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Milan — THE bare ankle has become the male equivalent of cleavage — a new erogenous zone to be exposed, enhanced and framed in everything from traditional but slightly shortened cuffs to toreador pants, peg legs and clam diggers.
Designers at the spring collections here used the mankle to convey a sense of a man playing by his own rules, a way of dressing down while staying dressed up and of connecting to the life aquatic. A man in a Valentino suit wants to get down to business, a sockless man in a Valentino suit wants to get down to the beach with his gin and tonic and squish sand through his toes.
Lifted from "Miami Vice"-era obscurity by the likes of Thom Browne and his high-water pants, carried forward by the "manpris" (man-capris) that cropped up on the streets of New York and L.A. last summer, the bare talus is now taking center stage, and it's nigh impossible to ignore (believe me, this reporter tried).
From the swinging mid-calf buckles of Emporio Armani's knickers to the in-your-face presentation of Valentino's cropped suits and Alexander McQueen's knee-length britches, the mankle stared back. And that's without taking into account the season's preoccupation with the mandal, that's man-sandal, which managed to expose even exponentially more mankle.
How did it come to this?
Surf has become a well-mined theme for spring, thanks in no small part to the power and influence of the multibillion-dollar action sports industry in Orange County.
This season, the concept broadened into scuba and the beachside bon vivant.
Instead of the usual runway show (and perhaps to switch things up to mark his 45 years in the business), Valentino opted for a tableau of nattily attired young men lounging in a tropical club atmosphere, holding drinks and occasionally glancing at a burlesque dancer with ennui.
The clothes were classic with the occasional curve ball. Men in louche, 1970s double-breasted, peak-lapel jackets, pinstripes, polka-dot pocket squares and high-collared shirts chatted up fellows sporting black-and-white honeycomb jackets or crocodile-paneled cardigans (the animal skin forming a waistcoat of sorts attached to knit arms).
The subtly tapered trousers were hard to miss. While they seemed to end almost imperceptibly higher than they might have a year ago, the stage was set at the perfect height to put the sockless shins at eye level with the audience. Whether intentional or not, it helps explain the designer's longevity in a constantly evolving business.
Alexander McQueen drew inspiration from a LeRoy Grannis surfing photo. Taken in Hermosa Beach and featuring a young Matt Dillon look-alike in a black suit, hat and white shirt riding a wave, the classic shot was the starting point for his Please Sur collection of surf and bad-boy pieces, shown at a local municipal swimming pool.
He stocked his natatorium with ne'er-do-wells in 1950s-meets-'80s gang colors sporting all manner of polka dots and surf-inspired prints as well as peg-legged pants, clam-digger denim and shorts.
Memorable pieces included a tailored photo-print blazer that perfectly captured the color and tumult of a crashing wave, a bodyboard backpack and a series of letterman jackets festooned with embroidered tigers.
Where others went to the beach, Prada threw a garden party fit for the Southern California hipster. Models wearing floral and vine-print jackets and pants, bright lawn-chair checks and pajama-influenced tops rendered in either wool or silk walked a mock hedgerow maze.
It was such a Silver Lake moment that one half expected to see singer-songwriter Beck turn the corner and wish the crowd a hearty "Odelay."
Backstage, Miuccia Prada denied trying to send a message about global warming or the state of the environment and said she hadn't been inspired by anything in particular.
"I don't start with any inspiration now; I just do work," she said. "And at the end I sit back and look at the results."
She said she drew on some of her past women's designs for this season. "Men are so conservative you need to take small changes and small steps and infuse the change a little at a time."
Burberry designer Christopher Bailey married action sports with military regalia, which resulted in a smart-looking regimental red neoprene trench coat, and shorts and sweaters with all manner of gold braiding and chain mail that came off looking a bit like outtakes from the cover of "Sgt. Pepper." Ankles here were hidden beneath a collection of neoprene scuba booties, which were a nice touch, but the idea of shelling out the bucks for Burberry diving gear seems farfetched.
Dolce & Gabbana filled the runway with flight jackets, cargo pants with a multiplicity of zippered pockets, a Midcentury Modern camouflage print, burlap and something that looked like bandoleers filled with illuminated bullets.
Even the suits, with smaller collars, skinnier ties and crisp waistcoats, had a government-issue, no-nonsense look about them. Dress shirts boasted epaulets and trousers had side-seam, belt loop and waistband contrast taping in olive drab that made the connection unmistakable.
One couldn't help but think that the parade of young men in black suits with flowers in their lapels that closed the show was a nod to the fighting forces.