Fashion: Off the peg Women are not alone in adoring accessories, discovers Melanie Rickey

few weeks ago in Milan, and again in Paris last weekend, the pundits of the men's fashion industry gathered to witness the collections for autumn/winter '99.

While the clothes on the catwalk are important, what has become increasingly essential to the fashion mix are groovy shoes, bags, and belts, and this will become more apparent as the year moves on.

Fashion accessories now not only help to define and create a coherent image, they are doing so, for men at least, over and above the clothes themselves.

After all a suit is just a suit. But accessorised with a pair of tough ankle boots, a body-friendly bag, and a chic knitted fisherman's hat it becomes a "look".

Prada knows the importance of its accessories more than most. Its Milan show was the usual runway affair, but it had the added attraction of huge television screens set high into the walls of the purpose-built catwalk theatre. These screens transmitted the part of the collection most onlookers miss unless they are seated in the front row: the shoes, boots and sneakers.

Before Prada was the monolithic brand it is today, it made luxury shoes and bags, and it doesn't forget its roots. Ditto Gucci, Louis Vuitton - and even Red or Dead and Patrick Cox - which began their successful businesses with shoes and accessories before branching into clothes. Working in the opposite direction are Calvin Klein, Dirk Bikkembergs, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons, and Jil Sander which provide shoes and accessories to those punters for whom a suit is beyond their financial reach. Helmut Lang is poised to join them in summer 2000.

Any man worth his subscription to Arena Homme Plus will, this spring, definitely be investing in accessories from one or more of these fashion houses in order to update their wardrobes. It's the male equivalent of buying a pink sequin cardigan: women have pink to add a splash, men have bags, shoes and belts.

It could be red-line sneaker/shoes or plain slip-ons from Prada, or Velcro fastening sneakers or loafers from Gucci or Patrick Cox. It could be a one-strap rucksack with mobile phone holder from Vexed Generation, a leather monogrammed briefcase from Louis Vuitton, or a satchel from Dries Van Noten.

As one New York-based fashion journalist pointed out at the Milan shows, "men are interested in the accessories first and the clothes second". This certainly seemed true in Milan when, as I strolled along the famous Via Monte Napoleone - home to many a chic designer emporium - I noticed several of the world's leading male fashion journalists and buyers in Gucci and Prada hovering around the newly arrived spring merchandise. What had they bought? Two had pairs of Prada shoes, the other had a Gucci bag and belt. Says it all really

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