. The observation is ironic, considering that Lauren, who has long borrowed his sophisticated sense of style from the British upper crust, no doubt found the inspiration for his confectionery formalwear in the casinos of Monte Carlo, albeit circa 1950.
In fact, every element of Purple Label—from the broad-shouldered suits fitted with Edwardian-inspired double-breasted waistcoats and checked cashmere cardigans to the Ivy League tennis sweaters and banded-collar floral linen shirts—seems to have been born in another place and time. But Lauren has such mastery of design and detailing, as well as the services of fine Italian tailors, that he manages to make these classically inspired pieces feel new and modern. For instance, his billowy trousers have an old-world quality suited to Jazz Age musicians, but many are fitted at the waist with tabs and D-ring metal buckles to cinch them to size. His contemporary striped cotton dress shirts are accented with white contrasting collars similar to the detachable kind from the turn of the last century. Then there is the ubiquitous white-piped navy blazer uncharacteristically teamed with weathered denim jeans, as well as navy pin-striped and brown tweed jackets paired with those cream-colored dress slacks. “When everything is classics-driven, you need to find some place to give menswear a pop,” says Wilkes Bashford, owner of the eponymous San Francisco specialty store. “Ralph achieved this with his beautiful striped suits, which are essentially [made from] traditional fabrics but are more modern in cut. They are basically British, but contemporary British.”
In a season when casual wear ruled the runways, Lauren’s take on aristocratic dressing—from the ascots right down to the spectator shoes and embroidered velvet slippers—made a polished sartorial style statement that has been missing from menswear for years.
Ralph Lauren Purple Label, 888.475.7674, www.runway.polo.com
That Touch of Class
Michael Kors has always designed clothing that speaks to that pampered breed of women who summer in Saint-Tropez or Capri and winter in Palm Beach. So when the New York designer sought inspiration for his spring menswear collection, he looked to those same vacation destinations.
Kors’ spring lineup is a throwback assortment of slim-cut single- and double-button blazers, powder blue alpaca sweaters and cardigans, and lean flat-front slacks worn with white belts and matching loafers. “The hero of Michael Kors’ runway looks like he would be a lot more comfortable hanging out at the Breakers than at a New England bed-and-breakfast,”is how one fashion trade paper described the collection.
“Michael did great cardigan sweaters, striped short-sleeved knit shirts, and gingham slacks that had a very retro, 1960s Palm Beach influence,” says Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, where the Kors collection was a top seller last fall. Along those stylish lines, Kors’ V-necked pullovers are paired with open-collar silk shirts spilling out from underneath. There is even a crisp striped knit shirt called the Sinatra, a reference to the Rat Pack crooner whose 1960s Palm Springs style, in Kors’ hands, leaps into the future.
“What Michael Kors does is classic American sportswear but ever
so slightly updated,” notes Dan McCampbell, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “He has this ability to adjust the silhouette to make what could be perceived as basic items seem very new and modern.”
Even more important, “it fits American men’s bodies,” says Rob Small, designer collections buyer at Stanley Korshak in Dallas. “I would say it’s more modern than retro,” adds Small. “But it certainly has a mix of both.”
Kors’ clients understand that trendy isn’t necessarily chic. He knows how to hold back on details that serve no purpose. There is nothing ostentatious about his white cable knit pullovers, except that they are made of superfine cashmere or alpaca. Classic cabana shirts seem ordinary until you notice that they are made of perforated leather. Despite such fabric flourishes, nothing about the collection is “over the top,” says Saks’ McCampbell. “This is just nice, easy sportswear that most men will want to wear.”
Michael Kors, 212.221.1950
Kean Etro loves a parade. So much, in fact, that the Italian designer presented his vibrant spring collection on models riding in rustic ox-drawn carts down Milan’s tony Via Montenapoleone escorted by a marching band. After the procession had passed, Etro hung his collection on a clothesline stretched between two buildings and left it there for an entire month.
Ultimately, the real spectacle proved to be the clothes themselves. Aside from a penchant for theatrics, what Etro has that other Italian luxury brands lack is a contagious enthusiasm for bright color and vivid prints, and an irreverent way of mixing the two that makes fashion fun and festive.
“This is a collection that appeals to a broad segment of men—from a cool, hip, younger guy to someone in his 60s who truly understands how to wear color and pattern,” says San Francisco retailer Wilkes Bashford. Part of the collection’s broad appeal, he says, is the way classic patterns—paisleys, bandannas, Polynesian botanicals— have been painted with a new brush. “Bright color can be rather scary, but Etro is not, because there are some neutrals to bring it down,” adds Bashford. “You can take something with color and neutralize it with desert tones to come out with outfits that are very wonderful and wearable.”
Despite the flamboyance of the fabrics, Etro’s design philosophy is traditionally rooted, says Neiman Marcus fashion director Colby McWilliams. He notes that the patterned fabrics, decorative topstitching, and trims make every item seem like a one-of-a-kind. “The color and versatility and, most of all, ‘collectibility’ of each piece are outstanding,” says McWilliams. What makes Etro’s shirts so collectible is the way the designer goes beyond color and pattern to create them. For instance, many feature unexpected touches such as a printed cashmere handkerchief sewn directly onto a jersey shirt accented with a linen collar. Etro also used his signature harlequin diamond pattern to update T-shirts, trousers, and even a washable cotton suit.
“Kean’s love for the harlequin print comes out of his love of court jesters,” explains Alisha Farmer, the company’s U.S. spokesperson.
“In the old days the jester was not only the witty one, but also the wisest in the court. He was the man who could entertain everyone with his wit and humor.” This exactly describes Kean Etro and his fanciful clothing.