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Often during the recent men’s shows for autumn/winter 2014, which finished with Saint Laurent last Sunday night, I thought about menswear’s traditional position as fashion’s underdog. Sunday was a switchover from the leisurely pace of menswear to couture, and the frenetic, glitzy energy that comes with the women’s shows. Poor menswear!

And yet there is much that is gained from menswear’s status as the also-ran. It allows for experimentation, focus and ideas that would never be given enough air in the tight grip of womenswear.

Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby

A prime example was the show by Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby, an artist from Los Angeles. For one season only, Simons put his own label on pause so that he could work in total collaboration with Ruby, and the result was a collection liberated from fashion’s usual constraints of discernible message or perfect finish. Cloth was splatter-bleached or painted and roughly patchworked, images and words such as “Fathers” placed on tops and outerwear as if by free association. The work was compelling and desirable.

Indeed it’s the word “work” that’s crucial here: many of the pieces had been laboriously hand-painted or hand-dyed by Ruby himself. The coats were labelled “limited edition”, and only five will be made. By the time of my visit, one had already been placed with a museum. Surrounding them were Simons/Ruby commercial pieces, which will be readily available, and which sang with the same sincerity.

Many of the best shows in Paris evinced similar feats of self-realisation. Thom Browne’s work was split 50/50 between the wearable and the unbelievable. By showing wearable pieces, with suits and coats of tufted seams, like a men’s version of a Chanel jacket, he gave himself the space to then deal with extreme, inflated scale. All the work could be admired, along with the animal headpieces created by Stephen Jones.

Junya Watanabe’s collection was multilayered, with a play on the old world of suit and tie. He cut tailored jackets from outerwear cloths, and styled them with ludicrously oversized ties and patchworked jeans. Sloppy jumpers at the end confirmed the feeling that the way young men really dress was taking over from the old norms.

There were ties at Saint Laurent, too, but pencil-thin: a styling device, rather than something worn to appease a boss. It was Hedi Slimane’s third menswear show at the house, and served as a powerful consolidation of his YSL reinvention. The message was outerwear, with a succession of tweed and houndstooth coats of the sharpest cut: a definite silhouette that is the real reason behind his success at Saint Laurent.

Saint Laurent

Many designers assume fashion should meet the pace of social media; at Saint Laurent, Slimane does the opposite. Each show adds to the world he is creating, rather than replacing it with some new theme or muse. As a result, he is setting down a vision for the brand that is authentic and long-term.

At Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones excelled with soft-shouldered coats of double-faced cashmere, robes of “extreme vicuna” (as in, made from just the hairs under the animal’s chin), and a new tailoring cut for the brand, minus the shoulder padding and with crease-resistant wool/mohair, both adding up to a suit jacket that can be thrown in a carry-on bag without concern. Berluti’s tailoring and outerwear also impressed, particularly the oversized double-faced coat that was grey on the outside and blue within.

Dries Van Noten’s bombers and tie-dyed jackets had energy, while Comme des Garçons Homme Plus showed grace with holed jackets and agenda-setting wide trousers. Rick Owens was pleasingly perverse, with zippered flaps in the backside of his rompers. Givenchy made a move to up the luxe with an emphasis on tailoring and fur rather than print. Valentino’s show was mostly handsome, especially the soft-shouldered coats.

If only Hermès had a similar ease: its catwalk tricks (a cardigan with a spider’s web on the shoulder) made more noise than the pieces of true luxury (a slouchy cashmere sweater you wanted to rip off the model and wear yourself).

There was a new name, too: Gosha Rubchinskiy, a designer from Moscow whose study of New York hip-hop clothing and its influence on Russian youth had both depth and glee. And with that, we leave the European autumn/winter 2014 menswear shows. It was a satisfying season, though not vintage. But for many of the designers important steps were made, great work accomplished. Maybe not such an underdog after all, then.

For all the coverage from the autumn/winter 2014 menswear shows, visit ft.com/fashionweeks

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