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Next season, menswear will be a buyers’ market. At the Milan shows for AW16, what stood out was stuff to wear. Soft unstructured tailoring; great knitwear; should you wish, tracksuits. Put it down to external circumstances, like a brand’s need for sellable product during economic uncertainty, or unease and fear dampening outrageous ostentation. There was an air of humility in Milan, with designers wanting to engage and reassure a global buying public. This temperament shifts the balance of power. It seems that, right now, the shopper is in control.
Looking at the shows through a consumer’s eyes, different pieces jump out. Yes to the double-breasted naval coats at Prada. The capes in the same show? Pass. The label was exceptionally strong for pieces to wear, like the little jackets with big checks, the tailored trousers with a roomy fit, and the multicoloured zip-up knit. It was Miuccia Prada’s best menswear show in some time, with work of generous spirit.
Backing up the buyable was a series of prints hand-drawn on to shirts for the brand by artist Christophe Chemin. They were of loopy fantasy, one with unicorns, another pitting Sigmund Freud in a brawl alongside Che Guevara and Nina Simone. What a fight. Commissioning these works gave the collection more depth. More brands should give their collections a similar extra push — shout out to Fendi, which in its first relevant men’s show for an age had sweet prints by the British illustrator John Booth.
The consumer view of Gucci is more personal. The day after the show, I went to look at the pieces up close. A representative asked me what I liked best — my pick was all the humble stuff: a white T-shirt worn with navy, loose, tailored pants; a green blazer worn over a yellow roll-neck; a yellow crewneck with a brown trim. Ask someone else and they might go for the ornately embroidered check coat, an embellished tracksuit, or the knit jacket patchworked on the back with the name “Bowie”. Alessandro Michele is a year into his Gucci reboot and his strategy is to show clothes that trigger consumer instincts in different ways. Sounds obvious but it’s something few labels do.
The soft cashmere tailoring at Bottega Veneta was great, as were the long coats. Creative director Tomas Maier put his tailoring with crewneck sweaters, a consumer-friendly look that has become omnipresent in menswear. Soft knitted jackets were the high point of a good Ermenegildo Zegna Couture show. There was a neat selection of herringbone and tweed coats at Tod’s. This season, Emporio Armani topped its father label Giorgio Armani by dint of its heat-seamed jackets and coats — immediately wearable.
A number of Milan shows were sealed by a strong coat or knit: it was a peacoat at Dsquared2; either a camel coat or an MA-1 flying jacket at Calvin Klein Collection. Versace’s space-age styling was underpinned by grey tailoring and some long double-face cashmere coats. Versace also had a fluffy pink angora cardigan. For those wanting sober versions, head to Brunello Cucinelli.
Milan also demonstrated the shifting sands of what is age-appropriate. Colour often gets forgotten in our winter clothing. The cover illustration of this week’s New Yorker riffs on this — a kid in full colour, happy in the freezing air, surrounded by grey and miserable adults. One of the pleasures of Milan was the playfulness of its colour palette. British designer James Long made a great debut at Iceberg, an Italian family brand based in Rimini that needs a little TLC. He gave it some, particularly with a sweet navy bomber trimmed with bands of red, yellow and blue — like the best zip-up you never had as a kid.
Increasingly we are living in an age of permanent adolescence. Still playing the Xbox in your forties? Finding any excuse to see The Force Awakens one more time? It’s now OK not to grow up, while still holding down a career, relationship, and salient adult life. Fashion’s version of this comes with colour, and also insignia. Forty-something Michele used an image of Snoopy in his Gucci collection, referring to memories of growing up in the 1980s. Dolce & Gabbana slapped cacti and horseshoes all over its collection.
When such pieces hit the catwalk, phones are lifted to get that Instagram shot. When the product is delivered, it’ll look great in the online stores. Playful menswear, for those living a permanent adolescence, is the new normal. It’s what sells. And for those who don’t like it? Turn down the volume, head for the soft tailoring, the navy coats, the crewnecks, the simple stuff. Done.
Charlie Porter is the FT men’s fashion critic. He is reporting from the men’s AW shows at ft.com/fashion