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The Better Part of Valor

Flash Is Out. Obvious Is Over. Men's Fall Fashion Is All About Subtlety and Discretion.

October 20, 2002|Peter McQuaid | Peter McQuaid last wrote for the magazine about casual Friday fashion.

The runways--and the stores--are awash in them: camel overcoats, navy pea jackets, plain-front, traditional-rise pants in wool, pleated pants in wool, tweed sports jackets, trench coats, neckties and, most importantly, lots and lots of dress shirts--long sleeved and preferably French cuffed.

Pack up all your tricky denim and your low-rise, beltless boot flares for another day, say the sages. Same goes for those body-hugging silks or synthetics. Super-baggy, logos, trademarks--it's over.

The classics are back, say those whose business it is to dress you. But before you go digging through your father's hand-me-downs or looking for those dusty boxes your domestic partner finally shipped off to the Salvation Army a few months back, know this: Nothing in Fashion Ever Comes Back Exactly As It Was.

That's because you wouldn't have any reason to buy the new stuff, now, would you?

The bad news is that you're expected to look pulled together all the time. The good news is that you no longer have to have a body like a Calvin Klein model to look pulled together. Classic clothes, beautifully designed and cut, are more forgiving of an imperfect physique.

That's not to say the trend was easily accomplished; hip-hop especially was a force to be reckoned with. "We had this huge return to prestige and luxury a while back, and then hip-hop really blew it out the door," says DeeDee Gordon, co-president of the L.A.-based information and marketing company Look-Look. But Gordon, who divides her time between L.A. and New York and counts Calvin Klein and Nike among her clients, is always ahead of the pack. It's sophistication, not flash, that's de rigueur. In today's economy, the trend is to put your best foot forward, even on Fridays. Take a look at Wall Street and you'll see that the ubiquitous "casual Friday" garb of chinos and denim is slowly, but surely, making its exit.

One store where they've been hooked on classics for 53 years is Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills, where tradition has always been, well, a tradition. John Carroll, now head of the business his father founded, characterizes the new approach to dressing as a "return to classic checks, bolder plaids, more gray and more camels, more basic stripes in suits, two button, center vent, a shorter center vent. We're seeing a lot of plain-front trousers again. Not so much of the tight short-rise [styles]."

The days of a man's turning heads at an event--for any reason other than his accomplishments--are over, says Carroll. "I'm a big believer in a man and woman going out--whether it's black tie or dinner--and the woman being the one who turns heads. The man needs to be dressed with style, elegance and grace. You shouldn't notice how beautifully dressed the man is unless you're talking to the couple."

The new style, says Carroll, is reminiscent of Old Hollywood in the '30s and '40s, which was a stylistic translation in itself--an idealized version of tailored English style, made snazzier (and roomier) for the movies and the bigger, bulkier American male. The new classic look may be a two-button jacket in a smart wool pinstripe or solid, but it won't be a sack or overly tight, it won't be in a heavy English tweed and it will accommodate the shoulders as well as the waistline. Think natural fabrics, discreet tailoring and elegant and understated accessories.

The classic twist isn't limited to clothes.

Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum, says that automotive trends are following suit. In automotive and high-tech style, he's seeing a return to classic colors such as reds, maroons, subtle greens and grays, but with a metallic sheen--a modern take on the original. Again, the twist.

"Everything is getting more stylized," Messer says, "but in a less flashy way. You see more chrome trim and chrome wheels, which is an eye-catcher, but it's not as gaudy as it used to be."

One thing's for sure, says Messer. "We won't be going back to the bland."

There is, of course, a difference between classic and boring. Get the classic suit or cardigan. Spice it up with a brilliant tie or a colorful shirt or a beautiful watch. But think beyond fall, to next fall and the fall after that, and ask yourself if this garment (item, consumer product, whatever) is something you'll still find useful then.

If it's well made, and not too tricky, chances are the answer is yes.

Leonard Leib, the West Coast representative for Hickey-Freeman, sounds very much like a dog having his day.

"I've been in this business almost 50 years, and for the last 10, almost 15 years, this market has been dominated by what the Italians have done, starting with Armani, big shoulder, notched lapel," Leib says. But even Armani and his fellow Italians have bowed to the trends. This season's Armani is pared down. "The tide started turning a few years ago. Part of it has to do with the cyclical wheel of fashion."

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