Men’s fashion shows in Milan

Think of it as the rebirth of neo-realist style: last week at the Milan autumn/winter 2011 men’s wear shows, Italian designers seemed to have decided, almost as an industry, that their future lies in creating practical clothes for successful global travellers. The result was a parade of what may have been the most utilitarian collections since the turn of the millennium.

Tomas Maier, creative director of Bottega Veneta, summed up the mood when he explained he was thinking of “a man who has to have clothes that look right and work functionally as soon as he walks off a plane anywhere.” Hence his jerseys with deliberately misplaced stitching or slim-line suits finished like expressionist paintings, all meant to create a polished yet quirky effect.

And where he led, many other designers followed, though the travellers they had in mind ranged widely over datelines.

Giorgio Armani, for example, entitled his signature line “Remix in Gray” and saturated the show in that go-anywhere of hues, including his nattiest look: a pale gray chalk stripe semi-double-breasted combo (“semi” because all the buttons were hidden). For Emporio Armani, however, he opted to go east, putting model Paolo Roldan, of Philippine descent, in a beige swing coat as a reminder of the country whose avid consumers have been pulling Italian fashion out of the recession: China – also the inspiration for the Ermenegildo Zegna show.

Indeed, Zegna went so far as to use James Lima, visual consultant for the film Avatar, to create a Chinese backdrop out of which the models emerged sporting silk dress shirts and tuxedos composed of prints taken from ancient Chinese murals.

“China is not just a huge new market, it’s the central project of our generation in men’s fashion,” said Gildo Zegna, whose family business ended 2010 with 70 stores in China, and plans to open 10 more each year for the foreseeable future.

Not that it was all overt Asian influence; technology was key to Z Zegna, with designer Alessandro Sartori using a technique called “needle punch knit” (material bonded with micro stitching that doesn’t perforate the exterior) in striking leather/cashmere jackets held together with Velcro.

Meanwhile, at Jil Sander, designer Raf Simons looked north to Britain, with lean Scottish crofter woollen suits jazzed up in buttery salmons, metallic oranges and bright lichen colours; ditto Prada, where Miuccia Prada’s most memorable innovation involved Argyle diamond-printed lurex knee socks. It was an unlikely look for an airplane-to-meeting adventure, but more globally accessible were Prada’s smart new trousers, tapered at the ankle and dropped at the crotch; not to mention Burberry’s sculpted coats with arms and torso panelled in curly rabbit; and sensational Aran sweater finished in strips of ecru mink.

Yet fur, in the form of mongolian sheepskin, also trimmed many coats at Alexander McQueen, where designer Sarah Burton was working on an imperial sportswear concept with rockin’ versions of hussar jackets and bright red guards coats worn over light felt leggings with military stripes. As for Gucci, creative director Frida Giannini’s collection was based on Scottish rocker Rod Stewart. Thus, though the runway was devoid of tartan, Stewart’s rascal look was apparent in the models’ mop top hair, flared pants and nipped-in, wide lapel jackets, not to mention a putty gray trench coat and alligator blazer.

Coincidentally, Jimmy Choo also seemed to be thinking along the same UK-rocker lines in its first men’s shoe collection – witness a pair of slippers entitled Porno Paisley – as was Versace, where new designer Martyn Bal took the brand back to the era of the Clash with checkboard redingotes, leather top coats with felt lapels, and posh punk sweaters.

By contrast, British designers Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler, in their collection for Bally, chose to return to the brand’s functional Swiss roots via lace-up Birbur mountain boots and outerwear in bonded deer skin. And Tod’s popped over to the US, presenting its hyper-practical classic modern footwear, including an ergonomic take on the country boot.

Also in America was Dolce & Gabbana, with pock-marked denim in their main line, and “social network chic” – preppy combos of striped sneakers, check pants, and rowing colours – in D&G, all paired with mega-bright Americana images, such as Mickey Mouse or an “Enjoy Coca Cola” sign emblazoned on a pink wool felt jacket.

“Men nowadays see so much stuff on the web, and if a designer doesn’t reflect that in their collections, they are not being contemporary,” observed Stefano Gabbana – a fitting epigraph for the week.

Tyler Brûlé: Sharp suits, wise words

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