Fashion: Brave new man

The Paris shows had it all: white crocheted mini-dresses, pastel headscarves, patchwork floral shirts and leather slippers. And that was just the menswear. By Alix Sharkey
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Forget Milan. Most menswear journalists already have. This season's Paris collections were a dazzling display of upbeat and inventive shows featuring the new gemstone colours - ruby, sapphire, emerald, amethyst - and the return of patchwork textures in jeans, shirts and jackets. The underlying theme, however, was a massive shift in the way gender is articulated, away from rigidly codified images of masculinity. Paris seemed to herald a new kind of menswear, where men's clothes will create mischief and mystery, rather than simply reinforcing status and underlining sexual preference.

An example of this was the Hermes show, where designer Veronique Nichanian seemed to be trying out a new direction. The label's traditional elegance and understated excellence were present and correct, but the collection focused on new fabrics rather than vivacity: in a season where many other designers seemed determined to dress men in vibrant colour, the Hermes palette was limited to navy, petrol, lavender, ink, grey and putty. Still, there were some typically fine clothes on display here, from the white hooded mac in rubberised canvas, to the classic three-button Hermes jacket - a long, flowing, softly fitted shape - in linen jersey on a neoprene backing. And only a very special designer can make a pair of black leather jeans look so good.

Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck has never shyed away from outrageous hues, and his latest W&LT show, held in a huge warehouse near the Gare d'Austerlitz, was a case in point. W&LT showed thin, androgynous young men with very long hair in dresses, leggings and ponchos - in acid yellow, baby blue and tangerine. Are we ready for men in white crocheted mini- dresses? I think not. While it clearly inverted established notions of "masculine" dressing, and provided a dazzling spectacle, the humour normally associated with the Belgian's work seemed a little manic this time around, particularly in the styling: pastel headscarves, hand-crocheted shawls and purdah-type face masks. After a couple of dozen of these supercamp outfits, the model who emerged wearing a simple floral shirt with a pair of white broiderie anglaise jeans seemed positively macho by comparison. Overstated maybe, but we can be thankful for a designer like Van Beirendonck, who has the nerve for outlandish fashion statements - even though it is invariably his less forthright declarations which make the transition from the catwalk to the rails.

Paul Smith's recent sojourn in India has clearly done him a world of good. Gone is that poncey English aristo look he has pushed for the last few seasons, a theme that invariably made his models resemble smug Rupert Everett wannabes. Instead, full of new ideas and optimism, he kicked off with sarongs in Madras check teamed with buckskin loafers and wrinkled cotton shirts, and continued this cultural mix'n'match with shirts and pants in hot oranges and pinks, reds and ochres, suggesting heat and dust. As we settled back for a little post-colonial beachwear, he suddenly unleashed a selection of immaculate evening suits with elegantly braided sleeves, yoke and hem, then caught us wrong-footed again with a series of linen- silk-nylon shirts in ruby, emerald and sapphire, glittering with matching beading on the sleeves and apron. Patchwork floral shirts, teamed with baggy linen jeans and leather slippers, continued the globe-trotting, post-hippie, Indian playboy theme. It was the strongest Paul Smith menswear show in some years, as the designer himself seemed to realise. He was still grinning and shouting "Optimism! Energy!" for a TV crew as the last of the audience filed out.

Small London-based label Burro has come on in leaps and bounds since its first Paris show a couple of years ago, hauling itself up the calendrier to a reasonable time slot. An unpretentious, deceptively simple show, this sportswear-based collection was full of easy-to-wear sweats and baggy pants, made just that little bit special with discrete but amusing details like the bondage strap on grey wool Oxford bags, or the safety-pin fastener on white cotton sailor pants. But the real quality - and all the colour - was in the lightweight viscose knitwear. A label for younger men who want to look contemporary without drawing attention to the fact, Burro has a similar aesthetic to Raf Simons, but in a far less severe style.

Still on the subject of smaller British firms, two new arrivals did very well at the Tranoi Homme trade fair in the old Parisian stock exchange building. People's Wardrobe, the streetwear label started by legendary stylist and gadabout Barnzley, did spectacular business with its gimmicky, Japanese-produced range (heat-sensitive colour-shifting sweatshirt with magnetic fasteners and gunshot blast detail, anyone?). At the other end of the scale, the 21st-century Modernist garments of Six Eight Seven Six stood aloof from the pack, a vindication of designer Kenneth Mackenzie's devotion to understatement, fine detail and immaculate finishing.

Comme des Garcons showed in a long narrow courtyard at their headquarters opposite the Ritz on the Place Vendome. An austere setting by any standards, it didn't even feature music, leaving the models to walk the narrow catwalk in silence. Fortunately, the clothes made plenty of noise. The best of these were a jacket in dusty pink suede, teamed with gingham cotton pants, and fuchsia and ruby silk pants, emerald and lollipop pink shirts, worn with billowing, ankle-length cream silk duster coats. A delicious mix of outrageous hues and unconventional silhouettes, this collection confirmed Kawakubo as one of the few international names to truly merit the epithet "designer"; while others are often content to restyle and repackage traditional ideas, she always reinvents the wheel, using entirely new shapes, fabrics and colours. In fact, she's so far out there that it's heartening to note that she can still pick up on the zeitgeist - as well as gemstone colours, she also employed this season's other big theme, with patchwork jeans and shirts.

En route from Comme to Dries Van Noten's show, the heavens opened, flash- flooding Parisian streets. This thwarted the Belgian's plans to show al fresco, but if anything, the switch worked in his favour. Instead of an athletics track on the city's edge, he was forced to use a neighbouring indoor pelota court with a glass wall running along one side, through which we watched this remarkable defile unfold. Van Noten's style has always been on the cerebral side, but here he took his minimalism into uncharted territory, again toying with gender: aproned jackets that ended in pleated skirts, kilts with tank tops, shorts that resembled pedalpushers. His men, bare-armed, loping out with a heavy black stripe of make-up over one eye and carrying baseball bats, looked like Blade Runner-style replicants who had joined a local street gang. This camp-butch styling, teamed with his elegant tailoring and luxurious, low-key knitwear, created a palpable tension. The show finished dramatically, with the entire cast lined up on the pelota court looking at the audience. Then the music stopped, and the court was plunged suddenly into darkness, which left the audience looking at its own reflection in the glass wall. As fashion theatre, it was truly magical.

Once again, Raf Simons dragged the fashion pack across the peripherique and into the uncharted terrain of St Denis La Plaine, the Parisian equivalent of a Wembley industrial estate. And once again, the show was more than ample recompense for their efforts.

Now, if I've already said that both Comme and Dries are known for the austerity of their vision, this is only relative. When it comes to uncompromising severity of line and colour, Simons is virtually unequalled. Aside from black, grey and white, the only colour he ever uses is scarlet, and then only to underline the absence of any other hue. His clothes are generally tight-fitting, even on his wiry teenage models. However, this was Simons in relatively laid-back mode: despite the brutal techno soundtrack and stark white stage, he proposed all kinds of previously unthinkable delights: primrose tank tops, a powder blue sweatshirt, emerald green corduroy bags, and slimline, sleeveless pullovers in a shade of red that can only be described as dried blood. Astonishingly, he even used patchwork items in his knitwear selection.

Likewise, his constricted silhouette had loosened and expanded into relaxed proportions. Well, almost - certain staples remained true to the original vision, like his buttonless classic black frock coat, cut razor-sharp, in immaculate wool gabardine. But this time he did it in Alpine white, with matching tracksuit pants with press-stud fastenings up to the hip, worn by painfully thin young men, their bleached hair cut into severe geometric shapes.

Hedi Slimane's fifth collection for YSL Rive Gauche confirmed his reputation as the most exciting new menswear designer in a decade. From the instant his first model stormed up the catwalk with a leather beret tipped over one eye, wearing a black patent leather shirt with oversized white cuffs and collar, and black silk toile pants, you knew this was going to be An Event. The palette was tight: black and white, three shades of "flesh", crystal blue and scarlet vermilion. The fabrics were sumptuous, almost decadent: crepe de chine, frosted silk organza, finest kid leather. The shapes were long and loose, and included a traditional design that was new to the Paris catwalk - the hooded jellaba worn by Arab men.

These limited but powerful elements, in sensual combinations of colour, weight and texture, coupled with a cool, elegant, flowing line, were enough to suggest a radical departure from conventional menswear design, towards a more ambiguous, fluid sexuality. Will we see a new man for the new millennium? If so, the prototype was born here, in Paris.