Fashion: Geek chic

The pot-bellied, the asexual, the weird and - at Yves Saint Laurent, at least - the wonderful all appeared at the menswear shows in Paris.
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If men's fashion week in Milan - home to Prada, Gucci and Armani - was all about status dressing, big bucks and glamour, Paris was a far more cerebral affair. There was little real excitement - except for the hit Yves Saint Laurent show - but the Paris-based designers showed real clothes for the thinking man of all shapes, ages and sizes.

Dries Van Noten showed in the old Bibliotheque Nationale, a reading room the size of a railway terminus, with cast-iron arches, woodland murals and glass cupolas inlaid with rose-pink ceramic tiles. His best pieces included black wool overcoats pulled in with leather belts, asymmetric pullovers and tailored evening suits. Apart from over-long sleeves, the cut was elegant and discreet. While a cello sonata played, the Belgian best known for his use of colour and print sent out so much black on black that you wondered if he'd been hanging out with his young compatriot Raf Simons. Nothing was straightforwardly chic or sexy, instead everything was slightly gimpy. But gimpy guys need glad rags too.

If Van Noten went for the head, Yohji Yamamoto went straight for the heart, gathering up a several dozen gypsy musicians from various parts of central Europe to model his collection. This was the school of hard knocks, a show that was full of wrinkled, wiry, middle-aged men, and pot- bellied guys with battered faces, with the occasional gold tooth glinting from a crooked smile.

And the clothes? Oh, the best Yohji men's show that I can remember, no question. Many of the musicians sported ankle-length wrap skirts over trousers, a look that Paris-based designers have been developing for some time. In five years I predict it will seem perfectly normal. Yohji himself said this was a show very close to his own heart - he even included a reworked version of his favourite trousers, straight but baggy wool pants with wide belt-loops and cargo pockets, to be worn with a soft boxy jacket.

At Walter Van Bierendonck, the best seats in the house were given over to "family": the front row was taken up by Van Bierendonck's collection of colourful plastic toys - dinosaurs, space monsters, robots, Smurfs, Gremlins and assorted rubber monkeys, bears, penguins, etc. In a word: weird. If Darth Vader's holiday wardrobe had been styled by Courreges in the Sixties, it might have looked like this, with black PVC catsuits topped with clear plastic macs and scarlet wool tunics. Given previous grand triumphs, this was a notably scaled-down and curiously restrained collection, which didn't really come off.

Can you hear that whooshing sound? That's Paul Smith rocketing upmarket in a bid to join the Premier League of luxury labels dominated by Gucci, Prada and Hermes. Having now diffused himself into too many fragments (PS, Jeans, Sport and R Newbold labels), Smith seems intent on boosting his main line to stratospheric heights in a bid to add value to the house stock. It was the old "classics with a twist" chestnut, only this time the twist was... no twist. Seriously, this was Smith playing to his strengths, producing elegant and distinctively British menswear, with the gimmicks and tat finally discarded in favour of cavalry twill, tweed and suede in all the right colours and all the right weights.

The only way to describe Comme des Garcons' collection would be patchy. The red tartan bomber jacket with matching skirt was a little too reminiscent of Jean Paul Gaultier for comfort. Likewise the gold lame kilt, and the white, patent-leather, pleated skirt. Don't get me wrong. I loved these garments, and they were beautifully made. But I've seen them before, or at least close approximations. Still, the brand's staples will always be the beautiful, pared-down black wool suits with their long, fitted jackets, and the grey shirts you can wear in any office.

Kenzo's show provided the most narrow and constrictive view of masculinity yet, with prisoner models, huge numbers appliqued to their shirts, walking along painted white lines on a grey carpet, wearing baggy, asexual clothes in shades ranging from ash to anthracite, via charcoal, dove and slate. Yes, it was a very grey day. The most cohesive look was that Manchester anorak-and-fishing hat moment so beloved of Oasis and their fans, which ain't saying much.

OK, time for some theory. The best designers constantly strive toward a state where they merely allude to their own work. Having essentialised their style, they are no longer bound by it; instead of consciously stamping "identity" on to garments, everything they make is instantly recognisable. After 11 years and 22 shows, this is the point Veronique Nichanian has reached with her designs for Hermes menswear.

From the very first outfit this was an exercise in purity of design. A sublime, putty T-shirt here, a pair of black suede pants there, a three- button suit. There were no gimmicks, fuss or frills - just luxurious fabrics, exquisite colour combinations, the optimum balance of texture, weight and line. For those who know what they're looking at, the Hermes style is unmistakable. For those who don't, it's invisible. The perfect combination.

Which is exactly what Hedi Slimane, the 30-year- old Parisian designer of Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, produced for his fourth and best collection for the house. The company director Pierre Berge watched with an ecstatic smile as Slimane's YSL boys and men practically slithered along the catwalk - such was the slickness of the show. Slimane kept to a restrained palette of charcoal grey, black and white and punctuated it with a blast of cobalt blue. Let's not mince words here - this is, in the most part, a very gay aesthetic of men's dress, and all the more beautiful for it. High points were nude tulle T-shirts scattered with sequins and worn underneath absolutely perfect, classic YSL tuxedos; a long, slim, belted leather trenchcoat and, finally, a pointy-hooded, three-quarter-length padded coat.

The young Belgian Raf Simons, original and daring though he may be, still feels obliged to "tag" his own designs, with little "r" logos on his beautiful turtleneck sweaters, or suits with his own name visibly woven into the pinstripe. Strange, because his Gothic aesthetic and severely tailored silhouette are both instantly recognisable.

His trademark skinny, pubescent boys marched out bearing black banners, looking forlorn in inky, vampire-like capes.

It was wonderful theatre, and seductively sombre, but perhaps obscured the sensual quality of Simons's work, particularly the knitwear, which is actually soft, luxurious and welcoming. But the designer seems determined to offer the bleak, austere vision of Bowie's Thin White Duke period. Come to think of it, Station to Station would have made the perfect soundtrack as we trooped out into the night, searching for the train back to civilisation.