All things American

Times Staff Writer

This SEASON’S sartorial tale of two cities may have started with slump-chested pessimism in Milan, where the answer to the sorry state of the world was to throw in the towel, stay home from the office and protest in your pj’s. But it ended in Paris last week with strong, square-shouldered optimism. Designers here metaphorically (and literally, in the case of Adam Kimmel’s striped terry cloth blazer) took it upon themselves to turn that towel into something stylish to wear. “By spring 2009,” they seemed to say, “the world will be a better place, and we’re ready to dress accordingly.”

The reason for the bout of unbridled optimism? Start with the photos of Democratic Sens. Clinton and Obama, arm-in-arm in their color-coordinated baby blues, smiling from the cover of Le Figaro and the International Herald Tribune.

“The whole world is watching your election,” the desk clerk at my hotel told me when we got to chatting. “Not because it’s going to be Obama, but because it’s not going to be Bush anymore. People are looking forward to that change.”

It’s more than simply Barack Obama as fashion muse. Though of course Donatella Versace name-checked the senator as the type of man she envisioned in her latest menswear collection, and Viktor & Rolf presented a collection that designer Rolf Snoeren said was directly inspired by Obama’s early years. The runways of Paris were full of references to the sort of “yes, we can” optimism Obama symbolizes to many Europeans, and a cast of “can do” American heroes including Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” Wild West cowpokes and road-tripping travelers on the faded ribbon of highway between Baker and Barstow. There were stronger shoulders to match the attitude, crisp and sturdy instead of draping and creping like those in Milan.


“We were very much inspired by Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii,” Snoeren said of the collection that captures the exuberance of America in what was then the new 50th state. “Something really resonated with us, so we started researching and we found this certain naivete, the elegance of travel and the 1950s businessman.”

That attitude translated into a crisp but relaxed silhouette, with baggy trousers, roomy shirts and drop-shouldered jackets in a range of tiki-head and hibiscus flower prints. The hibiscus motif appeared in Swarovski crystals on tuxedo lapels and in a knotted pinstripe silk lei attached to the front of a dress shirt. The tikis appeared on ties, Hawaiian-style button fronts and sweaters.

Other references to that era include varsity-style baseball jackets, vests with a woven pattern that resembles the faux wood-grain paneling of a basement rec room circa 1959, and chinos with an all-over embroidery of martini glasses.

“We think everyone is in the mood for a return to optimism,” Snoeren said of the generally upbeat mood. “It’s time for change, and it seems like there are brighter days ahead.”


Traveling in comfort

In the Parisian garage where Veronique Branquinho staged her show, the dotted lines of the highway led to an ocean landscape, and the ambient sounds of the crashing surf made each model’s trip down the runway an amble along Route 66.

Her traveler’s wardrobe emphasized comfort with drawstring trousers, baggy cargo shorts, pre-washed, partly lined suit jackets in cotton and cotton seersucker, and raincoats and sweaters that fold into their own pockets. One T-shirt had the words “The highway is for gamblers” depicted on a midcentury sign that might otherwise advertise a Bob’s Big Boy.

Standouts included T-shirts with landscape prints so dusky and flat they resembled faded color blocking, and an oil-treated black linen suit that made the model look like he’d just emerged from a dip in the surf.


Accessories, such as a string of Boggle cubes spelling out “Don’t follow the leader,” were slung around the neck, and the silver ballpoint pen cap on a chain completed the image of the resourceful loner on a spiritual quest. He may indeed be “on a road to nowhere” as the Talking Heads sang in the show’s closing song, but the route cuts right through the American heartland.

Junya Watanabe collaborated with two staples of the American closet -- Brooks Brothers and Levi Strauss -- and created a traveling wardrobe full of reversible pieces so well-tailored, they didn’t sacrifice style for function. The traditional navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer was modified with red gingham lapels and it reversed into a full red gingham blazer. A pair of re-purposed pinstripe pajamas became a soft-shouldered jacket, and a gingham blazer converted into a safari jacket. It’s easy to imagine the remix resonating in the same way as the Brooks Brothers Thom Browne Black Fleece collection (the partnership is so successful it was recently announced that it would be extended three more years). And given the new premium price airlines have levied on luggage, the pieces could probably end up paying for themselves.

Jean Paul Gaultier focused on the straw-chewing, hat-wearing cowboy of the American West, in all his archetypal, check-shirted glory. Leather belts hung askew like holsters, trousers were the dusky orange of canyons, and sweaters swirled with patterns and colors reminiscent of Native American pottery. Nothing new under the blazing desert sun here.

With Charlie Chaplin as the “artistic springboard” for Marc Jacobs and Paul Helbers at Louis Vuitton, it was a quick leap to the bowler hats and baggy trousers of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. Mercifully, the collection was more nuanced than that, with jackets shortened or cut away and trousers draped in a way that ever so slightly mimics the Tramp’s bowed legs, in a palette of whites, grays and the occasional pink that had the overall effect of elegant old Hollywood.


Dries Van Noten filled a former horse stable in a Paris park with white cars (including a majestic Ford Thunderbird) and sent his models down the runway to a remix of “Cars” by Gary Numan. But Van Noten’s spring collection was not an hommage to the automobile, but to the power of the street. “That’s where everything comes from,” Van Noten said backstage. “And that’s what I wanted to recognize.” This season Van Noten decamped from the splashes of wild color in favor of blues, blacks and whites, and used tie-print fabrics to create the sort of well-pressed, late-'50s look that was in vogue when the biggest economic worry was being able to afford a television.

Kris Van Assche is infusing some color -- and light -- into the Dior Homme label. When the sides fell away from the darkened tent and models hit the catwalk in laser-cut spider-webbed leather, cobalt blue metallic jackets and chunky sunglasses that looked heavy enough to double as welders’ masks, it felt as if the soul of the house was finally turning to the light.

Light was a metaphor for Raf Simons as well. Lapels, and in some cases sleeves, were trimmed away from jackets, leaving pared-down minimalist crispness. Others were covered in embroidery that fades from black to white, like television static. Form-fitting shirts zipped under the arms, and shoes and bags sported silver tail fins that hearkened back to the Flash Gordon sci-fi era.

Lest anyone miss the more subtle hints, Simons had a Leonard Cohen quote embroidered onto severe-looking futuristic jackets, vests and tuxedos. It read: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”




More from Paris


Gallery: See highlights from the spring men’s shows, including Raf Simons and Dries van Noten, at