When two male street dancers began hurtling themselves across the catwalk during a recent LG Fashion Week show in Toronto, the full-capacity crowd let out a collective gasp. Members of the city's edgy Parker Dance Academy, the high-energy performers executed jaw-dropping martial-arts-inspired back flips and aerial torpedo-spins, electrifying those gathered for the Fashion Week debut of Krane, a new men's-wear line by designer Ken Chow. Just as exciting as the dance moves, though, were the clothes gracing the Krane models' bodies, from uniquely distressed leather bombers to waxed-cotton skinny-leg pants to cotton shirts embossed with tiny metal rivets at the collar. Like the dancers, this was men's wear that breaks the mould.
Chow's emphasis on novel fabrics, a slim silhouette and detailing borrowed from vintage 20th-century men's fashion reflects how men's wear is both scaling new aesthetic heights right now and generating heightened consumer buzz.
"Men's wear is definitely back on the fashion radar," says LG Fashion Week organizer Robin Kay, whose biannual event, now in its 12th year, staged more men's fashion shows this season than ever before. "It's becoming a major fashion influence."
Besides Krane, men's wear standouts during Fashion Week included collections by Montreal's Rudsak, Toronto's Ezra Constantine, Vancouver's Wings + Horn and Toronto-based Klaxon Howl, which drew, among others, actor Samuel L. Jackson, who sat in the front row during a break from shooting his latest film, The Samaritan.
"I've always liked fashion," the star, looking naff in a sky-blue knit cap and matching vest, told The Globe and Mail in a quick pre-show chat. "And I was told this was the show to see."
Regarded for years as women's wear's little brother, men's fashion is breaking out of its industry confines/comfort zone, emerging as a just-as-glamorous if slightly less raked-over sector. Besides Toronto, events in Milan, Paris, London and New York featured expanded and especially strong men's wear extravaganzas recently by the likes of Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gucci, Hermès and others, many of them pushing the men's wear envelope through unusually streamlined styles, bold bursts of colour and sophisticated layering.
Overseen by Canadians Dan and Dean Caten, D-Squared has long been a leader in the field, while Wings + Horn, which is distributed in Canada by Holt Renfrew, is fast becoming a major player, too. "It's the best-known Canadian heritage brand worldwide," Yoni Goldstein, editor-in-chief of Sharp, the men's fashion magazine, says of W + H. "High-end stores in the U.S., Europe and Asia are increasingly bringing in the line. The company's oxford shirts and chinos are elegant, simple and classic; the craftsmanship is superb."
Lesser-known Canadian men's wear outfits also starting to develop significant followings include Vancouver-based workwear label Blanc & Noir and Toronto-based Sydney Mamane's KIN label, which is focused on suits, shirts and ties.
Just added to the mix is Krane, described by many observers as one of the best shows at Toronto Fashion Week. Speaking backstage after his testosterone-fuelled spectacle, Chow explained why he thinks dude style is suddenly attracting so much attention.
"There has been a shift in the culture that's making men's wear a lot more relevant than before," the 36-year old Toronto native, who studied men's-wear design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, mused. "For me, it all started in 2003, when Hedi Slimane took over Dior Homme and started making men's fashion that people around the world began noticing because he was focused on the right things: strict tailoring, a graphic eye for quality and detail and the importance of street culture in the design of a suit."
For British men's wear designer and Rolling Stones clothier Oliver Spencer, who has boutiques in Toronto and New York, the rise of non-traditional men's fashion is linked to a more recent development: the collapse of global financial markets.
"The economic crisis of 2009 brought with it an air of spring for independent men's-wear labels, which for a long time couldn't compete with big, powerful labels for retail space or customers," Spencer says from his headquarters in London, where, he reports, sales are up 48 per cent over the same period last year.
"It's why brands like mine have got our heads up right now. Beforehand, we were drowned out by the likes of Armani, Boss, Ralph Lauren - labels that make women's wear as well as men's wear and whose aim had been full and complete domination of all fashion markets."
Spencer's eponymous fashion label is one of several contemporary men's wear brands to be showcased in a new contemporary men's-fashion space that the Bay recently opened at its Queen Street flagship in Toronto. Plans are afoot to extend the concept to its suburban Yorkdale location in the fall and to other key markets across Canada at later dates.
The Men's Contemporary Designer area, as it's called, is yet another sign of men's wear's growing status.
According to Jeremy Logan, co-founder of Standard Apparel, the Toronto-based clothing-distribution company representing Oliver Spencer and other international men's wear brands in Canada, the sudden proliferation of men's wear designers is injecting new life into the market.
"We're really excited that the Bay is putting its energies behind contemporary men's wear," says the distributor, who also represents Los Angeles-based Aether Apparel, another men's fashion brand to be featured in the Bay's new boutique. "It will be a great addition to men's fashion retailing in Canada."
While the full line-up hasn't yet been announced, Toronto's Philip Sparks is another men's wear wiz that the Bay has approached to participate in the venture. In his opinion, innovative men's wear is on the rise because of increased demand.
"I think men got bored with what was previously available - that's what's pushing the demand for new and different," says the designer, who started creating his vintage-influenced men's wear line three years ago. "The looks today are pulling from the past, when men dressed more formally." And with more dash.
That sense of nostalgia is influencing a number of key looks for men this spring, from slim-fitting Rat-Pack-inspired suits (seen at Ermenegildo Zegna, Canali, Brioni and J.P. Tilford by Samuelsohn, among other leading brands) to jolts of 1970s-style neon colour in shirts and accessories (see Prada and Jil Sander). There is also a replay of the 1980s in the return of unlined suit jackets and shoes without socks, an insouciant look popularized by the macho hit TV show Miami Vice.
In terms of hues, khaki, bone and grey are popular, as are varieties of blues, from eye-popping turquoise to classic navy. At national men's wear chain Harry Rosen, the traditional boy colour is even showing up in footwear, from desert boots to moccasins to boat shoes.
Preppy sportswear, as the boat shoes suggest, is also back, with Gant producing bracing nautical stripes and relaxed-fit chinos and polo shirts.
The look over all is fashion-forward yet laidback, even in suiting featuring the new body-conscious silhouettes, Jeff Farbstein, Harry Rosen vice-president and general merchandise manager, says. "It's not about the suit being right; it's about feeling good, feeling sexy."
Backstage at the Krane show, designer Chow also put the stress on comfort.
"Cuts are still going to be fairly classic," he said. "Men generally know what works for their body type and will buy accordingly. Body-conscious in this case means a relaxed fit, not stiff. These are suits you can move in."