Tough Times for Men’s Wear? Designers Find a Workaround

You’ve maxed out your credit cards, asked your family for loans, begged vendors for favors, cajoled friends into sacrificing salaries to model for a day, and then suddenly it is New York Fashion Week and, with it, New York Men’s Day, the only chance some men’s wear designers will have to be seen.

Then, on the morning of your show, the impossible happens.

Without prior warning, the city sends in crews to jackhammer up the sidewalk outside the loft building where you’ve been allotted two hours, total, to give fashion your best — and possibly your only — shot.

“What else could we do?” said Erin Hawker, the indefatigable publicist who first envisioned New York Men’s Day a decade ago. “We staged a peaceful protest on the sidewalk.”

It’s Sinatra 101. You need scrappiness and moxie in this city. What you also require, as it turns out, is Gandhian tactics and nerve of steel. Against the odds, the protest succeeded. The city backed off for a few hours, and 10 designers were briefly given their chance.

Did they seize it? Did they startle us with breadth of vision, design chops and gumption? Well, not exactly. Did an inspired renegade like Miguel Adrover suddenly emerge to take on a staled culture? No, again.

But there were, on Friday, solid presentations and, moreover, a generalized sense that the juggernaut of consolidation, corporatized fashion and a diminishing bricks-and-mortar retail scene won’t be enough to deter designers. They’re an ingenious lot. They’ll find a workaround.

“There’s so much serious stuff going on in the world, so much heaviness,” the designer Aaron Potts said. “I just decided to be light and airy and choose optimism instead.’’

Aaron Potts, spring 2024Credit…Ned and Aya Rosen

In a modest way, you might call the A. Potts label the breakout success of New York Men’s Day, though nothing about that success happened overnight. A once obscure journeyman who spent decades in professional design rooms, Mr. Potts has assiduously carved out a place for himself away from the mainstream, “bucking the system,” as he says, and letting consumers find their way to him by way of a celebrity fan club that counts Usher, Jacob Elordi, Meshell Ndegeocello and Queen Latifah among its numbers.

Mr. Potts showed clothes in silhouettes familiar to his followers, voluminous staples of what he calls “werkwear,” rendered in surprising fabrics and colors. If it was a more commercial grouping than the collections he has shown previously — more than a few inspired by the regalia favored by the great orchestra leader Sun Ra — that isn’t to suggest anything about it was vanilla.

The jumpsuits, the toppers and the voluminous jackets that are his version of a blazer (and that were worn over roomy pleat-front trousers) were rendered in the same seersucker as granddad’s summer suits, though colored Creamsicle orange. A supersize button-down and a voluminous, flasher-style raincoat were made from crinkly gold Tyvek.

The presentation was officially “genderless,” which meant the models were dressed without regard for gender assignment in trousers or gowns. If genderless fashion has made anything clear, it is that, as people outsider the hegemony of Western cultural norms know, hardly anyone looks bad in some version of a muumuu.

The Salting, spring 2024Credit…Petros Kouiouris

Among the best of the remaining presentations was that from the Salting, a label designed by Michael Ward and Manel Garcia Espejo that already has a steady stealth following. Ostensibly, the clothes (also genderless) were inspired by the art dealer and artist Betty Parsons, who once showed Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, Clyfford Still and Ad Reinhardt and whose own work was made from found objects, mostly wood scraps assembled and painted in primary stripes.

It was great to see designers make reference to a cultural giant whose contributions to 20th-century art have never fully gotten their due. Beyond that, though, the connection between Ms. Parsons and the Salting was opaque. Yes, there were trousers, tunic coats, jackets and shirts in washed-out stripes reminiscent of Parsons ready-mades. And, like her sculptures, they were produced in offbeat colors and from unexpected materials.

The overall effect was so anonymous looking and remote from label dressing ostentation that it was hard to see the connections to the Hamptons, another purported inspiration.

Kent Anthony, spring 2024Credit…Ken Anthony

Back when such things were more common, retail scouts would have been sniffing around Kent Anthony, a former track and field star whose second collection, while it offered just a handful of pieces, was impressive for the precocity of the designer’s restraint. As in his first season, Mr. Anthony focused on anatomical structure, if more subtly. Here he used contrasting thread to outline shapes that referred to a wearer’s underlying musculature.

The description has the ring of cosplay, but the reality is that the garments — in particular a double denim “suit”— were more in line with something Kim Jones might have done in his early days at Dior. Sharply outlined jackets had beaded hems. Threads sewn through lapels for no reason besides ornament were left dangling.

If Mr. Anthony takes a minimalist approach, Victor Lytvinenko of Raleigh Denim Workshop is a kitchen-sink kind of guy. Hard-core selvage denim geeks know the label’s back story as an art project started by Mr. Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough in 2008. Jeans-obsessed, the two combed the Southeast for old looms and sewing machines, then built a textile workshop in North Carolina and, with the help of a master patternmaker trained at Levi’s, began turning out jeans that looked every bit as good as those by the Japanese labels that copied, stitch for stitch, classic American denims seldom made anymore in this country.

Raleigh Workshop, spring 2024Credit…Colin Rex

The label took off when celebrities discovered it (Brad Pitt has worn the jeans), and eventually Mr. Lytvinenko decided to bring his D.I.Y. spirit to New York. His Raleigh Denim presentation was shown on a motley group of friends of all sizes and ages to the oompah music of a brass band. There were kantha quilted jackets, star-patterned truckers, color-blocked jeans not so different from those Peter Do would show at his Helmut Lang debut. There was a wool chore coat cut from a vintage blanket belonging to a musician pal’s 93-year-old father.

If the theatrics weren’t quite ready for prime time, there were enough ideas afloat to hope that Mr. Lytvinenko will return next season to give New York another shot.

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