London was a tale of two cities: one buttoned-up in Savile Row tailoring, the other slouched in sportswear. Work and play? Not really – they weren't even competitors given how diametrically opposed they were. Can you imagine the same man buying Richard James and JW Anderson? But those designers can co-exist on the London Collections: Men schedule, a week that saw our heads snap from midriff-baring, obi-sashed, crimped-fringe boy-toys (JW Anderson) to glowtick-hued latex-laden rave kids (Christopher Shannon), to Scrapheap Challenge cardboard pile-ups (Craig Green).
That line-up doesn't say much about what men will really be wearing come next spring. As magnificent as designer Craig Green's second catwalk show was, with its hallucinatory tie-dyed layers and massive cardboard constructs, it's a statement that's restricted to the catwalk. But those designers are representative of London fashion's greatest asset: ideas. The stuff you saw on the catwalks will be pored over, picked apart and copied by the rest of the industry.
Alexander McQueen is an example of where those ideas get you – noticed on a global scale. Sarah Burton's second menswear show in the capital riffed on the McQueen trademarks. Yes, that included tailoring, but she turned her suiting inside-out (a trend for artful deconstruction we've seen across the fashion capitals), sending out silk linings as billowing robes or rendering her suits in intricately woven lace.
So who's next? The money's on JW Anderson, a man with a plan and a staggering work ethic. Days after showing his Versus Resort collection, he sent out a collection of origami-wrapped, baggy-trousered boys that wiped memories of his last show from our minds. His shtick is gender-blending. This season he wanted his men to look like they were wearing column-dresses, and said that menswear is all about necklines (his were halter). It's difficult to imagine any designer in Milan or Paris coming up with that.
Milan's great advantage over London or Paris? Climate. The sun always shines over its spring menswear shows, making it easier to imagine men wearing the clothing on the catwalks. This week, a preponderance of shorts, tropical florals and the dreaded but ubiquitous “Mandal” all looked a bit better basking in the glaring Lombardy sun.
If London is about ideas, Milan is about industry – the whole shebang is geared towards the bottom line. The most interesting designers last week, however, managed to show clothes that trod a tricky line between creativity and commerce. Take Miuccia Prada, who splashed flashy Hawaiian prints that could have been lifted from Duane Hanson's Tourists sculptures across a covetable collection of summer basics. The show generated intellectual discussion, but the clothes themselves generated desire.
Jil Sander's theme was interestingly synched with Miuccia Prada – the former inspired by the “accidental tourist”, the latter mid-century tropical travel. But if Prada wanted to evoke menace, a holiday closer to nightmare than dream, Jil Sander was jubilant, re-interpreting the oversized shorts and pinched-in cotton jackets of her first spring menswear outing, swapping their original navy for eye-socking fluorescents and almost neon white.
In Milan, the designers sometimes feel like they're all singing from the same sheet – they'd all got the memo about luxury sportswear this season. By the third day, techy, rip-corded collections had already begun to look old hat. The striking exception was Italo Zucchelli's collection for Calvin Klein, a label so rooted in American sportswear they can claim the territory as their own. This collection was entirely played out in blue – a reinterpretation of the trademark Calvin denim?
You see some extraordinary things during Paris fashion week. You watch a thrash-metal band get hoisted to the rafters by their ankles. You see hyper-realistic dandelion-clocks made, by hand, from minute slivers of feather. You even get hauled 40 minutes out of the city to an aircraft hangar and seated in a piece of contemporary art worth a few million.
What's the point? To show and sell clothes, ostensibly. But really fashion is about the thrill of the new. The clothes in Raf Simons' show in a huge Gagosian Gallery space adjacent to an airstrip even managed to overshadow the Alexander Calder mobiles looming large over the catwalk. Simons' silhouette was short and tight, infantile and a little feminine. It questioned our ideas of menswear, as well as good and bad taste.
If Simons was channelling Nineties rave culture, Rick Owens, who suspended surreal Estonian punk group Winny Puhh over the catwalk, was knee-deep in a mosh pit. But, oddly, the designers proposed strikingly similar looks for men, shorts barely clearing the crotch, shoes pumped-up, high-performance sports sneakers.
Sometimes Paris can get caught up in its haute couture heritage, overworking garments for the sake of showcasing the expertise. Kim Jones' Louis Vuitton collection was refreshing because it wore that luxury lightly. You didn't clock the fact that the LV monogram on the closing tuxedo was created by the rather extraordinary technique of weaving minute strips of mother-of-pearl into silk velvet. You also didn't realise it had a price-tag of roughly 80k, although that's no issue for Vuitton's customers. Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli are stabbing after the same market: crocodile flip-flop, perhaps? Or maybe a camouflage coat in bonded leather.
Those visions, from short-shorts and monster trainers through crocodile flip-flops and hyper-luxe camo, seem disparate. But that's the joy of Paris fashion: the best of the best, at their best, not looking over their shoulders at what other designers are doing, but looking ahead to the future. It's what makes really great clothes.