Fashion: Suits you, signore

There are no trends in menswear. As the Milan shows proved, it's only the details that change.
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The Independent Culture
Milan harbours the most popular menswear labels in the world. Ask any man to name their ultimate label and chances are Prada, Miu Miu, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Versace and Calvin Klein will be on the list. If not, perhaps Jil Sander, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Issey Miyake or John Richmond make the grade. All show in Milan where, in the last five days, the most important event in the men's fashion calendar, the autumn/winter 1999/2000 collections - unofficially dubbed Millennium Men - has been taking place.

Let's get one thing clear. Men's fashion is not about big trends. There are no rising or falling hemlines here, no hair or make-up looks, no question of flat or high shoes, just (for the most part) fabulous clothes. What trends there are don't happen overnight, rather they evolve gradually season-on-season. As everyone who's anyone told me throughout the week: it's all in the details, the fabrics, the feel. A suit is a suit, after all. David Bradshaw of Arena - he's also fashion consultant to Prada - explained: "These shows help men make the decision of which black suit to buy. All the fashion forward detailing is in the sportswear, and this helps to sell the suits because, for obvious reasons, the suit can't change much." Except, of course, in the details.

One of the most prominent fashion "details" of the last few seasons has been the Velcro fastening. It continues to pop up on everything from tailored suits, shirts and coats to trainers, as well as on sportswear, where it belongs. For autumn/winter, however, the practical, no-fluff-collecting zip looks set to make a welcome return. Jil Sander's padded body-warmer zipped up to a funnel neck (funnel necks on everything is another important detail), as did her shirts. At Issey Miyake the arctic outerwear - big, greeny-grey parkas, huge white Puffas, and combats - featured industrial zips. At the hot new American label Richard Edwards, a padded army green body-warmer had zip-on-zip-off arms, while an army green coat had a zip- out lining. At Costume National, zips were used to conceal hoods within the collars of tailored suits.

A shift in colour palette was also in evidence: from mainly white and grey for the coming summer, to mainly black and grey (yep, it's still there), with dashes of bright colour thrown in for good measure. Tomato red was given a good airing at Gucci and Costume National in shiny hide jackets, at Jil Sander in knitwear, and at Prada. Orange was the strong colour of choice at John Richmond. Dirty army green and shades of beige and cream and navy were also popular across the board. Versus went for baby pink and brown together, and Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier went all out for colour.

This season has proved to be special because of the millennium issue and each designer addressed the "what to wear for the party to end all parties" in their own way. Almost every show included a tuxedo, or modern tuxedo derivative. Gucci's tuxedo pants were glamorous in white or black with red piping along the outside leg, and worn with shiny pony-skin biker-inspired jackets. Issey Miyake's was traditional. Giorgio Armani's was James Bond slick. Cerruti's was for a modern-day Sacha Distel, buttoned low for a laid-back look. Gaultier's appeared to be hand-knitted. Dirk Bikkemberg's was in leather. Dolce & Gabbana's was slim and mafia sexy and Versace's was aggressive, raunchy and very rock'n' roll.

The common denominator in all of these suits was their shape; unanimously single breasted jackets with flat-front pants, many of which were straight and loose through the leg. And that takes care of the black suits, which has incidentally made the store buyers very happy. Damian Shaw, the contemporary menswear buyer from Liberty, had a few important check-points for his buying strategy - the first, if it's black it sells; the second, leg shape. Too baggy is bad. So is too straight. And they must look good on the bum. Gucci, Bikkembergs, Prada and Costume National scored there.

Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier provided the fun millennial party gear. Westwood showed silver and gold sequin pants tucked into knee-high boots and ring-master jackets with military detailing, yet amongst the high camp there was softly coloured spearmint and chocolate knitwear, moleskin pants and tweed suits. She scored with her tartan kilt-shirt-tie-and-knee-high-sock ensembles, which managed to look manly even in raspberry and lilac. Gaultier, too, included his signature kilts, but his showpiece, a sequin-embroidered biker jacket with 1999/2000 worked into the arms, was a definite camp winner.

There were plenty of fashion trends that have been creeping up on sartorially motivated men for some time now. Chunky, shrunken-to-the-body multi-ply hand knits - many in soft cashmere - looked fantastic in the McQueen line, at Costume National, and especially at Dolce & Gabbana. Biker motifs were also strong. Embroidery, shine and sequins were in evidence across the board, done best at Dolce & Gabbana on army T-shirts, on tanks at Gaultier, and on the worn-in jeans at Gucci which were held up with a rope belt and worn with velvet tuxedo jackets.

Macho furs made a somewhat disturbing impact on the proceedings. Versace went for wolf as coat linings, on collars and trouser edging. Gucci and Gaultier did fur biker jackets. Dolce & Gabbana did full-length mink pants, while Prada showed a fur sports jacket with a face-protecting hood. Trussardi, the worst offender, used beaver, wolf, crocodile and snake.

If only it were fake. These items may never make it into British shops, a fact the Italians are aware of, but not bothered by. Indeed the English attitude to fur is laughed at by foreigners, who think we're prissy. Perhaps someone should send them on an educational trip to a fur farm.

If, come autumn, the average male is rushing out to buy his black suit, more fashion-conscious men might be distracted by sportswear. In fact, this has been the biggest single revolution in men's fashion this decade. As Nick Sullivan, the associate editor of Arena, pointed out after the perfectly executed hit-of-the-season Prada show, "Five years ago everyone here [male editors and buyers] would have been wearing suits, now look at them." Indeed, a look at the fashion pack is a good indicator of things as they stand.

There's a black suit worn with Prada red-line sneakers and a big parka with a fur hood over there; a funnel-neck, snow-white jumper, tailored trousers and sneakers over here; a body-warmer with combat pants and boots to my right. Sullivan is sure the sportswear thing is at its height now. "When even the most conservative of designers are doing elements of luxury sportswear it is a sure sign a change will be in the air. But the Italians are best at it. After seeing the Prada show you think, yes, it's got mileage," he says.

Louisa de Paula, the contemporary menswear buyer for Selfridges, was in agreement."Menswear now is about uniform dressing. I call it `Subconscious Millennial Dressing'," she says. "Men have totally changed the way they dress in the last 10 years. Now there are no rules. Function and utility looks have become the norm."

Indeed the Prada show summed up the mood of the collections perfectly. So here are a few tips. Boots are ankle or midcalf in tough, toffee- coloured leather. Tailoring is slim and hard, in grey, desert khaki, army green and black. Car coats and duffels are hooded, with padded elbows. Long padded coats are belted in, and pants are cropped. The Prada Sport line included waterproofs, sneakers, bags and hats - all of which had "must- have" stamped all over them. But you'll have to wait until September to buy them - sorry.