Walk like a man

The latest collections in Milan demonstrate a bewildering and baffling range of options for the modern man in search of his latest fashion look. From short pants to sharp suits, Stephen Todd supplies a boy's own guide
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When I was a wee lad, growing up in the far-flung colonies, my father bought me a book called On Becoming A Man. He never actually gave it to me, but stashed it away in a nook in his study with a whole lot of German soft porn. But in my pre-pubescent quest for tips on the subject, I would come across the red mock-croc volume and eagerly paw its pages for hints on making the leap from sprog to frog.

Trading in short pants for trousers, learning to properly knot a tie, knowing on which side to part one's hair for a swanky soiree, being polite to girls (noted tendency to cry)... welcome, young novice, to the brotherhood of man.

But then along came Milan Spring/Summer 1999-2000. Short pants still de rigueur. Tie knots cased in stainless steel. Hair garnished with frangipani leaves. What's a boy to do when he wants to become a man?

At Versace he'll surround himself with nice girls like Naomi and Carolyn and Karmen wearing little ruched chiffony things, and strut about on a Gary Hume-ish enamel baby blue catwalk in simple white polo shirts and greige redingote coats.

At least for openers. While La Versace has conspicuously pared down the trademark logo (even sunglasses no longer sport the Medusa), she has written the word in Gothic script across baseball blousons and polos, like a Manhattan gang's fighting colours. When you're a Jet(setter) you're a Jet(setter), it seems.

For those who like flash for their cash, there were still tattoo-print skin-coloured leather jerkins, floral embroidered shirts and suits, and retina-spinning satin linings on suit jackets. And for that Loveboat goes Lido touch, who can resist model Scott Barnhill in a white captain's jacket with sequinned epaulettes?

Jean Paul Gaultier took a cruise to the tropics via Mexico, his swanky hombres slinking out to the easy listening tinkling of `The Girl From Ipanema' and `Feelings'... ("Woh, woh, woh feelings").

Wide-cut trousers and waist-length jackets trimmed with leather "belts" came in his trademark palette of cream, cafe and cacao. When they finally got where they were going, they traded the gringo grease monkey attire for wild print sarongs and psychedelic tanks and blousons. `Isn't she lovely?' chimed the muzak - and who could disagree?

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana would probably have begged to differ, once, but this season are not so sure. The boys most known for sharp, snappy suit styles have spent a couple of seasons reassessing their look, and for next summer they've gone po-mo rococo.

Patchwork denim jeans worn XL and low. Bejewelled Moroccan slippers and fat cat khaki military belts over- embroidered with silver sequins. Zebra print trousers topped off with metallic lace shirts. Sunflower print shirts worn with plaid trousers.

So where's he gone, the Sardinian gigolo of yore? Dissolved into a savvy amalgam of styles, from military-utility to skate, glam and even S&M. The problem is not how to become a man, but which man, exactly, to become. If there was any doubt at Dirk Bikkembergs' it was quickly dispelled by the 40 metre wide muscleman perched over the catwalk. From under his bulging biceps emerged a slightly softer collection from the Belgian lad who has for seasons seemed fascinated with an almost fascist image of masculinity.

Nylon track pants in silver, bronze and blue came with the requisite amount of zips and pockets. Khaki leather bike pants with matching 36- hole boots, zip-up neck tops, utility bombers, dufflebags in which to fit a whole lifetime all made for the kind of urban battlefield style we've grown to know and love. But can a green leather suit ever be a good look?

Naoki Takizawa's collection for Issey Miyake also played along utility lines, but in a way which was simple, fun and (call me old fashioned) wearable. Workwear blue calico tie-waist trousers, shorts, loose-fitting T-shirts and shifts made for easy urban wear. Taped or roughly-hewn edges sent out the message: "Relax, it's only clothes."

And a later series of turned-up denim chinos with matching coats turned out to be reversible, to show off bright pop prints by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.

If the Miyake collection was relaxed, Giorgio Armani was positively laid back. The master cutter decided to ease up on his menswear, deconstructing jackets to the point where they turn into luxurious silk-wool mix shirts. Trousers were cut wide and straight, falling into easy trackpants and simply tied at the waist.

It's a collection that takes its cues from sportswear, without falling into the trap of directly reproducing streetsy silhouettes. The lines are supple, but not literally athletic, and luxury fibres like silk are treated (waterproofed, greaseproofed ) as if they were synthetics.

At Jil Sander, synthetics are treated as if they were luxury fabrics. In fact, with her penchant for high-tech textiles, often they are. Jil's coup this season was in taking her now well-established vocabulary - the pared-down lines, the simple boxy shapes, the lack of ornament - and cranking it up just one notch.

For the first time, prints were used, although they were often all but invisible. Zig-zags inspired by German architecture, a strange organic- mechanical "stamen" inspired by 1920s photographer Karl Blossfeldt, ultra-fine stripes and checks. Jil reckons it's a collection "for advanced leisure snobs".

In which case, Vivienne Westwood's collection must be for advanced history snobs. Soft pre-Raphaelite smock tops. Excellent anthropomorphic knit- wear, following the body's musculature like an Enlightenment anatomical study. Voluminous striped suiting - Monet on MDMA at Giverny. Dressing gown suits - Cocteau greeting a young Radiguet.

In a decadent mix of wraiths and wranglers, Peter Pans in pedalpushers, Robin Hoods wrapped up in mustard leather, and musclemen bulging out of wild prints panties, Queen Viv once again confirms her conviction that a man (and I quote), "is a contemporary time traveller... stepping out into the future displaying his wealth of knowledge from the past through his dress".

Just don't tell that to my dad.

Stephen Todd is editor-in-chief of `Numero' magazine