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Ripe for Exposure

Sexy, stretchy Ts. Slim suits and pants. Spring lines are tight, tight, tight and not for every body.


NEW YORK — Whether it was Calvin Klein's '70s spin on '50s guyness, Donna Karan's ode to clothing-as-physiognomy or John Bartlett's fever dream of Havana cigars and humidor homoerotica, menswear has never been more anatomically correct than it was here last week when the spring 1997 collections hit the runways.

"Fit-to-the-body" is what Esquire fashion director John Mather called it at a luncheon sponsored by his magazine. But, really, the word was "tight." As in shrink-wrapped. As in sexy. As in "Thanks, but I'll pass on the pommes frites." By next summer, American designers will have given liberty to the kind of body-hugging attire usually reserved for gym mornings and disco nights, producing fat-free clothes for men built like Olympic swimmers.

Stretchy second-skin T-shirts--long considered power dressing in West Hollywood or New York's gay mecca of Chelsea--are going mainstream next season, and downsizing all manner of sport shirts along with them. Knit fabrics are omnipresent, making for short-sleeve turtlenecks and muscle-ish polos with high V-shaped plackets.

At Calvin Klein, button-front matte jersey shirts resembled Huk-A-Poo tops of the late 1970s--sometimes color-blocked and always unforgiving in their leanness. They were the unassuming stars of Klein's collection of polished leather jackets in off colors, nylon jeans and two-button iridescent cotton twill suits, nipped at the waist and narrow through the leg and thigh--perfect for Eisenhower-era retro-playboys.

The always high-tech line called Richard Edwards, designed by Richard Bengtsson and Edward Pavlick, had white short-sleeve fitted shirts in perforated nylon, worn with narrow neckties, and tucked into stiff dungarees in the darkest blue denim. Such shirts, seen in various fabrics in this and other collections, signal the return of fitted dress shirts. That shift is one that Jim Moore, fashion director of GQ, called "the hard thing for most guys. Not everyone should run out and dive into this look." Truly, men have worn oversized office attire for nearly a decade, even if they wore tight jeans at night. But a change is on.

In general, the newest pants are lean and fit like 501s. Whether denim or not, they shadow the body from tab waist to bottom hem--flat-front trousers that, on the right guy, are anything but. No one's pants were tighter than the style that Donna Karan called her "stretch slim pant." They had no pockets in front or back and looked like dance pants, minus the Capezio jazz oxfords. They were as minimal as the rest of her collection of one-button suits, creased trousers and nearly sheer linen shirts.

Her DKNY line, too, featured lean suits in shiny blends of silk / wool / mohair, slim pants and luggage brown leather jeans--clothes that would look perfect on Adam Pascal, the hard-as-a-rock star of Broadway's "Rent," who was in Karan's front row, not in tight clothes but oversized overalls.

Tommy Hilfiger, that arbiter of street taste, began his show with suede shorts in apple green, hot pink and burnt orange, as snug as Lycra bike pants. What followed was a mixed-and-matched array of two-button suits and sport coats in fabrics as wild as orange pique or as quietly edgy as black Shantung, each contoured to fit only the fittest and most accessorized with rubber flip-flops, the shoe of choice for the coming season.

The East Coast preppy is back, too, but with a dash of cool at Ralph Lauren, the man who popularized the look in the first place. His may be traditional clothes--madras jackets, seersucker pants, chinos and loafers without socks--but "worn by a guy with long hair who's a little more disheveled," the designer said, "it's non-formula." Young people, he added, want "eclecticness."

As a designer to the aspirational masses, Lauren said, "Close to the body is important, but I don't believe in only one statement." Still, what looked best were his sleek chalk-striped suits, and active wear that left little to the imagination.

The Nautica line by David Chu combined Connecticut prep and California cool, evoking images of rich boys at the beach, particularly the kind of characters played by the lanky '60s heartthrob Jim Hutton. What looked best at Nautica were cocoa brown cotton poplin suits worn with a khaki shirt and matching tie, military shirts and cement-colored suede jeans, and black cotton short-sleeve turtlenecks tucked into gray sharkskin pants.

John Bartlett's collection, always one of the most prescient trend barometers, cast men as sex objects. Models walked a wood plank catwalk beneath whirling ceiling fans while the designer, a cigar in his hand, a Panama hat over his eyes, "slept" in a hammock suspended above the runway. It was all about skintight metallic V-neck polos, unwashed denim jeans with exposed fly buttons, Western shirts tucked into "side-buckle" slacks.

Gene Meyer, a designer known best for his popular silk print neckwear, offered the most form-fitting styles of the week, but with typical good humor. His show notes were annotated with such phrases as "Personal Training Call 1-800-SLIM" for groups of multi-striped knit polos and stretch plaid jeans.

Why the squeeze play for tight clothes? "It's the only way you can make men's clothes look sexy," explained Richard Lambertson, creative director of Bergdorf Goodman. Fashion customers are digging it, but for everyone else it will take some getting used to.

"The average guy is not going to go for cigarette pants with slash pockets," he admitted. "But a guy who wore pleated trousers will at least go to a flat front." From a revolution, an evolution. As always in menswear.

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