Men's Fashion (and How It Got That Way)
Ever ask yourself why the clothes you see in fashion magazines and news articles are so preposterously unwearable? Probably not. You just turned to someone and said, “Look at this preposterously unwearable shit.” And that was that. Except the next time you thought of buying some new clothes it occurred to you that a retailer might suggest a Viking hat, or a kilt.
Did fashion journalism replace the funny pages? Some useless entertainment at the back of each issue, silly people wearing silly clothes, like Mort in the “Bazooka Joe” strip? If so, blame Suzy Menkes. She started it, covering the world of European designers post Coco Chanel and Balenciaga, when the business became fashion, marketing turned to hype. In the 80s. Women’s clothes may always have been surrounded by “concept,” the designers attempting to place their creations in a context, or a cultural medium. Menswear, the clumsy step-brother of haute couture, tried to follow. And Menkes – the “slightly mad auntie of fashion,” Kate Moss called her – English doyenne of fashion journalism, didn’t see the irony. Establishing conceptual context for a pair of pants, a sweater and a duffle coat was like putting racing colors on an ox.
Menkes covered the Paris shows for the International Herald Tribune; got paid to give an opinion of Givenchy’s latest dresses, Chanel’s suits and Prada’s leathers, Alexander McQueen’s this and Karl Lagerfeld’s that, telling a world-wide audience who is on and who is off in the latest Paris runway presentations. The Siskel and Ebert of fashion, the first and foremost critic of clothes, she considered the designer, sometimes perhaps justifiably, an artist. She took seriously the “themes,” the cultural or historical references, the peasant smocks, the Battlestar leathers, the over-the-top accessories, hair and makeup. To the casual observer, a half-nude, skeleton-thin girl with a palm tree on her head looks ridiculous; on the runway it’s “Givenchy’s Tahiti-themed summer collection.” The outrageousness emphasized the seasonal novelty and gave Suzy something to talk about besides necklines, hem-lengths, or appliqués. Made it readable. Newsy. I suspect it might have been a kind of a game, an in-joke between her and the stars of the Parisian runway shows. Not to say she wouldn’t just pan a designer’s efforts occasionally. She did. Not only did she conceive of designers as artists, she wrote about the whole women’s clothing industry as if it were an artistic endeavor, and her opinion is like that of any art critic writing for any medium. (It is more of a philosophical discussion, how we distinguish art from commerce; or why we should.) Fine.
This is a chicken-or-egg question. Did the market-hype world of clothing, the logo-mania, the brand-name explosion evolve because consumers identified with “the person behind the label?” Or was it the other way around, that the person became famous because the consumers loved his or her product lines? In any case the marketing of clothes has come to depend on name-brand recognition. Rarely do you hear of a product that gained fame by being the proverbial better mouse trap. The extreme cases of this are things like Target stores’ make-up lines with super-model brand names.
Often as not these PR extravaganzas have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual clothes these designers sell. Rarely will you see a Gucci loafer in a show, for example, or anything else that actually pays the bills for designer or retailer. The show itself has become the art form. The equivalent of the automobile industry’s “concept cars,” the clothes we see in press coverage of the runway shows are costumes in a dramatic presentation; don’t expect to find them in stores. Thus, a bad review from Ms. Menkes doesn’t hurt sales, just egos. The Lagerfeld cologne still sells in Minneapolis or Moscow even if Karl gets the skirt length wrong in Paris. But the more outrageous and extravagant the fashion show, the more newsworthy. The more outlandish the outfits on the runway, the more the fashion press corps can justify a junket to Paris to get the “scoop,” the paper can claim to cater to the retailers who advertise, and the news syndicate can fill the pages of the Kansas City Star or the Sacramento Bee with guys in Tarzan outfits.
Truth is that the menswear that actually sells is as predictable as a penny loafer or a white dress shirt. Men don’t relate to their clothes as artistic; they’re into function, for the most part. Propriety. Practicality. Show a regular citizen of Middletown a picture of a guy in tights and a tunic with a turban on his head and he’ll think you’re putting him on. Instead of stimulating business, this PR has the opposite effect. No one ever has the chutzpah to say this. In menswear everybody is so respectful. Even the humdrum offerings from the industrial likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Perry Ellis (who’s been dead for decades) get gushing tributes. It’s a combination of fear of damaging fragile egos and the threat of losing ad revenues. No one ever says anything bad. No one knows what would happen if a writer panned a men’s wear show. It’s never happened. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes with a twist.
Let’s face it. Men’s wear design really doesn’t take the kind of talent required to make a gold lamè-trimmed, silk tulle hooded, sleeveless evening gown with slippers, cape and matching Rolls Royce interior. That’s for the geniuses in Avenue Montaigne: the real designers. The editors and journalists who cover menswear are looking to be the Suzy Menkes of their side of the aisle. They don’t find a pair of grey serge trousers or a blue broadcloth shirt to be of any interest; not even the more obvious news stories, like the disappearance of pleats from the trousers, or the changing size of shirt collars, gets much attention. All this would amount to little more than a curious characteristic of the fashion journalism business, except for the fact that someone needs to tell men about the tides of change, about the evolution of style. Weird, useless “art” clothes – skirts, kimonos, and the like – in magazines and newspapers don’t help men or help the men’s clothing business. Aside from adding to the notoriety and hype surrounding a designer’s name, aside from the self-congratulation among industry insiders, they leave the average guy, young, old, straight, gay, urban, suburban, hip, callow, all of them, at best uninformed, at worst, turned off completely.