THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
"It's a journey into androgyny," says Jack Huston of his role in the new Yves Saint Laurent short films, presented on the first night of the Paris shows. Huston, who appeared in Factory Girl alongside Sienna Miller, follows the designer Marc Newson and actor/director Vincent Gallo as the anti-celebrity, celebrity face of YSL – but even he has to laugh as he watches himself transforming from manly to more feminine in this exploration of gender ambiguity.
"What reality exists between masculine and feminine ideals?" asks the press release for the collection itself, with typically French existential aplomb. This is a transgender exploration of menswear, expressed by the predominantly soft and subtle feminine fabrics. A macho bomber jacket with chunky zips and large breast pockets is reworked in silk gazar and soft cracked leather. Light, unstructured trench coats and fine leather biker jackets have an ethereal beauty. An elegant grey-blue three-piece suit is woven in ultra-soft silk and cotton. Short pleats extend from the cuff and small buttons add decorative detail. It's the kind of suit the Seventies supermodel Veruschka would have worn in those self-styled art images of her as a male dandy.
Front row at Louis Vuitton are Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. One has his own fashion label, the brightly coloured Billionaire Boys Club (not showing in Paris), plus a sunglasses line with LV; and West is looking to start one.
The reference for the show is Charlie Chaplin's City Lights but instead of slapstick, the studio director Paul Helbers and designer Marc Jacobs reveal a sophisticated, modern take on layering and silhouette.
A feather-light, sand-coloured parka with couture gathering is both practical and beautiful, maintaining the balance that is really the basis of this collection. The bomber jacket is shown here, appearing weightless and elegant. An unstructured, single-button, salmon-pink smoking blazer – my favourite look – brings a flash of colour and Fifties cool to the softer greys and blues in the rest of the collection. "I love the colour palette," says West, also eager to share his enthusiasm for the designer Kris Van Assche, who shows later on. The latter's slim-fitting tuxedo trousers, mixed with white high-top trainers and Argentinian street boys wearing harem pants with slim-fitted shirts, is a distinctive sketch of sexually transgressive street fashion and modern tailoring.
It is noteworthy that Comme des Garçons is opening a temporary store with Louis Vuitton, featuring a series of iconic LV products re-imagined by Rei Kawakubo. OK, so it will be only in Japan, but the juxtaposition of the two brands – one fiercely independent and locally focused, the other globally dominant – makes it interesting news, nonetheless. Comme's show focuses on monochrome looks – models in principally black tailoring, white apron skirts and with dyed-purple hair. "Savage priests" is how Kawakubo sums it up, and the silhouette is elongated to the point of gothic. Androgyny here has its roots in the Seventies punk movement, hence barbed-wire embroideries on knitwear.
THE NEW WAVE
So where do straight men who aren't pop stars and who are looking for not-overly-difficult clothes go for some action? To a car park with Dries Van Noten, is one answer. The Belgian designer uses stunning vintage cars such as a 1957 Corvette and a Rolls-Royce Corniche as props for a show that travels from the baggy to the sublime. A mix of single- and double-breasted suits do the job, with one in slate blue that I imagine wearing as I drive out of there in the Corvette. Van Noten also offers informal, relaxed tailoring, and shirts and trousers in printed purple and black, all of which is casual and easy on the eye – no mean feat given the often try-hard world of men's fashion.
Ralph Lauren, showing both his Black and Purple labels in Paris for the first time, uses unexpected flashes of colour in clever ways. For Purple, he goes back to basics – almost – with a smart collection of finely tuned, slim-fitted tailoring. Men are happy to be adventurous with their shoes (Van Noten's buckle-over brogues are a case in point), and even more so with their ties – and this collection homes in on this, offering Deco- and paisley-print designs aplenty. The Black Label had great sportswear-influenced pieces like a featherweight parachute-silk parka in orange, and casual wear.
"It's the anti-pyjama," declares Raf Simons, when asked about his take on menswear. In so doing, Simons merely confirms that spring/summer 2009 is not about grand new statements in menswear. Instead, the most influential designers – and Simons is among them, along with Stefano Pilati at YSL, the aforementioned Dries Van Noten and Alber Elbaz and Lucas Ossendrijver at Lanvin – are simply doing what they do best, refining, adapting and developing ideas that have already established them at the top of their game. So Simons goes back, to graphic, flat and apparently simple constructions, and brings last season's play on texture and fabric gently into the mix. "There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in" is the text from a Leonard Cohen song, stencilled by the New York conceptual artist Christopher Wool and used as the basis for some beautifully constructed decoration. Woven words with coloured threads hanging like fringing produce delicate touches of unrivalled inventiveness.
Martin Margiela's designs are unashamedly louche and male, but this time he also looks to womenswear for inspiration, playing with excess fabric and ruching on lapels and other sections. The colour palette is quiet here, too, and the approach to silhouette softer. In particular, the Replica line – for which Margiela copies vintages pieces – produces some of the best results, including a gorgeous blazer with stretched lapels from Buenos Aires and dated 1985. To celebrate 10 years of men's fashion (the women's line has its 20th anniversary this year), we are treated to a disco-ball finish on shirt fronts and lapels worn – in true rock-god style – with white or black leggings.
Under frills, wigs, lace layers, fake eyelashes and finery lies the "Lonesome Hero of the Number Nine Collection". Takahiro Miyashita is young and has a poetic vision. His collection is loaded with historical and pop-cultural references so dense they defy dissection, but when broken down some stunning individual pieces come out to play. These include silk slippers, hand-embroidered waistcoats and colourful shirts. It's entirely original, and the attention to detail and craftsmanship is incredible, establishing this as a label well worth looking out for.
Outlaw rock'n'roll chic is further in evidence with Thomas Engel Hart's collection, the designer's first since leaving Thierry Mugler. Engel Hart references Kansai Yamamoto's stage costumes for Bowie as well as the King's Road tailor to the glam-rock brigade, Mr Fish. A three-piece cotton suit with gingham patches would be made to order for instance, as a one-off. This is the kind of designer who likes to spend time creating high-end tailoring for a small and stylish clientele: Noel Fielding look no further.
There are many fashion writers who mourn for the days of Dior Homme, when Hedi Slimane was chief designer. After all, men the world over have copied the ultra-thin leggings, the haircuts, the styling ideas – like slim red braces or rectangular shades – that have appeared on his catwalk. Kris Van Assche, who worked with Slimane at Dior, has the unenviable task of filling his shoes. For his second show, Justice provides the soundtrack. Every jacket, suit and piece of men's tailoring is given a geometric slash, a digital nip and tuck. It looks like a collection designed by computer technology – not by hand. If Slimane defined a rock'n'roll aesthetic, Van Assche is going into digital overload.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
The standing ovation of the Paris men's season is left for Lanvin. Slowly building their vision of a lived-in, contemporary elegance, Lucas Ossendrijver and designer Alber Elbaz surpass themselves with a confident show that plays with the internal structure of clothing – for example, giving trousers multiple creases. It looks like a modern take on the image of Bob Dylan by Richard Avedon, shot in Central Park in the mid-Sixties for the sleeve of Bringing It All Back Home. This label's take on a simple shirt with a trench coat tied around it is both intimate and powerful. The nylon jacket of a sky blue suit, with elasticised waist and cuffs to exaggerate volume, breezes by. It is with such romantic and escapist images of dressing that Lanvin seduces the modern man. Whether you're a rich kid, rock star, rapper, cross-dresser or transgender bender, there's something in this collection and its self-styled study of androgyny for you.