Halfway through Paul Smith's show last weekend, the designer sent a muscular young man sauntering down the catwalk. He was all rippling biceps and bulging pectorals, clad in a pair of shorts and very little else.
It was a treat for the women in the audience (they told me so). Even more of a treat for the gay men (they told me so, too). At the collections, we saw these same designer bodies on display in show after show - Charles Atlas men, bodybuilder boys, male beefcake, too sexy for their shirts.
The extreme version of beefcake is Versace Man. On the beach, he wears bright print silk shirts unbuttoned to the waist over tight shorts. At his show in Milan, the designer paid homage to Miami South Beach, the ultimate camp playground. Gladiator sandals adorned with gold coins and worn with pink socks? Enough said.
Maybe designers are getting excited about male bodies again because it is Olympics year, stirring memories of Johnny Weissmuller, the Twenties swimmer who went on to play Tarzan, or Mark Spitz, a seven-gold-medal-winner in the 1972 games. In fashion terms, think tank tops, mesh shirts, shiny swimming trunks and sweat pants - all clothes that appeared on the catwalks in Paris and Milan.
The designers who are really in touch with trends in manhood played the Schwarzenegger image to the hilt. Paul Smith, always a canny designer, has timed it just right, coming up with skinny-rib tops and a slim-line silhouette for next spring. He wove elements of street style into the mix: New Age ravers in beads and sandals, late Sixties rock stars in waistcoats and patchwork trousers.
Dolce e Gabbana, the Italian designers, were even more enthusiastic about the rave-and-beefcake theme, picking out their ideas from a rave circa 1969 going on 1992, tie-dyeing trousers, and piling on the beads. Milan has a habit of taking ideas from London or California and moving them upmarket. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but young British men will know where to pick up the clothes at more affordable prices.
Crinkly fabrics, particularly crepe and seersucker, also popular in the late Sixties, were placed firmly on the fashion map for next spring. Seersucker has had a bit of a bad press over the years, perhaps because we tend to think of the blue-and-white polyester American variety. The new seersucker suits, as made by Hermes, are in luxury fabrics: a green and beige cotton and silk mix, worn with a yellow and white gingham shirt.
Jean Paul Gaultier and Dirk Bikkembergs have been pursuing a body-conscious wardrobe for years. Gaultier was the pioneer, producing sensual stretch clothes that follow the curves of the male torso. His new enthusiasm is denim, but never the way Levi Strauss intended it: striped, printed and turned into the stuff of comic-strip fantasy. Gaultier is too sharp a designer to produce one-note collections, of course. For spring, he likes to contrast his stretch clothes with exaggerated bagginess, including trousers more like pyjamas or with turn-ups that reach the knee.
Bikkembergs, the Belgian designer, called his new collection 'Beau-Fort' ('Handsome-Strong'). It was a neatly edited selection of the best of Bikkembergs, in darker shades of blue, using leather and hi-tech Italian knitwear to mould clothes to the body.
Are men the new sex objects? Consider the evidence: Luke Perry, the star of Beverly Hills 90210, takes off his top and gets on the cover of Vanity Fair; Right Said Fred, a pop group with an off-key male singer who wears skin-tight clothing, makes it to no 1; For Women, a new magazine full of naked Chippendale lookalikes, sells out within days; and, in Beverly Hills, a salon for men reports a 30 per cent increase in chest and back waxing.
In the July edition of M, a fashion magazine for American men, the writer Richard Stengel suggests that the new emphasis on the male as a sex object has come about because of the disproportionate influence of gay men's culture in the fashion and image-making business.
The crucial point, however, is the convergence between the homosexual viewpoint and the heterosexual female sensibility. Gay men love the clothes, but so do many women, and so, in the end, do increasing numbers of straight men.
Maybe it is the turn of men to be exploited: brawn admired before brains, male bimbos spread across the pages of the tabloids. Stengel says men can't really complain. 'Because of our history as oppressors of the opposite sex, we can be exploited without guilt and without apology.'
For those not ready to rip off their shirts, there were plenty of more sensible options in Paris and Milan, although the lines of the new tailoring fit neatly into the body-conscious theme. Jackets with ever-higher buttoning (watch out, the Nehru jacket is on its way again) are cut close to the body, long and Edwardian with high vents. Trousers are slim, tapering and flattering.
Striped and checked jackets cropped up in every imaginable form, from reworked tartans to washed-out linen tickings. Striped shirts were out, replaced by checks, often in gingham.
Fabrics were light and soft, to lie comfortably against all that naked flesh. Designers are mixing up fabrics to get precisely the effect they want: linen blended with silk or cotton, a touch of synthetic added here and there to strengthen the cloth, microfibres utilised to make raincoats breathe. For next summer, designers are making jackets as light as shirts by dispensing with linings and working with featherweight cloths. Who needs the protective armour of a heavy suit when you've got a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger's?
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