No shrinking violets: Menswear brightens up

After seasons of relatively subdued menswear, the spring collections saw flashes of colour and gaudy prints, says Adam Welch

Going to the twice-yearly menswear shows tends to involve a lot of nodding and chin-stroking about minute and imperceptibly wonderful details.

And yes, admittedly, we men love this kind of thing, whether it be in white, carpeted hi-fi showrooms, faintly armpitty-smelling guitar shops or over an earnest quiche in one of those heinous fixed-gear bike cafés (a personal anathema, sorry, cyclists).

But once in a while, there comes a men's season where you walk into an appointment, post-show, primed and ready to talk about some of the latest apocalypse-proof buttons or volcano-smelted cufflinks and your host merely points to your future wardrobe with a broad grin, and jovially says something along the lines of: "This is fun – it's got spots on!" And that, once in a while, is just fine.

Spring/summer 2012 is a feast of these stripes, or to be more precise, of many kinds of loud, screwball, verging-on-comedy print patterns, which were splashed all over the runways of Paris and Milan.

In fact, at times it almost felt like we were back in the 90s: Versace was all baroque bathrobes and budgie smugglers; Givenchy's preened and waxed models stomped along to a trashy rave mix; Viktor & Rolf were fixated on the New Age movement.

But there was also a very intrepid, forward-looking feel to all this maximalism, bolstered by references to military dress, iconic adventurers and exotic locations, flora and fauna.

So, sorry, shrinking violets, but you can take this as an advance warning: you're out.

Matchy Matchy

Spring 2012 is a no-holds-barred season, meaning if you're going to wear the bright pink shirt, you might as well get the pink trousers to go with it. And accessorise with a pink hat. It almost seemed that there was a private competition between the designers of Paris and Milan as to who could cram the most matching pieces into a single runway look. Acne was a strong contender, with a deconstructed camouflage print deployed in combinations of shorts, shirts and combat jackets. Bottega Veneta and Gucci did all-over check and Cerruti showed a fence-print shirt with matching jeans. The titans, however, were Lanvin and Givenchy, the former fielding looks in which up to six colour-coordinated pieces were layered on top of one another and the latter showing ensembles with trousers, shirt, jacket, tie and cap all in a Bird of Paradise flower print that was Riccardo Tisci's obsession for spring. "A way to do darkness in the lightness, the best way is to use prints," he explained.

"You can express sharpness; you can express a lot of things that, with fabrics, you can't express."

Pyjama Party

Print trousers are a tough thing to pull off and generally sported only by pre-teens. At bed time. But none of the designers seemed to care much about this, so it looks like Europe's menfolk will just have to take it on trust that it's a look and it's happening. D&G could hardly have rammed the point home harder, with a fantastically Italian, Versace-esque collection defined by its glitzy, over-the-top baroque printed silk bottoms, shirts and shorts. At the Versace show proper, the house that single-handedly invented the over-sexed glamour of the Nineties was true to form, fielding a collection of square-shouldered, double breasted suits, side-buckled leather trousers and a variety of statement print loungewear (from silk trousers to scoop-neck blouses to teeny, tiny pants) in a shouldn't-work-but-does print formed from slapping rococo curlicues atop bright Op-Art stripes.

Then there was Kenzo, where trousers came printed with florals, paisleys and stylised beach scenes; John Galliano, where new creative director Bill Gayten showed frieze-print silk trousers and golden pyjamas with bird motifs; and Lanvin, where the show ended with multiple varieties of fine, shiny trousers with ethnic prints.

Though Prada's printed trousers and golf shirts weren't quite a direct continuation of all this ritzy daywear, there was a childlike sense of fun to the collection's bright floral and jazz musician prints (at their most effective on trousers worn with studded golf shoes), that chimed neatly with the rest of the statement legwear on the runways.

Adventures in Fashion

Military and utility references not only do the job of grounding the season's general frivolity and silliness with functional, wearable clothes, they emphasise its sense of confidence and purpose. At Vuitton, Kim Jones turned to photographer Peter Beard as inspiration for an intrepid, exploratory male muse, equipped with sporty Velcro-strapped sandals, beige combat jackets and a range of accessories to reflect his to-the-ends-of-the-earth lifestyle, from ostrich record bag to diary with shoulder strap.

At Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati's military references were more abstract, but there was a sense of jungle-bound adventure in safari jackets with laced waistlines, slim trousers with cargo-pant pockets and a tactile, neoprene-like waterproof material that was created especially for the collection and used for trousers and blousons in a subtle black stripe.

Even the often delightfully fey Lanvin collection was this season a little bit more hard-edged, with severe leather jackets and tough bovver boots forming a dark backbone to the flowing, round-shouldered looks.

Check

If there’s one print that really seemed burned into the retina, it was a maxi check. Lurid checks were everywhere, from Giorgio Armani, which showed a series of comparatively subtle dip-dyed knit sweaters, to Raf Simons, where cleverly patchworked, brightly coloured tartans were used for drop-shouldered overcoats, Hawaiian shirts and boxy blazers. Perhaps the most arresting usage of checks was by Kim Jones in his rabble-rousing debut collection for Louis Vuitton, where he ingeniously reworked one of the luggage house’s icons, the 19th-century Damier canvas, in a series of preppy yet exotic looks that nodded to the 70s jetset – as he put it: “American aristocracy going native.” “I was thinking about Massai scarves,” said Jones after the show, which finished with rapturous whoops from the audience. “I had this stack of them in London and they just shouted ‘Damier’ at me. So we seized on it.” Where Jones led the way, others followed: Bottega Veneta went for a distressed, washed-out tartan; Gucci fielded sharp, jazzy suits in startling black-and-white check; even Comme des Garçons, that most stubbornly trend-proof of designer labels, got in on the action with red-and-grey checkerboard tailoring

Pop Jacquard

On some runways, eye-popping patterns were given a more lavish, textural quality through the use of intricate woven and embroidered textiles. Raf Simons, of course, was once again ahead of the pack, developing and complicating the quilting techniques he introduced for last January's Jil Sander collection in a series of matelassé shorts and T-shirts. In knitwear too, Simons was all about intricacy and tactility, deftly bringing together dizzying combinations of colour. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen took the trend in an appropriately regal direction with a luxurious-looking dinner jacket embroidered with an Elizabethan-sized helping of drooping flowers. And fashion prankster Walter Van Beirendonck really went for it, fielding a series of surprisingly straightforward suits and separates in novel, clashing pastel jacquards, which – lest you think he's lost his edge – were accompanied by shredded sweatshirts, elbow-length leather gloves (with noses) and an enormous green golf-ball-like thing that made the wearer look like a cartoon tree stumbling back from a stag night. With matching shoes.

Neon Pastels

For the past couple of seasons there has been a vogue for bright, and this continued for Spring 2012 with a slightly sickly twist via a series of aped-up candy-shop and nursery-esque pastel colour palettes. Givenchy, Mugler, Yohji Yamamoto, Prada and Walter Van Beirendonck all presented pieces in a synthetic mint green, often set off by mildly clashing shades of tangerine and baby pink. Missoni had a washed-out feel, with a sunset palette comprised of faded terracotta, soft orange and turquoise, as did Kenzo, which pitted powder blue and peach against acid yellow and hot pink in tailoring and outerwear. Raf Simons's made a typically concise and focused use of this scheme, spelling it out like a manifesto to onlookers by showing consecutive looks in a variety of pastel colourways. And Lanvin pulled a similar trick towards the end of its spring collection, colour blocking in tangerine, watermelon, soft teal, powder blue and cream.

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