PARIS — John GALLIANO'S servants and jesters appeared as a grubby, beaten and bloody lot, which might have been throwaway runway theatrics if not for the world stock market plunge that dominated headlines last week, portending a bleak retail environment.
Set on a runway roiling with dry ice vapor, Galliano's thuggy collection of fur-trimmed leathers, denim, checked sports coats and baggy trousers was inspired by London's 17th century frost fairs that would turn the frozen Thames into an impromptu carnival for everyone from kings to executioners. Because changes in the climate meant the Thames eventually stopped freezing over, demolishing the venue, the designer could have been making a sly comment on global warming -- or the transitory nature of our good times and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.
With punks at Comme des Garcons and girlie men at Prada, gentleman bank robbers at Louis Vuitton and royalty at Giorgio Armani, power and status were clearly on the minds of designers this season in Milan and Paris.
And yet, aside from Miuccia Prada's gender-bashing, feminized and fetishized men's collection -- which included models in hybrid cummerbund-thongs, halter-top waistcoats and sequined tutus -- the shows were mostly devoid of gratuitous theatrics.
Instead, designers showed recession-proof, easy-to-wear clothes that managed to be both youthful and elegant, a combination that's been missing from the men's mix of recent seasons.
Designers were mad for plaid, obsessed with military influences, and eager to add formal-wear touches to everything from ski pants to Russian-style greatcoats. The hot new real estate is the collar area, which turns last season on its head and makes the neck the new ankle. The pairing of high and low reflected the reality of today's mix-and-match approach to dressing and the rising popularity of suit separates.
Giorgio Armani updated old-school, 1930s-era style with the high collars and rich velvet trappings of the nobleman for a collection he dubbed Regal. It was full of luxurious, generously cut velvet trousers (backstage, Armani mentioned a street-wear influence), soft, jersey-like shirts with tuxedo-like bibs, shawl-collared waistcoats and heightened-crown hats. Two pieces -- a quilted black, double-breasted suit and a similar trench -- could have easily doubled as sleepwear.
Backstage, Armani explained his take on the collar, which fell somewhere between shirting fabric turtleneck and cravat. "A shirt with a high, stiff collar forces you to hold yourself in a certain regal manner," he said, noting with a chuckle that the future king of England, Prince William of Wales, might look handsome in one of his suits.
Donatella Versace was mining the same territory with a collection that put manly men in strong-shouldered, double-breasted jackets with built-in hoods, overcoats kicked up a notch with silk lapels -- some so wide they extended to the shoulders -- and generously cut trousers with ruler-width, plastic taping that aped a tuxedo side seam.
More in the vein of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" than his majesty, Neil Barrett's "tuxedo ski" collection is just the sort of thing James Bond might wear to battle Blofeld on the slopes before schussing into an Alpine village for a little apres something: ski pants adorned with the tuxedo-stripe side seam, ski boots rendered in patent leather, silk/wool waistcoats with sporty racer backs and woolen ski overalls that were paired with formal-looking tailored ski parkas, tuxedo jackets and army field jackets.
Gucci's collection felt a generation younger than what creative director Frida Giannini sent down the runway last season, perhaps because her inspiration was New York City band Gogol Bordello and lead singer Eugene Hutz (who inspired a character in the 2006 movie "Wristcutters: A Love Story").
The result was a Bohemian-military mixed bag; velvet and corduroy suits, accessorized at the waist with printed scarves and military-style medals (emblazoned with the Gucci griffin logo); soft-shouldered jackets paired with slouchy, extra-long trousers; brass buttons, metal-studded epaulets, braided metallic cuffs and the occasional Russian army jacket hammered home the warmonger/peacenik dichotomy.
A favorite piece was the new cardigan jacket in gray knit with a brown leather button placket, shoulder details and metal buttons just tough enough to keep Mr. Rogers from getting beaten up in the officers' club.
By comparison, the Etro show was in a parallel universe, with vegetable gardens sprouting from the runway and models sporting onion and rose motifs. Backstage, designer Kean Etro denied that his cheery homage to the harvest was a reaction to the prevailing militaristic and somber vibe. "I always go my own way," he said. Still, his tossed salad of a runway show included some nice looks that touched on the season's overarching themes, including mixed plaids.