The contrast with womenswear has never been stronger. While the designers who make clothes for women seem uncertain which way to lead them (one season they are Forties glamour girls, the next Seventies hippies), their counterparts in menswear display a sureness of touch.
The English country gentleman, in his tweed jacket and corduroy trousers, is the most influential role model for the new collections, although the internationalised version of this gent prefers cashmere tweed and super-soft corduroy. The colours, however, are not so very different: brown, beige, taupe, grey, enlivened with the occasional flash of bright check and shadowcheck.
The English silhouette is back: natural shoulders, double vents at the back, a more fitted waist, and a hint of flare in the jacket skirt. The triumph of le style anglais was most in evidence at Paul Smith, who called his collection 'True Brit', perhaps to mark the contrast between the genuine (Nottingham-bred) article and all those Italian menswear firms that have imitated our native tailoring.
Mr Smith is on a roll. His secret is to produce a bit of everything in his collections, from long-line, high-buttoning tailoring for modern dandies to dress-down layers of sweaters and loose shirts for grunge wannabees, to shot velvet patchwork waistcoats, devore suits and ethnic prints for neo- hippies. In the same collection he plays it safe, then plays it fast and loose.
Paul Smith was the only British designer on the Paris catwalk, but many others were showing their collections on stands at SEHM, the giant menswear trade exhibition. The pick of the bunch were John Richmond, who mixed leather and chalk-stripe to give tailoring a modern twist; Roger Dack, beating the drum for the Edwardian high-buttoned double- breasted suit; and Nick Coleman, also high- buttoning his jackets in competitively priced pin- stripe denim. John Rocha, a veteran designer from Ireland, is bringing his menswear to Britain for the first time, producing jackets loose as work-shirts and hand-loomed cable and ribbed knitwear in oatmeal and cream.
Many of the collections were low in entertainment value, but that is probably all to the good. Men's designers are getting to grips with their customers' requirements. Fantasies are strictly out of fashion - unless you are Jean Paul Gaultier, who produced a collection of delightful silliness inspired by Wagnerian opera and dandy tailoring.
The modern male wardrobe has become sharply divided. Five days a week, men are dressed in suits, shirts and ties; a century- old combination of clothes that has developed into a rigid uniform for business life. And then, for a couple of days a week, they are in a position to loosen up, to explore the adventure playground of contemporary casualwear and sportswear. What is happening now is that designers are narrowing the gap in response to this sartorial split.
They are making 'country' suits that men might choose to wear on both weekdays and weekends; turtleneck sweaters instead of ties and shirts; jeans reworked in wool gaberdine; short, practical car coats with leather or fake fur collars.
The mood was well summed up at Rykiel Homme, where Thomas Maier produced a smart alternative to the usual office suit: a soft, four-button sports jacket in chocolate and beige windowpane tweed, worn with a matching waistcoat and round-necked beige sweater and beige cotton whipcord trousers. He also showed a three-button navy wool blazer with a round-collared, grey flannel shirt and beige cotton velvet trousers.
Even the avant-garde Japanese were working hard to narrow the gap between weekday and weekend. Yohji Yamamoto injected colour into tweed, revived frock coats, and played around with checks - one of the big themes of the moment. Comme des Garcons' check suits were so crumpled that it looked as if the models (including the actor Alan Rickman and the pop artist Robert Rauschenberg) had slept in them.
Who are the menswear designers to watch next season? At Hermes, Veronique Nichanian has her finger firmly on the pulse of country-into-town. Her models wore roll- neck pullovers rather than ties under their checked jackets and the new short softcoats. The clothes steered clear of grunge-casual in favour of a luxurious, super-sophisticated version that seems just right for 1993.
And finally there is Dries Van Noten, the quiet Belgian who dresses men in layers of subdued colour and rich, natural textures. Many of the influential garments of the season were in evidence at the Van Noten show: corduroy trousers, shirt-jackets, high- necked ribbed sweaters and slim-line jersey jackets. Not English, admittedly, but a dress-down international style that is unlikely to date.
Photographs by GEOFF BRISTOL
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