The Struggle to Innovate in Menswear

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It’s rare that traditional menswear retailers are genuinely innovative. A few designers have their odd quirks, and many fluctuate with the (fashion) seasons. But a precious small number actually change the way people look at jackets, shirts and trousers.

Paul Smith has original quirks. His suit linings were the first thing that made him popular in the UK, or at least the first that made him stand out. Bright colours, bright stripes and images of old-time footballs attracted men to suits for the first time in a while. Differently coloured buttons came next, as did one coloured buttonhole on the sleeves. Having fifties pin-ups on the reverse of belts and the inside of wallets was eye-catching.

Some of Smith’s innovations went deeper than that. I was a big fan, for example, of his dip-dye shoes – the technique produced truly deep hues of red and green in the leather that I’d never seen anywhere else. But they were surface changes. Little about design or construction changed in either suits or shoes. A harsher man than me might call them gimmicks.

Equally, many other menswear designers innovate in the seasonal variations of their outfits. Every six months, the usual suspects of Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabbana and others will have their hot style to tout. This fall/winter, D&G was obsessed with Sicily and the style of its local inhabitants, whether hunters, mariners or just butch-looking guards with dogs. There was shearling in abundance, bulk in the trousers and especially around the neckline, and bulky bags, hats and pets as accessories.

But is this innovative? It may be different to everyone else on the catwalk this year, but has no one had a similar idea previously? Will they not have the same idea again?

More importantly, much of this innovation is merely the accumulation of certain types or shapes of garment into a ‘look’. It is this look that is important, rather than much innovation in the garments themselves. It is innovation in aesthetic idea – the concept of sticking certain things together – but not in tailoring or structure.

The art needed to create an aesthetic vision should not be underestimated. It is, after all, one of the prime aspects that we admire in great artists in any field – whether architecture, painting or sculpture. But it is not what excites someone about picking up a jacket in a shop and discovering a genuinely new idea. That inspiration is very different to just a well-adorned mannequin.


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Simon Crompton is a journalist and a style enthusiast living in London, who blogs at permanentstyle.blogspot.com. He has too many suits.