At the Autumn 2012 menswear shows, everybody in Paris and Milan was talking about the suit.
On the surface it's all a bit of a yawn – part of the general cycle of menswear in which if it's not about the suit, it's about the blazer. Or sportswear. Or one of the other three or four key looks that men are actually likely to have in their limited wardrobes.
So let's go a bit further than that: the shows this January were about masculine force, and re-asserting it. Lucas Ossendrijver, the reliably brilliant men's designer at Lanvin, was particularly eloquent on this point. "A suit can give you power," he said, shortly after the show, which featured Seventies-tinged powder blue and camel suits (with a generous bootcut trouser), cropped morning coats and neoprene-bonded overcoats with imposing, hulking shoulders. "Where women can wear shoulder pads, men can go back to suits," he said. "It's not about being a dandy, or trying to be too modern. It's about suits that have character, suits that are special." In other words, a male uniform that doesn't feel like uniform anymore – one that has a stamp of authority, but also individuality.
Ossendrijver also talked about a "man on a mission" – and this was an idea that seemed to play out across the runways, whether it was at Raf Simons' Jil Sander show, with its lunch bag- and newspaper-clutching bankers (who looked poised to start work at some sinister institution), or at Adam Kimmel, where one model walked out in a Top-Gun style pilot's helmet.
At Alexander McQueen, there were shades of Victoriana; at Junya Watanabe, bearded gamekeepers wore wader-like trousers and braces; at Emporio Armani, there were mountain rescue hats and nomadic shawls; at Vivienne Westwood, beards strewn with icicles. Everywhere there was a sense of action, purpose, and imperturbable manliness that felt reassuring, if caricatured, at a time when a lot of men – the Greek prime minister, for exaple – must be feeling a little bit helpless.
Men and Supermen
In a season about imposing masculinity, many designers pumped up the male silhouette to startling, superhuman proportions. Viktor & Rolf, perhaps surprisingly given their avant garde credentials, offered the most sensible proposition of the lot, with a series of suits, chesterfields and bomber jackets that were gently padded at the shoulders to give a shape just a little shy of a quarterback. At Lanvin, Lucas Ossendrijver went bigger and quirkier, with huge, round-shouldered sweaters in dip-dyed plaid, while Rick Owens rounded off his neat, somewhat restrained show with a series of hulking astronaut-esque down coats. The medal for overstatement, though, goes to Thom Browne. His Mohican-sporting dandy punks, who wore gimp masks, had their shoulders padded to Lurch-like proportions.
Military-inspired pieces are never far from the male wardrobe but this autumn, martial garb had a marked predominance and bite. At Dior Homme, Kris Van Assche took a step away from his recent focus on super-minimal, deconstructed tailoring with a largely khaki collection of army-inspired suits, the jackets tightly fastened with four or five buttons, cinched in at the waistline with leather belts, or embellished with Napoleonic rope toggles. It was certainly a more aggressive collection than is typical, but it was softened with flowing cape jackets and a particularly elegant camo-esque bird print.
Camouflage was a major feature of the Versace collection too, albeit with a touch of what Donatella succinctly called "the Versace treatment". And we all know what that means: the sludgy brown, khaki and grey pattern was rendered in red and pink, then burst in to bloom as "flora-flage", while cavalry garb was re-imagined as a pair of silk pyjamas and models wore golden dog tags emblazoned with the house's Greek frieze motif.
Key outerwear this season included the chesterfield, a three-quarter length coat with a slim, double-breasted fit. It's not a particularly unusual piece, but the forthright classicism of the autumn runways brought it closer to the garment that preceded it – the frock coat – as well as introducing some novel twists to tinker with the basic shape.
At Dolce & Gabbana there was definitely a turn-of-the-20th-century feel, not just because of the ornate, operatic gold embroidery that covered everything from blazers to socks, but also thanks to the long frock-like coats that were sharply fitted at the waist and worn with dandyish floppy bow ties. They brought out the chesterfield in something like 20 variations, and Comme des Garçons also experimented with the form, showing boxy and cropped polka dot versions. But the champion examples had to be those fielded by Miuccia Prada at her dressy, almost Edwardian show – and not just because they were worn by, among others, Willem Dafoe, Gary Oldman and Adrien Brody. These came in a range of lengths and textiles, from plain grey to pinstripe to kitsch, Seventies prints, and were variously enhanced with ironic details like giant collars and mismatching astrakhan trim. It was a poke at traditional masculinity, and turned out some very wearable clothes to boot.
You'd be forgiven for thinking there's not been much room for flamboyance in autumn 2012. But that's where the Seventies came in. From the open-necked shirts and sandy colour palette at Umit Benan's show for Trussardi, to the jacket and turtleneck combos and bootlegs at Lanvin, and to the general preponderance of gangsterish coats with wide fur collars, there were a substantial number of references to the peacock-like male stylings of the decade that brought us glam rock, polyester shirts and Get Carter. Dries Van Noten's inspirations (Frank Zappa and Oscar Wilde) took us slightly earlier, but the result – shirts printed with slogans in psychedelic lettering and suits printed all over with an abstract-organic painted pattern – brought to mind the beginnings of Prog Rock, specifically, the artwork for In the Court of the Crimson King.
At Gucci, Frida Giannini has been working Seventies references for a few seasons, but seldom has it felt so right as it did this time around – skinny navy suits mixed with shearling-lined jackets, groovy geometric-print trousers and richly coloured flower-print blazers. It was dark and elegant, but also refreshing for its unashamed luxury and sense of fun – evident most of all in the paint-daubed carpet bags.
It looks like autumn's going to be a cold, hard season for men, but lest anyone forget that, deep down, we're all big softies really, many designers peppered their collections with cuddly teddy-bear-like fleece and shearling outerwear. The biggest and best was at Bottega Veneta, where a short-collared jacket in creamy natural fleece emerged amidst the more fiddly overprinted suits, leather-panelled overcoats and crinkled, jodhpur-like jeans. Then there were fleecy gilets at Jean Paul Gaultier, a full-length astrakhan fur coat at Lanvin and super-soft fleece zip-ups at Kim Jones's Tokyo/Paris-themed collection for Louis Vuitton.
If any of the current crop of designers knows how to make a fashion statement, it's Raf Simons, and this season he really went for the jugular with his predominantly leather collection for Jil Sander, which emerged from behind a graffiti-strewn door onto a black rubber runway. With its range of voluminous leather overcoats, sheeny, round-shouldered macs and granite-like wool marl suits, it was as scary as it was preposterously luxurious. And more so because it reeked of the businessman, the current era's foremost demon figure, who Simons was fixated upon for his "accuracy" and "obsession for detail", as well as his "vanity".
The collection was a daring move for Simons, not only because he has become so loved for his experiments with colour and print at Jil Sander, but also because fashion rarely attempts to be this intriguingly ambivalent. And the leather was key to this, he said, both as "an expression of uncompromised luxury" (particularly provocative in a retail environment that is very much compromised) and "a material that could trace the dark side of the man I pictured with this collection".
Elsewhere there were equally enticing workouts in skin, both at Yves Saint Laurent and at Hermès, where even shirts came in super-fine leather.Reuse content