Another age of innocence

Times Staff Writer

THE SENSE of optimism coming out of the European men’s shows earlier this summer made landfall at New York Fashion Week with all the force of Hurricane Ike, a swirl of color and dash of swagger that signals the notion that good times are just around the corner.

And nothing in American sportswear is as intrinsically optimistic as the preppy wardrobe built around madras, seersucker and oxford cloth, the de facto uniform of the scion-in-waiting circa 1980 who bides his time at a prep school until a Harvard early acceptance puts him on the path to Wall Street.

Though the preppy pendulum has been on the return swing for several seasons, you couldn’t toss a brass blazer button this week without finding its influence, from the seersucker patchwork blazer at Perry Ellis on Day One (creative director John Crocco called his collection “prep without the privilege”) to the pastel trousers at Tommy Hilfiger a week later.

The best take on the neo-preppy aesthetic came from a designer making his Fashion Week debut, and if you’re not familiar with the name Michael Bastian (pronounced BASS-chin), you will be soon enough.

A men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman for five years, the New York-based designer, 42, launched his namesake line in Fall 2006. In the six seasons since, with his luxe line of button-fronts, polos, sweaters, suits and trousers, Bastian has garnered critical acclaim, growing influence and a new gig as the menswear creative director for Bill Blass.


For Spring 2009, Bastian turned the f/ocus studio space in Midtown Manhattan into a little slice of the beach, complete with a corrugated tin shack, shell-strewn sand and a cadre of lifeguards (no doubt the self-same preps off to the Ivy Leagues in the fall).

The pieces -- including vintage-looking “Swim at your own risk” T-shirts, color-blocked surf trunks and a red dinner jacket with a shawl collar -- had distinctly American DNA with the luxurious drape and feel (and price tag) of Italian tailoring. (They’re sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, Bloomingdale’s in Century City and Nordstrom in South Coast Plaza; swim trunks will cost you $180, button-front woven shirts are $400, sport coats are in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.)

Also in the mix were “Nantucket pink” canvas cutoffs and slim seersucker trousers in a navy blue-and-gray check pattern. A standout outfit was a red-blue linen herringbone jacket paired with beige, washed-down shorts -- with attached boxer shorts peeking out subtly from beneath.

In addition to the runway show, Bastian put the entire collection on rolling racks off to one side, which allowed closer scrutiny of the details that are so much a part of the men’s collections.

Scott Sternberg took a similar approach by presenting his Band of Outsiders collection for men and its women’s counterpoint, Boy, on rails and laid flat on back-lit tables. There were delightful details: the tiny sailboat screen-print on a blue-and-white striped oxford cloth shirt that looked as if it had been hand rubber-stamped, and the moleskin lining and stamped grommets of a vulcanized rubber Sperry Top-Sider silhouette, inspired by an old rubber U.S. Coast Guard jacket the designer had found.

Thom Browne, the official tortured soul of the neo-preppy brat pack also toyed with texture, filling his tennis tournament set piece with gauzy sweaters, a floor-length peignoir festooned with tennis rackets and jackets woven over-under from strips of grosgrain.

Unfortunately, Browne is suffering from Fashion Week’s version of M. Night Shyamalan syndrome, with everyone bracing for the quirky twist, to the point that it overshadows the collection. So when the show closed with a male model wearing a combo wedding dress/smart white blazer with black contrast taping, it seemed forced.

A better indication of what might actually trickle down to the street could be found in the Black Fleece for Brooks Brothers line, of which Browne is the guest designer and which was unveiled to the press earlier that day at the Fifth Avenue Brooks Brothers flagship.

Though vibrant colors and nautical themes are common for spring collections, the abundance of vibrant hues and humorous touches (a punk Sperry Top-Sider with the laces replaced by a safety pin, blazer buttons shaped like mini belt buckles) seem to make the preppy look of early 2009 a conscious antidote to the current state of the world.

Bastian summed it up best: “It’s that feeling you get when you spend a whole week at the beach, and right around Wednesday at 1 p.m. you pop open that first beer and realize you’ve forgotten all your troubles back in the city and you’ve found yourself again.”

And isn’t that something we can all agree is well worth prepping for?