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Good Times Roll Down Runway in Luxury Styles for Men


NEW YORK — Like the musicians who continued to perform while the Titanic sank, menswear designers here are producing ultra-luxurious clothing even while talk of a recession threatens to scare away their customers.

Times already look tough on the heels of weak holiday sales, with a few designers scaling down or canceling their fall shows. Yet many creators of fall 2001 menswear have cranked up the fantasy machinery to sell an image of never-ending good times and vanishing casual Fridays.

The first days of men's shows that began Thursday were unified by designers who insulated themselves from bad news in rich layers of pricey cashmere, leather, silk and fur. Designers from the usually restrained Joseph Abboud to the outlandish Sean "Puffy" Combs projected images of rich, powerful and heroic men immune to the pressures of declining stock portfolios or, in the case of Combs, possible incarceration.

While Combs pumped up the fantasy of super-pimp fashion, other designers relied on more traditional role models to inspire their collections. Most eschewed the khaki-and-polo-shirt everyday hero to celebrate instead his fabulously successful superior, whether he resides in the corner office, the stage or the corridors of the Ivy League.

Still, the much-hyped $1-million production for Combs' strong-selling Sean John collection on Saturday night was a glitzy distraction from the hip-hop producer's ongoing trial in Manhattan on gun possession and bribery charges. Combs fanned the flames of the trial's red-hot publicity by giving his defense lawyers, Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman, front-row seats to the show that was broadcast live on the E! Entertainment network.

And what a spectacle it was. Even without the presence of his celebrity girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez, Combs packed in a passel of music industry stars, from Luther Vandross to Busta Rhymes to newcomers 3LW, all of whom flaunted flashy diamonds, colorful finery and huge furs. Still, they looked tame next to the runway's procession of aggressively flamboyant menswear.

Introduced as "super-bad, super fly mother-[expletives]," Sean John's brothers swaggered proudly in combat boots that anchored their oversized layers of hip-hop-inspired denim, cashmere suits and sweaters, and enough lynx, coyote, crocodile, mink, ostrich and lambskin to fill a forest.

The models marched to profanity-laced music in their floor-sweeping mink coats (one with a royal 10-foot train), lynx scarves and suede-appliqued cashmere sweaters and denim jeans as a montage of civil-rights marchers and African American heroes from Michael Jordan to Malcolm X rolled in the background.

Arsenal of Status Symbols

These are clothes that command attention and, for their cost alone, a certain respect. But clothing appeared to be only part of the status symbol arsenal that powered the show's messages of defiance, black power and revolution. The collection also honored other martyrs, icons and heroes ranging from Jimi Hendrix to the Rolling Stones to Che Guevara who were immortalized in ink and rhinestones on muscle T-shirts. While only a man full of swagger would dare wear the awkward fur Bermuda shorts, it appears that Combs' time with his lawyers has rubbed off. A set of impeccably tailored business suits and classic topcoats balanced the collection's hip-hop sportswear and ultra-luxe accouterments.

Only a few designers worked with a new vocabulary of masculinity that didn't rely on the worn notion of so-called lifestyle dressing. John Varvatos, for example, created his own references with a collection that speaks instead to a distinct taste level that demands fine fabrics, precise tailoring and styling that's just shy of trendy.

This is only Varvatos' second show and his signature wide-leg pants are already cropping up on other runways, but few designers will be able to imitate his command of menswear that caters to many kinds of men. The more macho can select his rugged shearling jackets, the businessman can take the chocolate-flannel three-button suit, and the fashion-forward fellow can try the wool and denim cutaway suit. The understated luxury, coupled with the classic silhouettes, stand to make these clothes cherished heirlooms that the grandkids will be glad were preserved as examples of the best early 21st century menswear.

They may hope that Daddy was hip enough to appreciate British tailor Ozwald Boateng's Bespoke Couture collection of vividly colored Savile Row-inspired suits and English-country sports coats. With an eye for original color combinations, Boateng tweaks stuffy suit tradition with peg-leg pants and waist-hugging jackets cut from iridescent green, pumpkin, red and even purple, yet his precise tailoring gives the suits authority. With a wide selection of sport coats patched at the elbows and yoke with vividly colored flannel, the Boateng fan can take his signature style to more casual affairs and be guaranteed of looking like no one else.

Refining the Punk Look

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