From front row or afar the business of men’s fashion looks either like a lot of fuss about cashmere and denim or a crystal sharp window on what’s happening with macroeconomics, geopolitics and the state of the world in general.
With twice-yearly frequency I do a 48- to 72-hour tour of the men’s shows in Milan (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) and avoid getting caught up too much in silhouettes, fabric finishes and new ways to tie a scarf. In case you’re wondering about the latter it’s not about a jaunty knot for autumn but bandaging your neck Tuareg-style in half a kilometre of boiled merino.
For many in the trade of knitting ties, stitching shoes, sewing suits and forming hats, the past few seasons have been less than kind. Upmarket US department stores dropped lines and decreased quantities; the Japanese male became difficult to read and, in turn cater for; and in Europe mass-market retailers became experts at hitting the trends, offering better value and creating more comfortable environments for male shoppers.
This year, however, it seemed the smiles were back (though not on the faces of the Latvian and Slovenian boy models parading the garments) and chief executives and company owners were talking optimistically about the jump in sales in traditional territories, the vast opportunities in emerging markets and the return of a certain sense of occasion when it comes to dressing for the workplace.
From Sunday morning till Tuesday I did the rounds with my colleagues Takeharu, Alicia and Jonathan.
At times we travel as a pack but mostly we split up to cover as much ground as possible and reconvene every few hours to compare notes on what’s worth re-seeing, what should be shot and what will never be hitting the pages of our magazine. For autumn 2011, here’s the shape of things to come as interpreted via the catwalks and showrooms of Milan:
1. Don’t give up on Mr USA: the US market might still be dented but many Italian suit-focused brands reported significant sales jumps for their orderbooks.
This suggests a number of things. First, US men eager to build their businesses need to make a sharper impression and are upping their game. Second, the dress-down movement is no longer relevant when people need to make a statement. And third, that the US businessman might be ready to follow his European and Asian colleagues and adopt a trimmer silhouette.
2. Don’t give up on Japan either: many an Italian fashion company (large and small) wouldn’t have a business without Japan. The Japanese male may not be stocking up on the more predictable luxury brands but he’s buying plenty of blazers from Boglioli, bags from Felisi, shoes from Buttero and neckties from Bigi. Indeed, smaller Italian brands are having record seasons in Japan.
3. The Chinese fashion dragon doesn’t want “made in China”: all those private equity firms that bought European brands and shifted production to China are now seeing their sales wither. It’s not exactly surprising that the sophisticated Chinese consumer doesn’t want to buy a European brand that’s stitched together in his own backyard but still comes with a “made in Italy” price tag. This is great news for all those companies who recognised that they’re not just marketing businesses but industrial players as well.
4. The Korean engine: while there’s much excitement about growth in China, the real boost this year came from buyers from Korea’s biggest retail groups and the recognition that Korean men want to dress up like Tokyoites rather than down. This is particularly good news for bag and accessory brands who see this market as a potential number two to Japan in terms of a market for bow ties, riding caps, tote bags and woven belts.
5. The future will be well-tailored: after years of fashion looks that have borrowed from railway sidings, rice paddies, shipyards and law enforcement agencies, it seems that the workwear era has come to an end.
For sure it will still have its followers in tiny pockets of Brescia, Harajuku, Sydney’s Paddington and Portland, Oregon, but it looks like men’s wear is going to take a turn for the more tailored.
This could have been good news for the UK’s garment industry but, sadly, little large-scale production remains.
Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain will be the winners in Europe and there’s a small opportunity for the US to stay in the tailoring game but it will depend on how suited and booted US men want to be at work and play.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle
More columns at www.ft.com/brule