Reality was the word parroted most by designers behind the scenes of Milan’s Fall 2016 menswear shows—real life, the real wardrobe, real clothes. Notions of nowness, concepts of the contemporary. Even a show as extreme as Donatella Versace’s 2016 Space Odyssey had, at its heart, actual clothes. Forget butt-crack-flossing thongs and the always-tricky prospect of guys in full-length furs; this was beefy, pumped-up biker and bomber jackets atop leggings. And weren’t those just techy skinny jeans? Lots of people will stumble on the name, but it’s a silhouette plenty are already sporting.
As that highlights, even in the alien there was a certain familiarity to the clothes we saw. The MA-1 flight jacket was reiterated dozens of times, the single most ubiquitous item across the board. Miuccia Prada made merry with the simple poplin shirt, detaching collars and cuffs, offering dozens of variations. Italo Zucchelli based his Calvin Klein Collection collection on the “universal power” of a man’s black suit—for him, and even for her. Even Peter Dundas, ebullient fan of the evening extravaganza, bottomed the majority of his Roberto Cavalli collection with flared jeans, a slouchy, lived-in silhouette reminiscent in equal parts of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
“What feels relevant today?” Dundas said he asked himself. “What are the pieces that I truly believe are believable?” Lots of designers were posing themselves the same metaphorical questions, it seemed. There was no clear answer, but lots of strong arguments.
At Bottega Veneta, Tomas Maier stripped his show of any pontificating manifesto and offered simple, honest-to-goodness clothes—lumberjack plaids, slanted fedoras, a few suits. It was neither overwrought formality (where those fedoras could easily have taken it) nor jumped-up deluxe sportswear. Like most men’s wardrobes, it hovered somewhere in between. “I don’t like when someone does it the way it was on the runway,” he once told me, of customers wearing his clothes. “When someone replicates it, that’s like having no personality . . . You don’t have to cook the sauce like I cooked it five minutes ago. You add something a little bit different and it becomes yours.”
I thought back to that notion often, watching the Milan shows. I thought of it incessantly at Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, a show so complex and multilayered that, backstage, it took him 15 minutes to talk me through three looks. Could I tell, he asked, the similarities between an 18th-century jewel and a New Mexican pendant? Did I recognize the lines of Walter Albini in a red-and-blue checkered suit? Could I see? “I always try to create a lot of . . . I don’t want to call it confusion, but that crazy world that I have in my mind,” said Michele. “To give people elements, to rework.” Like Maier, Michele creates clothes intended for real life. Tug his confusing, crazy shows apart and you’re left with a bunch of stuff that can appeal to a whole bunch of folks. They do: Last year, sales were up 8.6 percent in the third quarter.
Does Stefano Pilati care if his Ermenegildo Zegna Couture clothes sell? Perhaps. But perhaps he also knows that their prices are astronomical, even in high-fashion terms—I was once told that a vicuña Zegna coat was so ferociously expensive that the company opted to make the press samples in cashmere. Maybe apocryphal, but it’s a good indication of the world of luxury we’re dealing with here. So why not think of haute couture, the female equivalent where price is not only no object, but a dirty word? That was the inspiration for Pilati’s show, the models wittily festooned with ultra-trad couture numéros like ’50s mannequins padding through the sacred cabines of Dior or Balenciaga. Watching this gorgeous parade of gorgeous clothes, gorgeously presented, lavished with care and attention, you yearned to wear them, to be able to buy them. How about that for commercial?
I also thought about how there is a real market for this kind of thing, evinced by the boom in haute couture. (Versace reps say Atelier Versace’s orders increased 50 percent last year; Chanel trunk-showed its couture across the world for a year that may have been its most profitable ever.) Why assume men won’t spend a fortune to look beautiful, too?
Miuccia Prada based her runway on a town square. She wasn’t thinking fruit market, rather, the square where they used to burn heretics. Why? Because these are troubled times—for the world and for luxury—and Prada is permanently plugged into the here and now, into the real. Her collection reactivated elements from history, she said, to pose questions about now. What can we learn from our own past? Oddly, there was little of Prada’s own past here—no archive references, no vintage prints (the seafaring designs, scribbled like maps across poplin shirts, were by the artist Christophe Chemin). Rather, there were really new tweed coats and capes, and everything a little washed, battered, and misshapen. Pull it all back together, though, button it all the right way, and it will really appeal, to real men. Real men with real money to spend, who really want to look really good.