Is it a sprint to the finish or a long slog home? This question about the sustainability of the still-young New York Fashion Week: Men’s has echoed throughout social media and the style blogs lately, casting doubt on the viability of a cycle that resumes Monday morning with a Perry Ellis show.
Beginning almost a month ago, retailers, the press and assorted men’s wear fanatics set out on a long transit through four cities — London, Florence, Milan and Paris — and found themselves amused, confused, astounded and often challenged by designers to reconsider the state of men’s fashion and, for that matter, men.
The highlights were abundant in a generally strong season, one that either frankly acknowledged a challenging business landscape or predictably flouted commercial concerns.
There were assured presentations by established designers like Ralph Lauren in Milan, and Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, Véronique Nichanian at Hermès and Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton in Paris.
There were intellectually provocative shows — also in Paris — like those of Rick Owens or Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons Homme Plus that exploited fashion to pose questions about the politics of body morphology and the glut of information in the internet era.
And there were shows that tested not only the boundaries of what might reasonably be thought to constitute men’s wear but also a viewer’s comfort zone.
Held in a seedy hammam, or gay bathhouse, in the Marais district of Paris, the Hood by Air show was memorable on a number of levels. Wending their way through semidarkness and a deafening din of electro, bystanders climbed the stairs of the grotty sex den and hugged the walls outside cabins furnished with plasticized mattresses as zombielike models wearing vinyl stiletto-heeled thigh boots, arm slings, trusses and bandages and cloaks printed with slogans like Dead Inside wandered past and slumped up against them. The setting was gross, the floor sticky and the air distinctly malodorous (try explaining the funk of stale poppers to your dry cleaner).
Yet, for all that, the Hood By Air show was wondrously strange. It also served a fundamental Jane Jacobs precept about the creative reuse of old buildings, something New York Fashion Week: Men’s has thus far failed to accomplish.
Now in its third season, New York’s men’s fashion week returns to Skylight Clarkson Sq with a roster of 64 designers certainly no less skilled than their European counterparts or that group of Americans (Mr. Owens, Mr. Lauren or Thom Browne among them) who elect to show away from home turf for both commercial and creative reasons.
While the logistical advantages of many designers presenting their collections under one roof are self-evident, by concentrating everything in a largely featureless warehouse event space, the week’s organizers miss an opportunity to capitalize on the matchless backdrop of this city.
Vision is seldom well served by bland commercial settings. The dungeons, abattoirs and rail yards where designers in Europe often choose to show may be inconvenient and occasionally dodgy, yet they reliably provide an element of the stagecraft and narrative alchemy on which fashion thrives.
“We’re not Europe, and we never wanted to be Europe,” said Steven Kolb, president and chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry trade group that sponsors the New York men’s fashion week.
He was defending his group against criticisms that, while the nascent trade week has attracted corporate sponsors like Cadillac and Samsung, it continues to suffer from both an absence of marquee names and the creative renegades for which New York has traditionally been an incubator.
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“It’s not devoid of those brands,” Mr. Kolb said. Todd Snyder and John Varvatos are represented, he added. So, too, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors and designers from lauded young men’s wear labels like Cadet, Stampd, Rochambeau, Gypsy Sport, Tim Coppens, David Hart and Garciavelez.
Yet others like Rag & Bone and Public School have either decided to sit out the week or show their combined men’s and women’s wear collections during women’s fashion week.
It has been a while since certified talents like Patrik Ervell drifted away from any official roster (rather than staging shows, he now puts out lookbooks). And this season Duckie Brown, the local standard-bearer for creativity in the field, chose not to show at all, instead releasing a video of a single look — a stretch wool blazer, white shirt and extremely high-waisted khakis — signifying the label’s current direction.
“I think it’s great that New York can have its own fashion week for men’s, or men’s and women’s together,” said Daniel Silver, who, with his partner, Steven Cox, designs Duckie Brown. “But we did two shows a year for 13 years. No one loves a show more than us. We love, ‘Lights down, boys up, boys out!’ But we just decided this is maybe a moment for us not to do a show.”
A ruefulness crept into Mr. Silver’s tone when he noted that New York has always been a challenging place in which to maintain footing if you are not a mainstream talent. “The problem here is, we nurture business, we don’t nurture creativity,” he said.
Yet for Mr. Kolb, the CFDA president, creativity without commerce is pointless. “Unless ultimately people want to buy and wear what you design, what’s the point?” he said. “We want it to be about selling, about growing businesses. I don’t have any shame about commerce. I’ll fly the commerce flag.”