Fashion dictates stylish men will show more leg

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BC-WSJ--Men's Fashion,1196

Fashion dictates stylish men will show more leg

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Plenty of long, shapely legs amble down the runways at New York's semiannual fashion week. This time, a lot of them belong to men.

At show after show this week, male models are parading down the catwalks in shorts -- dressy and tailored -- with suit jackets, sport coats, dress shirts and even ties.

Perry Ellis presented a model wearing a double-breasted sport coat with dressy pinstripe shorts. Designer Phillip Lim showed a short-sleeve shirt with a tuxedo collar and so-called tuxedo cutoff pants. Duckie Brown dressed a model in black and white print shorts and a matching suit jacket. Michael Kors is planning to show a model wearing a white sport coat and shorts at his runway show at Bryant Park Wednesday.

The dressed-up shorts trend, pitched for spring 2007, already is making some retailers, not to mention regular guys, nervous.

"You can only take things so far," says Colby McWilliams, men's fashion director at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, who has misgivings about displaying the look. "Most people walking the streets of Dallas would be shocked if they saw someone in shorts and a sport coat."

Michael Macko, men's fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, says the high-end retailer will be "very selective" about how many of the dressy shorts it promotes. The store's 100-page spring catalog will feature two jacket-with-shorts ensembles. "That's enough," Mr. Macko says.

The designers' goal: get men to wear fancier, more-expensive shorts and to wear them in dressier settings, like pool-side cocktail parties, for example. The look is so unusual that some in the industry are predicting it will be a flash in the pan -- like the Nehru jackets of the late 1960s. David Wolfe, who has tracked fashion for more than 20 years, for instance, says he can't recall another menswear trend that was so widely embraced by designers but seemed so commercially iffy. "They're being serious, but we're all laughing," says Mr. Wolfe, who is creative director of the Doneger Group in New York.

On the other hand, the oversize hip-hop look, which was widely derided as prison garb, went mainstream in the 1990s and became a standard silhouette for young men. And Tommy Fazio, men's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, says the New York store thinks the shorts-and-sport-coat look has legs. "It's the most sophisticated thing to wear to a summer wedding or a summer cocktail party," he says.

This year's shorts-selling began in Europe this summer, when designers such as Valentino and Calvin Klein sent men down runways in suit jackets, sport coats, tuxedo shirts and shorts. Giorgio Armani himself wore a sport coat and shorts during Milan fashion shows in June. "It was very hot, so it worked out perfectly," an Armani spokeswoman says.

"Most of the major men's trends still come from European cities like Milan, Paris and London," says Tom Julian, director of trends at ad agency McCann Erickson. Shorts with suit jackets and sport coats are no exception, he says.

The tailored-shorts look is part of a broader trend in menswear for spring 2007 of making dress clothing more relaxed and relaxed clothing a little dressier. That explains the many models wearing hoodies instead of dress shirts with their suits or sport coats and polo shirts with button-down collars.

Reluctant to admit they are following a trend, many American designers insist the collective emergence of shorts this week is mainly just a coincidence. John Bartlett, who showed three models with shorts wearing dress shirts and ties, says he had the idea at least six months ago, before the European shows. "It seems really hot right now," he says. "There's something very old Connecticut, very Bermuda about that look."

The idea actually is at least five decades old. Bermuda shorts were a '50s fad, and some men wore them in the summer with sport jackets, ties and long socks. Andy Gilchrist, a California fashion consultant who has written a book on men's clothes, notes that the look was often seen in fashion magazines of the time.

Narciso Rodriguez, who planned this week to present elastic-waist shorts with a silver wool suit jacket, says he has always just liked wearing shorts, even in winter.

Mr. Lim, the designer, says he is showing shorts because he likes wearing them himself and wore a lot of cutoffs this summer. The fact that most of his colleagues are doing the same thing does strike Mr. Lim as odd. "I always find it funny. How does everyone know? Did they all have a meeting or a design summit or something?" Mr. Lim asks. "I just did it because I like shorts."

Some of their fans aren't on the same wavelength. "Shorts with a suit jacket would make me feel a little too Little Lord Fauntleroy," says Tony Green, a 41-year-old Chicago management consultant, who tries to keep up with the latest styles.

That is why the dressy shorts trend could flop, says John Mincarelli, a men's costume historian and professor of merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "No grown men are going to wear that seriously," he says.

A similar fashion frenzy led to an industrywide push toward men's hot pants in the 1970s. "There were a few fools running around in them for awhile, and I was one of them," Mr. Mincarelli says. But they never looked good on most men and never took off.

Nehru jackets were another hyped trend that Mr. Mincarelli calls "one of the all-time great bombs in menswear." In the late 1960s, stores bought Nehru jackets and waited for the trend to catch on. "Everyone was looking at India. The Beatles had just gone to India. The ashram movement was big," he recalls. But the jackets never became fashionable. "It just goes to show there are no guarantees, no matter how many people are pushing it."

Designers say they are mystified by the tepid response from retailers. Elie Tahari touts the versatility of dressy shorts. He says they can be worn as an alternative to a suit, paired with poplin shirts and blazers, or with a plain T-shirt for a more casual look. "Guys are looking for an option they can wear on a date, at a cocktail lounge, lounging by the pool at the Delano in South Beach," stresses Perry Ellis menswear creative director John Crocco.

Designers hope that, at the very least, retailers will take their runway shows more as suggestions, mixing and matching the dressier shorts with casual shirts. That may be more palatable for a broad audience. "As much as I like the look, most stores will buy them separately" from the sport coat or suit jacket, Mr. Bartlett says.

That is a relief to Gary Pokrant, a certified public accountant in Bethesda, Md. "If you're going to go through the trouble of wearing a jacket, there's no way that shorts are going to cut it," he says. "It's just a little too progressive."


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