Can $6,800 Gucci Pants Save Men’s Fashion?

In a backlash against male liberation and casual Friday wear, suits are making a comeback. But is this what men want? Sartorial contrition after seasons of experimentation. A Prada ad in the September issue of Vanity Fair shows a faceless lad tossing a stick over a cement wall, and no best-friend canine in sight to chase it. Today that seems emblematic. The kid’s only comfort, and subtle subversion, is his Prada suit, if the camel’s hair wool isn’t too itchy.

It’s not a great season for the New Male–who said right-wing conspiracy?–despite the launch of the ad campaign for L’Oréal’s new Féria hair dye for guys. As an apparent reaction to the New Male, “ladism,” the British imported beer and babes direction in American men’s magazines continues apace with the September issue of GQ devoted to football and FHM , “the most successful men’s magazine in Britain” launching a United States edition this fall. “Men are not sure what their role is and magazines like FHM have tapped into these insecurities and given them a voice,” Dr. Jane Pilcher, a British sociologist, told The Sunday Times of London on Aug. 1.

The September issue of Elle isn’t worried about ladism however. One story says, “Thirty-five- to 55-year-old women will soon be the largest, richest segment of the population. (Note to the Old Boys Club: start sucking up now.)” Editors at William Morrow think the last cultural testosterone gush of the century is a perfect counterpoint for publishing feminist Susan Faludi’s much anticipated cultural investigation, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man this fall.

For those who look to fashion to reflect society, men’s current fashion contrition mirrors President Bill Clinton with his furry tail between his legs. For those who believe fashion reflects the interests of commerce and retailers first, and fashion and art second, if at all, there’s evidence in the bottom line. The men’s retail business has been struggling to redefine itself and make a great profit for several seasons. Worried they might lose precious real estate in department stores, or upset their stockholders, designers went commercial this season. Even Jil Sander has lowered her prices. In the case of Donna Karan, she suddenly presented a collection loaded with color. (Only preachers buy black in the Bible Belt.)

For the New Lad, fashion’s for … models. And it’s the season of the “lad,” all right, a custardy last stand with sight gags of semen and flatulence– American Pie , South Park , The Spy Who Shagged Me –and Yankees and fisticuffs, Hawaiian shirts and more Cuban cigars. The rare, conscious exception to rampant “ladism” this season is the commendable September issue of Men’s Journal about design inspired by the design collection at the Museum of Modern Art and by Philip Johnson. “Hello? Hello? … Am I here all by myself? … am I crazy to expect that here at the beginning of the 21st century and the third millennium, this fabulous Dionysian energy might perhaps show up in the look of America in places other than her sneakers? In her art, architecture, and design, to mention three possible examples?” Tom Wolfe asks in an essay lamenting the lack of exuberance, skill and originality in American design. And it is an astonishing lack when you consider the wealth of our economy, but there is not much hope for new, optimistic design in a culture that celebrates its wealth with torrents of nostalgia. New males and new fashion haven’t a chance, either.

“Now you don’t even find the right sneakers in America anymore,” observes Hedi Slimane, the designer of Yves Saint Laurent’s men’s collection. “I know that is horrible to say, but you find better ones in Europe or Japan.” The fashion-forward designer was in New York until July 10, holed up in the Mercer Hotel so he could work quietly on his next collection.

Mr. Slimane’s edgy designs are popular with David Bowie, George Michael and Mick Jagger. “Aggressive elegance. Narrow. Ambiguous,” is how the young designer described his sexy, sleek clothing. Women wear the clothes, too. James Kaliardos, a founder of Visionaire , the fashion publication, recently suggested that Mr. Slimane make a tuxedo for Madonna.

Another collection from the spring 2000 shows championed by fashion enthusiasts was Tom Ford’s for Gucci. As always in a Gucci collection, there was flair, exuberance and audacity. Everything from side-knotted Tarzan bathing trunks to Venetian embroidery and, of course, great suits. “This is a collection for a 28-year-old rap star building a 30,000-square-foot house in Los Angeles who is married to Whitney Houston and owns a Bentley,” Mr. Ford told DNR .

Last season, Mr. Ford designed teal blue silk denim beaded pants that retailed for about $6,800. That may sound too Liberace but, in fact, they were as cool as an Aubusson weaving at Marianne Faithfull’s house. Did any man buy them? They sold out. To whom?

“I shouldn’t talk about this,” the noted New York architect Daniel Romualdez responded. “Fashion is a very silly topic for architects,” he said. Nonetheless, Mr. Romualdez, a Yale graduate, is famously well dressed. He wears classic Savile Row suits by day and high-style clothing at night, like the aforementioned Gucci beaded pants Mr. Romualdez wore with a simple white shirt to a dinner that art historian and author John Richardson gave at his Fifth Avenue loft for Yves Saint Laurent this spring. “When I do someone’s apartment we’ll do the fanciest marble, say, but it is always honed. Like the mix of messages in the Gucci pants, it’s the push-and-pull of luxury with the low-key that appeals to me,” Mr. Romualdez explained.

Nonetheless, even he recently told friends this is his last year for high-fashion experimentation. It is a blow for men’s designers when a chic customer folds his tent, but Mr. Romualdez feels that when one turns 40, which he will later this year, one has to draw the line. “I just think that, well, after a point, the expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ comes to mind,” Mr. Romualdez said.

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Fashion enthusiast Isabella Blow knew exactly what she would wear on Aug. 11: a silver metal “moon form” hat by Philip Treacy and a silver reflective dress by the designer Teerabul Songvich made from 15,000 hand-cut mirrors over a reflective- frame petticoat. What was the occasion?

a. Tea at Buckingham Palace.

b. The total eclipse of the sun.

c. An Annie Leibovitz photo session with Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs for Vogue .

2. How many beret factories are there in France?

a. Three.

b. 167.

c. 289.

3. What’s the latest fashion news from Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota?

a. John Bartlett is making him six new suits, including two tuxedos.

b. He was photographed recently by Karl Lagerfeld for Paris Match .

c. He rarely wears underwear.

Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) c.