Black as the linchpin of men’s fashion

It’s spring with pastel colours bursting out all over, from florists and Easter baskets to women’s fashion boutiques, but there is one corner of the fashion industry that is yet to see the light. Men’s wear is staying firmly in the black, and not for the first time. From the monochrome spring/summer collections by Yves Saint Laurent, Hugo Boss and Jil Sander to the trench coats by Paul Smith and Dries Van Noten, black is most definitely back.

Black has been the linchpin of men’s fashion since the early 19th century, as is revealed by the Masters of Black in Fashion and Costume exhibition at Modemuseum, Antwerp’s fashion museum. Kaat Debo, the show’s curator, says: “What’s fascinating about the colour is that it has had such extreme connotations. It has, for example, been the colour of sophistication – in the women’s wardrobe it’s the Little Black Dress. But it has also been the colour of mourning and, especially in men’s wear, of rebellious club cultures, from goths and punks to beatniks and existentialists.” The exhibition, which opened this week, celebrates black through painting, costume and contemporary fashion, focusing on the work of designers such as Chanel, Givenchy, Ann Demeulemeester and Olivier Theyskens.

For most men, black is simply a safe colour to wear. Heti Gervis of Hargreaves-Gervis, who create colour palettes for the likes of the Gap and Marc Jacobs, says: “Men are definitely getting braver in their wearing of colour, but the call for black never quite goes away. A quality black is hard to beat.” As are its cultural references, from Johnny Cash, to Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Men in Black (1997). For, according to Debo, black still makes a statement against fashion frivolity.

London-based tailor Nick Hart of Spencer Hart, which a decade ago launched on the premise of the “perfect black suit”, says, “There is little denying that black clothes are mysterious and slightly sinister, which men are drawn to. But they also like it because it’s easy. You can put black clothes together without having to think about it too much, and somehow look intellectual with it.”

Alexander Brenninkmeijer, designer of cult fashion label Clemens en August, says black is by far his bestselling colour.

Ermenegildo Zegna, the Italian men’s wear label, has even developed a high-performance fabric to address one of the few bad things anyone ever has to say about black: its tendency to trap heat, not so good for the warmer months. Zegna’s “cool effect” treatment allows darker woollen fabrics to reflect 80 per cent of direct sunlight, rather than the usual 20 per cent. The result, says the company, is “impeccable appearance in hot climates”, which means the opportunity to wear black all year round.

But not all are convinced. “So sad, so dead, so monotonous,” said French poet Théophile Gautier in the early 19th century when black was similarly in vogue. “So dull and tedious and depressing,” said Oscar Wilde. Fast forward two centuries and some of those sentiments are being echoed today. Jeremy Hackett, founder of the eponymous brand, says: “I’ve never understood the appeal of black in men’s wear, especially since these days you can’t go into a restaurant wearing it without being mistaken for the staff. But what’s astounding is the number of men who still like a black suit. It’s safe, it suggests fashion without being at all radical but is just so boring. Maybe it’s fine if you’re twentysomething but it looks drab the older you get. We had a salesman who used to inform customers politely that the only time for a man to wear black was for a dinner suit or morning dress, and I think he was right.”

On the other hand, as Brenninkmeijer of Clemens en August points out, “The connotations of a man in black are so rich, it’s always cool.”

‘Masters of Black in Fashion and Costume’ at ModeMuseum Province of Antwerp, Nationalestraat 28, B-2000 Antwerp

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