Fashion: Suits they are a-changin'

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Some were formal, others retro –-and a couple of them were even tartan. 'Whistles' were everywhere at the menswear shows, says Glenn Waldron

At the menswear shows of the last fortnight, a quiet revolution took place. With fears of a global recession seemingly at the forefront of their minds, many designers did something they rarely deign to: make clothes that men might actually want to wear. From plaid shirts and chunky cardigans to tailored overcoats and not particularly camp accessories, the autumn/winter 2007/8 season presented a host of reasonable options for the modern male. And the key item of the collections? Well, that would be the suit.

An essential yet often uninspiring element of most men's wardrobes, the suit finally came into its own, particularly at the Paris round of shows. Indeed, while most designers throw in at least a few suits every season for good measure, the autumn/winter catwalks were positively dripping with them – from Comme des Garçons punk-inspired offerings to Hermès' elegantly straightforward pinstriped numbers. "How many ways can you serve up a black suit?" wrote Style.com's Tim Blanks after witnessing the many examples on display at one particular show. It seemed like a fair enough question.

There are obvious reasons for the suit's sudden popularity among designers, of course. With many luxury brands underperforming, the suit is perceived as a commercially safe bet. In contrast to some of the more "risky" menswear looks of late – the socks and sandals espoused by Prada last summer or the now-ubiquitous skinny jean – it's a reliably conservative proposition: the ideal "recession-wear". White-Collar Man will always need suits, after all.

What's more, ever since first appearing in the early 19th century and rising to popularity thanks to the infamous British dandy Beau Brummell, the modern suit has always connoted a certain power and substance. From Cary Grant sporting Quintino in North By Northwest to Richard Gere's Armani moment in American Gigolo to a young Bob Dylan in classic preacherman mode (the inspiration, incidentally, for Ann Demeulemeester's recent Paris collection), the suit has come to exemplify male sartorial elegance.

Indeed, off the catwalk, the rise of the suit is hardly a new story. Alongside the ongoing success of more classically minded menswear designers such as Thom Browne and Adam Kimmel and of "gentlemanly" magazines such as Monocle and the relaunched Esquire, there has been a renewed interest in "grown-up" men's style, witnessed in the quiet rebirth of Savile Row and the championing of classic brands such as Aquascutum and Gieves & Hawkes.

"Right now, men evidently want to dress more elegantly," says Gert Jonkers, editor of the bi-annual menswear magazine Fantastic Man. "There's nothing wrong with being relaxed, but sloppiness is to be avoided."

Lanvin is the label that kick-started this recent trend. Under Lucas Ossendrijver, the French house has been showing luxuriously dishevelled formal wear and carefully crumpled suiting for a good few seasons now. Shifting towards a stiffer-shouldered, slightly straighter silhouette in this season's show, the Dutch designer added trackie cuffs to trouser hems and velvet details to the pockets of jackets. Teamed with a shiny patent trainer (Ossendrijver is always fond of a bit of sparkle), this was suiting at its most directional – yet still remarkably covetable.

Equally successful were Stefano Pilati's latest efforts at YSL. Rejecting the usual catwalk format in favour of a beautifully shot short film by Londoners Sarah Chatfield and Chris Sweener, his impeccably tailored collection harked back to the classic, carefree Saint Laurent of the Seventies. Flannel lambswool suits and elegant crushed velvet jackets were teamed with Indian silk scarves and polkadot pocket squares; the entire affair felt effortlessly seductive.

Perhaps predictably, Raf Simons' designs on the suit were rather more esoteric. Placing a strong emphasis on the neck area, his sphinx-like models wore new-wave suits covered in TV distortion patterns, medieval tunics with serious tailoring and formal jackets that acted like mummified bandages. Not exactly office wear, but weirdly wonderful nonetheless.

On a similarly bold, yet rather less successful tack, Comme des Garçons' Rei Kawakubo once again explored the legacy of punk through suits with plaid details and patchwork sloganeering. The Stephen Jones hats were suitably playful and the shorts-cum-kilt creations cleverly realised, but the collection as a whole felt thuddingly literal. And frankly, who wants to wear a baggy tartan suit these days?

Certainly not the kind of men who squeeze themselves into Dior Homme's forbiddingly tight designs, anyway. Presenting his first catwalk show since taking over from Hedi Slimane, designer Kris Van Assche showed cropped jackets with stuck-on butterflies, intricately pleated trousers and bin-liner-like shirting. He may have ditched Slimane's rock references (we'll ignore the MC Hammer connotations of the baggy pants), yet the palette – black, black and, ooh go on then, just a little more black – was the same as ever. If van Assche is ever to move out of Slimane's pitch-dark shadow, he needs to be braver. And ditch the butterflies, obviously.

Meanwhile, over at Hermès, Véronique Nichanian was in a more relaxed mood than usual, showing heavy cardigans, Indian scarves and short blousons with shearling collars. This being Hermès, however, the suiting was still formidably elegant, whether fitted two-button numbers in navy flannel or contrasting-coloured double-breasted affairs with a subtle chalk stripe.

Hermès may have had the most luxurious suits, but the honour of most practical? That would have to go to Paul Smith. Channelling a certain late-Sixties musical vibe, the legendary British designer sent out a succession of beautifully tailored yet highly wearable pieces. Ticking off all the major fabric and palette trends due in autumn/winter 2008 – from glen plaid to Prince of Wales check – his collection successfully summed up the new sense of formality emerging in menswear. A season-defining show? Suits you, Sir Paul.

www.catwalking.com

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