Men's fashion runway shows unveil flair for the fantastic

A year ago, designer Thom Browne sent two models down a Milan runway in gray suit jackets, sharing a pair of tailored three-legged suit pants.

Six months later, Alexander McQueen showed a men's monokini that attached bikini briefs to a choker neckpiece with a band of fabric.

Last month, at his Paris men's runway debut, Gareth Pugh evinced a vision of menswear that involved leather jackets and trousers studded with hundreds of pointy carpet tacks and some orthodontic-looking headgear.

What gives?

Female models turn out in some unusual garb when women's-wear designers take over the runways twice a year. But the twice-yearly men's runway fashion shows, which just concluded in Milan and Paris and will resume in New York on Friday, seem to have a wider disconnect between catwalk and cubicle than their women's counterparts.

Indeed, at first blush, it is difficult to square Goth matador duds (Pugh), gilded elk horn necklaces (Rick Owens) and three-legged suit pants (Browne) with the suit-and-tie that serves as the foundation of the American male wardrobe. Watching runway videos or clicking through photo galleries will have even the most fashion-forward fellow start to wonder if he's being "Punk'd."

The dilemma is that the staples of the American male wardrobe -- the gray suits, white dress shirts, black jeans and navy V-neck sweaters that stock the shelves of the nearest Saks Fifth Avenue or Macy's department store -- change so little and so subtly from season to season, a runway show would be only marginally more exciting than C-SPAN2.

Thus, the men's runway shows -- like their female counterparts, part petri dish, part soapbox and part doctoral dissertation -- have become over-the-top exercises in branding engineered to sell, first and foremost, a designer's vision or a brand's identity, and then secondly the next season's clothes.

Michael Macko, who has been a front-row fixture at the men's shows for more than 20 years -- first with Saks Fifth Avenue and now as fashion director at Details magazine -- explains the dichotomy: "Often designers have the runway collection and what's called a commercial collection.

"The runway pieces are the more flamboyant, theatrical showpieces, and the commercial collection has things that don't go on the runway."

He cited as examples a feathered "bird man" jacket from a recent Browne collection, and Dolce & Gabbana silver spacesuits from a few seasons ago. "You know those are showpieces that -- if they sell at all -- will end up on Elton John or Robbie Williams or someone like that."

The rest of the collection -- a label's seasonal take on suits, sportswear, outerwear and accessories -- is usually presented to retail buyers in a designer's showroom.

Luxury designer Rick Owens, who recently held his first dedicated men's runway show in Paris (he has shown his women's collection there for years), said the catwalk is about more than just the garments.

"Clothes are just clothes. Who cares?" he said in a phone interview from his Paris atelier. "Anyone can buy a pair of black pants from Kmart and be fine. But in the niche we're in, fashion is aspirational and those black pants have a vision and a story behind them. And to tell that story you need a little bit of magic.

"So my shows are like Rick Owens on an acid trip [think opera, swirling smoke and clomping, post-apocalyptic nomads] -- the collection with a little magic dust thrown on it."

That magic dust doesn't come cheap. The price tag for mounting a runway show like Owens’ 10-minute, 28-second men’s show in Paris last month was close to $200,000. But there's a payoff: Eager buyers from stores such as Maxfield and Barneys New York, energized by his runway shows, buy black jeans, leather jackets and canvas sneakers from his commercial collection.

New York-based Browne, whose wares are sold locally at stores such as Ron Herman at Fred Segal on Melrose and Barneys New York, leaves the bulk of each season's offerings for buyers and press to peruse in the showroom, filling his seated runway shows with stilt-walkers, dress-wearers and men hobbled by grosgrain mummy wrap, draped in clear plastic rain slickers or festooned with gray rosettes.

"Honestly, there are pieces that I make for my collections that I don't expect people to buy," Browne said. "I do it to entertain myself -- to see if I can make something really well that's a feather [covered] jacket.

"As crazy as some of it is, it's all about hand-tailoring. That three-legged trouser or the trouser on the guy on stilts was made the exact same way as the hand-tailored trousers you'd buy with one of the basic gray suits."

Browne spends between $100,000 and $200,000 each season to stage shows on ice skating rinks, trucked-in beach sand or real sod to angle for a piece of the men's tailored-clothing business, which according to market research firm NPD Group saw sales of $4.17 billion last year.

Five years of runway shows have given him the kind of exposure that allowed him to introduce a tame version of his shrunken-suit aesthetic (high-water pants and narrow lapels a la Pee-wee Herman) to the mass market through a collaboration with Brooks Brothers.

Runway presentations -- there will be 145 shows featuring men's and women's clothing during New York Fashion Week, at a cost of more than $20 million -- are a valuable tool for those who decide what goes on store shelves nine months hence. "Most buyers will take the [clothes on the runway] with a grain of salt," said Saks Fifth Avenue men's fashion director Eric Jennings. "Because it can be completely different -- and often is -- from what you'll see in the showroom, but it gets you into the head of the person behind the brand. . . . It makes you want to go into the showroom and dig deeper into the collection."

"It puts an electricity in you and gets the adrenaline pumping," says Sara Dovan, co-owner of the Traffic boutique in the Beverly Center. "It makes a really big difference for me when I can pass that electricity -- that story -- along to the Hollywood stylists we work with."

Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager for menswear at Barneys New York, agrees. "You may not be able to feel the clothes or examine them up close like you can in a showroom, but [the runway] is about more than that.

"It's more about creating a mood, a brand message, and that often gives us a clue -- seven or eight months ahead of the ad campaign -- what that message is likely to be. You can convey ideas with music, setting and styling that are lost if you're looking at it online or on a hanger."

Women's-wear designers also stage theatrical fashion shows, sending models tottering down runways wrapped in see-through shirts or pornographic pants, teetering on murderous heels, heads topped with all manner of flora and fauna. But the gulf between runway and reality seems much smaller.

"You put [runway] clothes on beautiful women and they somehow transcend stupid and become art," says Esquire magazine's fashion director, Nick Sullivan. In addition, women's styles can swing wildly every six months -- floor-length skirts one season, micro-minis the next -- so daring departures from the status quo are the norm.

For men, "change" means a skinnier lapel or additional trouser pleat, so the more radical runway looks seem like interplanetary fashion.

Says Sullivan: "Look, the runway show is part of the story, but it's not the whole story -- but a world without the sharp end of a runway show would be kind of dull.

"It's like the icing on the cake you never get to eat."