In Milan, Military Rigor Meets Instagram Excess

Posted January 14, 2018 4:35 p.m. EST

MILAN — Let a brick be a brick. To paraphrase the great American architect Louis Kahn, professional achievement at a fundamental level requires a practitioner first to consult the materials.

“If you think of brick, you say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?'” Kahn said during a legendary 1971 master class lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps brick spoke and said it wanted to be an arch. “And it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use,” Kahn said. “You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of shortchanging it.”

If it would be overreach to liken the designer Neil Barrett to one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, it would also sell him short to suggest he is anything less than a master. Few in the current design landscape are more consistently exploratory than Barrett or deploy materials with anything like his confidence and restraint.

Fourth generation in a family of military tailors, Barrett has what seems like a bone-bred regard for the integrity of materials, as some press notes for his austere fall 2018 show make clear: “Fabrics are honest, authentic and real.” By that he presumably meant that the materials of his current collection were not the often-tricky technological fabrics he has deployed in the past, but cotton, leather and wool.

Shown in his new concrete headquarters, the collection took as a baseline the military uniforms that are the origin of virtually all the core elements of menswear. In Barrett’s hands that meant taut (mainly monochrome) suits, elegant bombers, cropped Eisenhower jackets, puffy blousons, crisp peacoats, flap-pocketed field jackets, great coats lined with shearling and whose funnel necks framed the face like an Elizabethan ruff, and also elevated versions of fatigues.

When the Chicken Littles of fashion run around squawking that menswear has run its course; that the separation of the cisgendered sexes into two separate seasons is as anachronistic as binaries themselves; that womenswear will soon swallow whole the male side of the business like a Hanna-Barbera alley cat and then stand by smacking its lips, what they are forgetting is that most of the labels that have skipped the menswear cycle, like Gucci, are accessories-driven. The part of the population still comfortable identifying as male can still use some guidance and, yes, the occasional thrill when considering what to wear.

Barrett showed womenswear, too, this season, as he has in the recent past. And what was fascinating was how, by utilizing dressmaking techniques like the cocoon-shaped back so much favored by the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, he managed to propose plausible new uniforms for stylish humans predicated on what is in their heads and not between their legs. That goes for the suits, the coats and even the padded motocross trousers that were Barrett’s nod not just to the fetish appeal of certain kinds of sports gear but to the inherent camp of butch masculinity. It is understood that the things in the toy chest of style are no longer gender-specific. Anyone can play.

That includes, in a notable way, ballplayers. If any single group has influenced menswear in recent memory it is athletes. Their new wealth and visibility helped rescue once-niche magazines like GQ from the dung heap of print media. The cycle of their work lives has helped normalize casual clothes as a new uniform in the workplace. Their exceptional physiques were, in general, a boon to designers. True, you would have had to splice together multiple pairs of skinny jeans by Hedi Slimane in his Saint Laurent days to get something that might fit the circumference of Nolan Carroll’s thighs. Yet were Slimane still designing, he would surely find a way to address the problem. (That is a guess.)

Carroll, a former Miami Dolphins cornerback and now a free agent, has been making the rounds of the shows here, his movements closely tracked on an Instagram account devoted to the sartorial doings of pro athletes founded by the Brooklyn-born Jamaal Rich. If not for Rich’s @morethanstats, an observer of Donatella Versace’s all-but-the-kitchen-sink presentation might have been left in a muddle.

There were zebra stripes, tiger spots, tartans, mythological motifs, velvet suits, prints from the housewares archive, fringed overcoats, kilts, silk shirts, bovver boots aerated with grommets, even the caterpillar fringe that rich Italians use to edge pillows. What felt incoherent as a runway presentation fell into place quite neatly when one viewed the slideshow afterward and then consulted Rich’s Instagram creation.

Clearly pro ballplayers have gotten into the influencer game in a big way. How else can you explain the phenomenal stylishness of men constantly being photographed — as if for the red carpet — on their way to practice? Take any single element of the Versace show — a zebra pattern swing coat, let’s say — and put it on Carroll as he heads for the locker room. What in ordinary circumstances might look like day wear for a circus performer seems not only plausible but desirable when you spot it on a football player in his physical prime.

Hollywood actors, as it turns out, have nothing on ballplayers. Just check out Carroll in an Instagram video shot in a Versace fitting room, where the player is trying on a garishly printed silk tunic in gold. Or tap on the panel showing the Minnesota Timberwolves player Andrew Wiggins dressed for practice in a Dries Van Noten bomber and jeans from Amiri. Or scroll to the UFC champion Conor McGregor flaunting a crazily printed tracksuit by Gucci for Mr Porter.

Seen on the runway these elements might seem so outlandish as to be comic. Yet worn with ineffable confidence and swagger by athletes, even the most excessive designer efforts seem justified.