Saturday, April 01, 2006

Now Showing: Wrists, Shins, Etc.

By DAVID COLMAN

AND you thought only your savings were shrinking.

Men's wear designers can seem like spent television writers toiling away on a show's last season, trying to cook up a colorful new character — a French gigolo lover! a junior Gordon Gekko! — to get a rise in the Nielsen's. Unfortunately, many of the characters that designers cook up — playboy, cowboy, flyboy — to lure men into Saks meet with the same reaction that, say, Tanya Roberts received on the last year of "Charlie's Angels": skepticism spiraling into apathy.

A case in point is the latest men's wear trend: the shrunken suit. While mainstream clothiers dream of a way to make a suit wash and wear, those on fashion's fringe are cutting suits that appear to have gone through the laundry by mistake.

You've heard of trying to look youthful? Well, any more youthful and you would be in a terry-cloth onesie eating strained squash. Scaled-down suits, jackets and pants, which have been popping up for a few seasons, are now blooming like Dutch tulips, courtesy of designers like Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquiere. A suit jacket's standard length is usually held to be 78 or 79 centimeters (about 31 inches), but these designers have shaved from 1 to 5 inches off the bottom. Ditto pants, which bare not only the ankle but, horrors, a bit of shin.

While the look almost begs to be mocked, there is on second glance some logic to it: namely, a short suit does not convey uniformity in any sense of the word, which has endeared it to the raffish young peacocks of the indie rock scene. Tossing a spitball at the worsted wool, white-collar classic that has armored men for a century, the shrunken suit suggests that wearing a suit is a whim, not a mandate.

With aloofness to obligation sewn into the lining, the short suit can work with a T-shirt (or with jeans or khakis swapped for trousers, or with a sporty dress shirt and no tie) better than a traditional suit can. Likewise, the latest small-collared shirts and skinny neckties, like those from the hot Los Angeles label Band of Outsiders, are a perfect complement to the suit's puckish charm. And unlike a business suit, which always means business, a short suit goes right out to a downtown dinner without looking as if you just got off a conference call with the Hong Kong office.

Its assets are also obvious for men whose height is at or under the American average of 5-foot-9. "They're the only suits I wear," said Jeffrey Kalinsky, the founder of Jeffrey New York, who is 5-foot-7. "I think it works better on my size, from 5-7 to 5-11. The look becomes more exaggerated on taller guys."

But Thom Browne, who has made the shrunken look the backbone of his three-year-old men's wear collection, argues that the 40L guy looks best in the 40S. "That way you really see the proportions," he said. Otherwise, he would say, the point is lost.

"I wanted to get guys interested in tailored clothing, so they would start wearing it again, so I gave it to them in a cool, youthfully spirited way," Mr. Browne said. "I say spirited because it's not just for young guys. It's not an age thing."

It is, however, a thin thing. A shrunken suit flatters sinewy yoga-fied physiques. Bulkier men (whether from bodybuilding or lack of it) may look as if they are straining their seams — a look, as the Incredible Hulk proved, with narrow allure. The 98-percent-lean Mr. Browne looks terrific in his own clothes, as does the rail-thin Mr. Slimane. (Speaking of strained squash, Mr. Slimane told The New Yorker this month that one of his diet secrets is baby food.)

"I wouldn't recommend them to someone who is solidly built," said Euan Rellie, a defiantly fashionable banker in New York. Tall, with a slender frame, Mr. Rellie's small-suit habit has impelled him to stay that way. "I seriously do watch what I eat," he said.

But never mind the stomach. Another peril of the short jacket is how it uncovers some or all of a man's best-guarded asset, which some men will welcome; others will not. "They're definitely bum-freezers, these coats," Mr. Rellie said. "But I've been told I have a good butt, so I tend not to worry."

In short, the suit is not for shrinking violets.

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