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Menswear seeks meaning

by Paul Mcinnes

The luxury market is taking a beating; world-famous German minimalist fashion designer Jil Sander is working with Uniqlo, H&M are taking over Tokyo high streets and Number (N)ine, a top Japanese menswear label, has gone out of business.

It would be fair to say that the fashion industry is in a state of flux.

What was interesting, then, about this season’s Tokyo menswear collections was how the participating labels would approach this crisis — play safe or live it up like it’s your last-ever champagne- quaffing party.

What we got was, predictably, a bit of both.

The few menswear designers showing as part of Japan Fashion Week opted for the status quo, as illustrated by Heath in high-street-gent mode. To be fair to Gentaro Noda, designer of Heath, the middle ground is what he’s aiming for. As he said, “People are getting to know Heath because young people are starting to understand dignity and elegance. People are starting to look for well-made tiering that you can casually wear on the street.”

As for the rest of Japan Fashion Week, no one really cared. Even Diane Pernet and Bryanboy, fashion bloggers du jour, wisely seemed more interested in the parties, shopping and showroom chitchat than the fashion.

For the more sagacious critic, however, the real crux of the last few weeks was found among the off-schedule menswear titans — brands that like the challenge associated with risk, have a strong following regardless of fluctuating trends, and actually think about fashion’s relationship with the world in which we live.

Daisuke Obana’s N. Hoolywood is always top drawer. The autumn/winter ’09 collection, “Skyscraper,” inspired by the individualism at the core of Russian U.S.-emigre novelist Ayn Rand’s 1943 masterpiece “The Fountainhead,” was a complete departure from last season’s Amish tribute.

In Rand’s novel, architect Howard Roark neglects societal and artistic conformity and sets out on a self-driven journey. There are obvious similarities between Obana (aka Mister Hollywood) and Roark, and the collection (based on a mix of 1920s and more contemporary modes — a stylistic leap from Art Deco to a modern perspective) gladly eschewed the trivialities of global trends. Instead it showcased a subjective world view, including dapper double-breasted suits, relaxed patterned knits and functional neo-military clothing.

Obana told The Japan Times, “I tried to represent a functional style with a simple beauty — which is Howard Roark’s architectural ideal.”

“Witness Independent Kingdom” was the name given to the Yoshio Kubo collection that gave a new meaning to the term “urban guerrilla.” Vermillion suits, jackets with seat-belt attachments, half-jacket/half-capes and plenty of plaid was neatly finished off with memorable political street-styling by Tadashi Mochizuki.

In a time of economic and political instability, it took pride in being more “Internationale” than Topman.

Another highlight was “Story” from Factotum, inspired by the life of British artist and The Beatles’ original bassist (until June 1961) Stuart Sutcliffe.

Factotum, since its inception in 2004, has built a solid base on tailored military and work wear with a dash of Bohemian foppery thrown in for good measure. Its autumn/winter ’09 collection was superb, and is everything that impact-seeking fashion editors and buyers are looking for — wearable and high-quality clothing with a heavy dose of youth appeal. Shades of gray, knits and arty duffle coats, denim jackets paired with waistcoats and leather pants all in an early ’60s style (complete with Beatles cuts) were both retro and contemporary — a nod to the past and acceptance of the future.

The John Lawrence Sullivan show was simply fashion with a capital F. Lots of style and very little substance. The collection of earth colors, effete high waists and awkward suits failed to make any connection. Few would have guessed it was supposedly influenced by a long-necked tribe from Myanmar.

Once we had recovered from being nearly asphyxiated by a smoke machine and the aural torture of what sounded like a Megadeth and Marilyn Manson supergroup, “Black Painting” at Lad Musician lacked any relevance apart from reinforcing designer Yuichi Kuroda’s penchant for rock music. Black leather and shrunken black suits stuck to the Gothic motif and will probably sell by the truckload despite being essentially a variation on one fairly weak theme.