The menswear shows that drew to a close in Paris on Sunday were all about progress: the unrelenting financial progress of the two French conglomerates LVMH and PPR, whose current menswear focus is a major background driver of many of the week’s key collections; and aesthetic progress, which is an altogether more personal – and complicated – issue that centres on a designer’s work, and how they allow it to evolve.
Since Hedi Slimane took over as creative director of Saint Laurent last year, he has gutted the house in order to lay down a new design code, one that owner PPR hopes will bring this inconsistent brand into permanent profit. That would be progress of a kind, but not the only kind that matters; Slimane has his own history to overcome, from the drama of his womenswear debut last October (brief recap: editors were irritated by his attempts at control; stores loved the clothes), to his time as menswear designer for Saint Laurent himself in the late 1990s, and his exit from Dior Homme in 2007.
His collection for autumn/winter 2013 was the equivalent of a full wardrobe (leather jacket; jeans; Prince of Wales coat) for his Saint Laurent man. Though that man on the catwalk was super-skinny, store-bound pieces such as a hooded duffel or a slender-lapelled black coat will easily translate into more forgiving sizes. It’s a design trick Slimane perfected at Dior: a trompe l’oeil-slim product that real men can actually wear.
If the youth-obsession seemed familiar from his past designs, it also stood out in an industry that often ignores what young people really wear. Now that Slimane has set down his rigid foundations at Saint Laurent, maybe next time he could relax, clear his mind of his previous work, and broaden his tent.
Over at LVMH, meanwhile, British designer Kim Jones is providing Louis Vuitton with real momentum. Four seasons into the job, he has mastered a look that combines fashion with a luxurious practicality. His clothes, whether a reindeer leather padded zip-up or a sweater with a Chapman Brothers image of a snow leopard on the front, can go straight from the catwalk to the increasingly busy men’s floor of Vuitton stores worldwide.
Other big brands with forward movement in Paris were LVMH’s Berluti, a shoe house turned artisanal clothing brand that mixed dapper tailoring with louche outerwear; Hermès, and its self-assured selection of sleek navy coats and rollnecks; Valentino, with its excellent Prince of Wales suiting; and Lanvin, pushing onward with the trend for tailoring worn with casual footwear, thanks to its souped-up trainers. Standing still, however, was Givenchy, which offered more of its blockbuster-selling prints – along with less purposeful lapel-free black tailoring. And moving backwards was Dior Homme, where zippered suits were detached from anything recognisably Dior.
Of course, there is another kind of progress – slow, steady, at a signature pace – as demonstrated by a clutch of independent houses. Dries Van Noten, for example, the Belgian designer with an exacting eye for colour and fabric, offered a tailored coat of blue cloth patterned with yellow gold rosettes that both stood on its own, and also chimed with the current menswear movement away from neatness and towards blissful dishevelment.
Comme des Garçons demonstrated similar individuality with its use of furnishing fabrics for jackets and tailcoats (not to mention its SHIRT range, which featured a print of Walt Disney’s original instructions for how to draw Mickey on T-shirts, shirts and trousers – big future sellers for this fiercely independent, and thriving, business). Rick Owens showed a coat made from a weave of horizontal lines that came in and out of focus, and Raf Simons piled on the layers of wide-skirted coats, patterned knits and vivid coloured shirts to try and push the men’s silhouette in a new, less controlled direction.
In Paris, as it is in Milan, this supposedly booming sector of fashion is still devoid of a new generation, but at least here its existing designers are pushing themselves onwards. The biggest change came in brands’ growing connection with the customers themselves. And this – clothing that men might actually wear – may be the biggest progress of all.
For all the daily menswear reports from London, Milan and Paris, including slideshows, see www.ft.com/luxury360