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Men's fashion week newcomers slay status quo

Aggressively stark collections and high-theater shows by Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh take a sharp turn away from the 'comfort' coda.

February 01, 2009|Adam Tschorn

The problem with menswear is that it moves at a glacial pace. The last time there was any significant change in the silhouette was when Hedi Slimane slimmed it all down at Dior Homme in the early aughts. Though Slimane is gone, the look still dominates among the fashionable set on the street, on the red carpet and on the concert stage -- where Mick Jagger and the Jonas Brothers share the same whittled-down wardrobe aesthetic.

So, again this season, it's probably no surprise that things didn't change much. In these uncertain times, the men's runways were dominated by safe choices. The suit was king (probably because if a man buys anything in the next year it'll be an outfit to wear to that job interview), and Raf Simons served up some of the best, impeccably tailored and razor-sharp, though the neoprene shrugs were a distraction.

Even Prada, who usually can be counted on for an offbeat vision, was solidly in the wearable camp. "It's a dangerous time," seemed to be the message. Trends showed a desire to insulate (Dolce & Gabbana's quilted tux), escape (Viktor & Rolf's surrealist romp) and comfort in cardigans and cable knits (nearly everyone).

But there's always a hunger for change -- that's what fashion is all about. That's why people continue to look for someone to reinvent, instead of just retreating into what they've always done. At Dior Homme, the expectation was that Kris Van Assche could deliver the goods a la Hedi. But to date, he hasn't been able to, and his latest collection -- which takes inspiration from the '90s voguing dance craze -- lacks the electricity of his predecessor. Yes, there were variations on the skinny black suit and some of the distinctive blousy trousers he's played around with for a few seasons, but Van Assche spends so much time being the not-Hedi, he doesn't end up being much else.

Which may be why the most ground-breaking and exciting shows of the two-week cycle were from newcomers on the men's fashion week circuit: Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh.

Pugh's cold, distant, razor-slashed geometric designs, black-and-white dystopian semaphores, signaled a marked departure from the current state of menswear. At Rick Owens, models clomped through swirling smoke clad in animal skins and wrapped in tunics, refugees from "Mad Max." If change is coming to menswear, you can bet it's not coming on little cat feet, but on multi-buckled Herman Munster clodhoppers and rubberized industrial work boots.

Yes, Pugh's hanging Damoclean shards of mirrored glass and Owens' operatic soundtrack borrowed from the final scene of "Salome" are theater, but it's theater that reflects the dire circumstances that surround us. It may well be that the duo of darkness is too many fall seasons ahead, but they could be on to something. These are dark times indeed, and vampiric overtones abound. Movies like "Twilight" and TV shows like "True Blood" capture the imagination of a generation whose social lives exist in the matrix of the Internet, an existence back-lit by the cathode-ray tube.

Forget "comfort" and "safe" -- Owens and Pugh exult in what the creatures of dark know all too well: When the sun drops below the horizon, and the winds become gale force, a pin-covered leather jacket or multilayered tunic under a severely belted trench coat is the kind of armor you really need.

Of course, if you'd prefer to weather the mother of all socioeconomic turbulence in a cardigan sweater, you'll have plenty of choices.--

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