Gentlemen, prepare to play it smart

Casino clowns, kickboxing women and flame-belching runways made for memorable moments at the men’s fall/winter 2010 runway shows in Milan and Paris. But when it came to the clothes, designers seemed less intent on pushing the envelope and more intent on filling it with paid invoices.

The take-away? Clothes that are versatile, adaptable and consummately wearable, drawing on both traditional, refined English tailoring (John Galliano, Alfred Dunhill) and the functional, protective aspects of work wear (Salvatore Ferragamo, Vivienne Westwood).

Key trends at the shows, which ended last week, included thick shearlings (from almost everybody) and lots of strappy technical closures (plastic utility buckles at Comme des Garçons and Velcro at Raf Simons). Designers doubled down on everything, showing buttoned-up, double-breasted jackets (YSL); belted, double-breasted trench coats (Burberry); and double-faced fabrics (including cashmere and leather at Alexander McQueen and flannel at Dunhill).

Outerwear was layered, collar over collar, knits over shearling, and the prevailing color palette of the season strayed little from the safety zone of suiting grays and blacks, with hints of moss green, ruddy brick, burgundy and eggplant. Even Kean Etro, the paisley-patterned clown prince of Milan Fashion Week, sent out a collection that was darker, and more subtle, than any season in recent memory.

“I heard people saying designers were playing it safe this season,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “I disagree. I think they were playing it smart.”

The unusually heavy emphasis on outerwear got no complaints from buyers who think that’s exactly what will resonate at the registers this fall.

“It’s going to be outerwear -- coats,” said Macy’s vice president and men’s fashion director, Durand Guion. “There was just this wide breadth of offerings [on the runways]; everything from aviator jackets to versions of the peacoat to knit coats.” This season, he said, “a lot of guys got caught by surprise at how cold it was across the country -- including places where it doesn’t usually get cold. And it may or may not be that cold next season, but I guarantee you that guys will be thinking about it and buying one just in case.”

Saks’ Jennings shared that sentiment, focusing on one key outerwear silhouette he thinks will be popular. “For me, it was all about the peacoat,” he said. As far as Nordstrom’s executive vice president and men’s general merchandise manager, David Witman, is concerned, the Burberry Prorsum show in Milan -- essentially a parade of jackets based on heritage silhouettes from the company’s archives -- perfectly embodied the direction of designers in both cities. Witman said the new collection was “re-interpreting but not rehashing.”

“I mean, how could you possibly see the Burberry show and not want to buy one of those coats?” he asked.

Buyers also keyed in on something else they felt would click with the consumer next fall, a kind of “stealth luxury” that eschewed overt logo badging and over-the-top bling for less obvious manifestations of high-end. At Burberry, for example, the instantly recognizable check was MIA, and Louis Vuitton emblazoned bags in its collection with a simple, understated “V” logo.

“I’m really liking all the double-faced fabrics,” Jennings said. “Most of the times, clothes can look great on the runway on a model but different in the store. The great thing about these double-faced fabrics is that they look crisp and hold their shape. They’ve got what we call great ‘hanger appeal’ in the store.”

Guion agrees: “Double-faced fabrics and the way they lay and drape, I think will really hold some appeal, and there was a lot of bonded leather and shearling that I think will also be popular.” He pointed out that these techno-luxe fabrications are one way that luxury labels -- and the retailers that carry them -- can differentiate themselves in the new retail reality.

“Fast-fashion retailers can see these [designers’] looks online the minute the show happens and in six weeks they can have stuff in their stores. But when it’s this level of quality -- when you’ve got these double-faced fabrics, bonded leathers and shearlings -- they can’t easily duplicate that stuff.”

Overall, buyers felt that the “heritage” message of the shows, labels getting back to their roots, is likely to resonate as well. “For me, it was all about timeless, classic style, but updated,” Witman said.

For Guion, it was Versace’s “Tron"-inspired collection. “It was great to see brands get back to telling their own story,” he said. “Look at Versace; their roots have always been a little rock ‘n’ roll, a little fast, and they gave it up [this season], but in a modern way; the leathers were laser sharp. Pair one of those [jackets] with a pair of jeans and boom! Who couldn’t get away with that?