When times are tough, follow suit

Sensuous materials, sharp cuts and embellishments added optimism to the corporate classic at the autumn-winter 2012 menswear shows in Milan, writes Georgina Safe.

John Brack's painting Collins St., 5pm offers a sartorial snapshot of a certain moment in time.

The 1955 work depicts an army of anonymous workers dressed unanimously in drab overcoats and suits emerging from the office during rush hour in Melbourne.

A comment on the conformity of daily life, the gloomy picture also captured the ubiquity of suits and overcoats in menswear during the 1950s.

But the suit declined in popularity with the casualisation of menswear in the '60s and '70s, as cropped trousers and pullovers, then slacks and shirts, rose to prominence on the tide of a new optimism and relaxed attitude.

Suits returned in a brief blip with the corporate excess of the '80s, most memorably worn by a pinstriped and double-breasted Gordon ''greed is good'' Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, but since then they have never truly regained their dominance in a man's wardrobe.

Brack's painting came to mind during the menswear shows in Milan, at which suits (and overcoats) were once more front and centre.

Conventional wisdom dictates that men return to the safety of the suit during times of economic uncertainty and, given Milan's turbulent financial prospects in particular, this theory goes some way to explaining their predominance on the runways.

But this time around, suits are anything but drab or one-dimensional, with designers offering up myriad cuts, colours and quirks aimed at appealing to a broad range of customers.

Some of the most striking were at Jil Sander, where designer Raf Simons sent them out in menacing black leather. When teamed with leather trench coats and overcoats, the effect was part serial killer a la American Psycho's Patrick Bateman and part Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, fighting his way through a dangerous new world with the protection of a swirling black coat.


Models wore black leather gloves and occasionally broke the blackout in brown and green pullovers adorned with whales and dinosaurs (another form of monstrosity?) as part of the presentation that was unremittingly bleak.

Simons said his collection was ''psychological'' and ''quite dark'' but refused to be drawn on rumours he is close to signing a contract to become John Galliano's successor at French house Dior.

''I have nothing to say,'' the Belgian designer told reporters at the show.

There was a gentler approach at Burberry Prorsum, which was unsurprising given chief creative officer Christopher Bailey had titled his collection The Gentleman.

And so it was that dapper chaps carrying whimsical umbrellas incorporating the heads of dogs and ducks strode out to a soundtrack of falling rain. Bailey has had enormous success rejuvenating the British heritage brand while remaining mindful of its history and this new range was no exception.

Soft woollen suiting was worn under tweedy trench coats with velvet at the lapels or patterned puffy parkas to take the city man from town to country. A slim-cut grey double-breasted suit offered a modern-day corporate uniform alternative to Gekko's boxier '80s version and alpine-pattern sweaters added a dash of humour.

Italian brand Ermenegildo Zegna is another with a rich history, which it reinterpreted by sending out suits worn with turtleneck jumpers rather than shirts and sumptuous shearling leather jackets suitable for a sojourn in the Italian alps, along with re-imaginings of the classic trench incorporating panels of contrasting materials such as leather and tweed.

Vivienne Westwood also looked to the great outdoors with an homage to David Attenborough in which models sported beards with frozen icicles, the distressed and torn woollens of seasoned adventurers and layer upon layer of coats, scarves and shirts.

''Our collection is in support of David Attenborough's documentary series Frozen Planet,'' the designer said in a press release.

Other brands reinterpreted the suit and tuxedo in swirling patterns and technicolour, including Roberto Cavalli and Dolce&Gabbana, with the latter showing outfits adorned in gilt embroidery. The celebration of baroque opulence was set in a faux opera house, in which chandeliers hung from the ceiling and models walked the runway to Verdi arias sung by the late Luciano Pavarotti. The more-is-more aesthetic was also channelled at Roberto Cavalli in a collection called The Charmer. Tuxedos and trenches came in acid yellow and suits were adorned with a bold digital print of feathers, while a pale-pink leather biker jacket was accented with black leather trims.

Prada relied on Hollywood for a jolt of excitement, with Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody among the actors who walked in the show that designer Miuccia Prada described as a play on power.

''It's about power. But it started with the idea of characters,'' Prada told The New York Times. ''[The show] was a parody of power.''

The dandyish collection focused heavily on morning coats - such as the black one worn by Oldman - adorned with medals and flowers, as well as overcoats and smoking jackets in subtly printed silks.

Coats and jackets also dominated Frida Giannini's autumn-winter range for Gucci, including cropped sailor's jackets in navy and burgundy and blazers in teal and printed velvet. Given the designer described her collection as ''a vocabulary of luxury for new rebels'', there were also distressed leather trench coats and a leather jacket worn with biker boots.

Giorgio Armani took a more understated approach with his Emporio Armani collection, which focused on classic tailoring in charcoal and black, with suits worn with Akubra-like hats and shearling overcoats. Added interest came in the form of black-clad female models (unusual during the menswear collections) who were squired down the runway by their model beaus in a celebration of Italian love and style.

Additional reporting by agencies