The showing of the major men's fall-winter 2011-12 European collections, which this season run Jan. 15 to 18 in Milan and Jan. 19 to 23 in Paris, are the traditional opening salvo in a seemingly endless globe-spanning fashion marathon that doesn't wind down until the Halloween decorations go up. And, because of their pole position on the catwalk calendar, the men's shows often end up being more than the sum of their parts. They offer an opportunity to get an early bead on where menswear and women's wear designers — and the industry as a whole — might be headed in the new year.
But this season we haven't had to wait for the first wingtip to hit the runway to know that things have shifted. Based on the lineup of new and returning labels on the European calendar, one gets the distinct impression that the economic malaise of the last couple of seasons — which saw luxury brands paring down, scaling back and opting for less expensive presentations, or in some cases forgoing a spot on the schedule altogether — may be waning.
Adding to that sense of enthusiasm is a recent front-page story in fashion industry trade paper WWD asking: "Is Men's Wear Back?" — which it answers in the affirmative, citing tailored clothing and high-end sportswear as particular bright spots. In fact, it's apparently so back that WWD's parent company, Fairchild Publications, which shuttered its dedicated menswear publication DNR in November 2008, has decided to move back into that territory with a new weekly titled Mensweek.
One noteworthy addition to the Milan calendar is Jimmy Choo, which, after abandoning the men's side of the luxury footwear business in 2002 to focus solely on women's, is stepping back in, and is scheduled to give the fashion media their first look at a fall-winter 2011-12 collection. The presentation is expected to include the label's luxe take on moccasins, casual biker boots and evening slippers.
Also on the radar in Milan will be Woolrich Woolen Mills. It's hard to imagine the collection without Daiki Suzuki, the designer who helped Woolrich licensee WP Lavori in Corso create the high-end label and has been at the helm for the last five years. But this season marks the debut collection designed by his replacement, Mark McNairy (whose design CV includes stints at J. Press and Southwick and collaborations with Bass Weejuns and Pro Keds, as well as his own line, Mark McNairy New Amsterdam).
Paris also promises some surprises. The Thierry Mugler menswear show will mark the debut collection under creative designer Nicola Formichetti (who was also tapped to oversee the women's ready-to-wear collection). A longtime collaborator with Lady Gaga, he was the stylist responsible for putting her in that now-famous "meat dress" she wore at the VMAs in September — which means the notion of bacon boxer shorts may very well be one step closer to reality.
Paris will also be the scene of a surprising exercise in brand resuscitation with the relaunch of Christian Lacroix, a label that filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2009. The initial focus is the men's side of the business, which was presented to buyers — but not the media — last season with Sacha Walckhoff, formerly an artistic consultant for the label, as its new creative director. (Walckhoff worked alongside the namesake designer — who is no longer affiliated with the fashion house that bears his name — for 17 years.)
For sheer stagecraft alone, Thom Browne's follow-up to last season's Paris debut belongs at the top of any don't-miss list, as does the presentation of fellow New York-based designer Adam Kimmel, who will no doubt find another way to bring an additional slice of American pop culture pie to the City of Light. (His spring-summer 2011 collection was inspired by Snoop Dogg, and past inspirations have included cowboys of the American West and the artists of L.A.'s Ferus Gallery.)
In addition, the cadre of American menswear designers opting for a European presence grows a bit bigger this season, with Phillip Lim and Yigal Azrouël the latest opting to showcase their menswear collections in Paris instead of waiting until the New York shows in mid-February, which makes this first catwalk cluster of the calendar year all the more important in setting the tenor for the rest of 2011.
One last thing we're curious to see — and this has absolutely nothing to do with the runways — is the role that the Apple iPad will (or won't) be playing this season. Although it launched barely two months before the last round of European men's shows, an inordinate number of the tablets filled the walls of a Dolce & Gabbana menswear exhibit and could be spotted casting their TV-like glare from the front row of shows. By the time the New York shows in September rolled around, the stylish slab had become the glowing, must-have, seating-chart tool for fashion publicists working the front of the house.
At this rate, it won't be too long until someone figures out how to hook a couple of hundred iPads together and send models down an interactive touch-screen catwalk.
Unless they already have.