Men’s fashion is notorious for moving at a glacial crawl, resistant and stubborn to upheavals and conceding only to small alterations in seasonal trends. Only recently has menswear begun to understand and appreciate ideas like sensuality and sexiness for the male form. And only recently has that appreciation been able to find its place on the suit, that most stubborn of clothing styles.
Designers of menswear are tasked with reinventing, or at the very least making an interesting tweak, to the suit every season. That’s fine and well, but the occasions in which designers have presented collections upending and offering actually revolutionary ideas are rare. It’s why Stefano Pilati’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection for Ermenegildo Zegna is so important. That collection, dubbed informally as an “haute couture” one for the level of work and care put into it, in many ways reset the culture around suiting and laid the groundwork for a number of designers today.
The central idea to Pilati’s collection then was male sexiness. It might not be as radical now – what with designers like Ludovic de Saint Sernin, John Galliano, and Kim Jones tackling it – but menswear then was still quite freshly on the cusp of reviewing and revising its attitudes. Pilati’s approach was to capitalise on the fabric mastery and innovation that the house of Zegna afforded. It is, after all, a luxury for a fashion designer to work for a brand that creates its own fabrics and that can be the first to benefit from breakthroughs.
Lightness was a central idea, and the house’s approach was through fabric. Men’s fashion is historically built on structure and discipline – consider the strict lines of tailoring, designed to shape the body. Think too of its roots in regimental military dress, and the use of heavier fabrics like wool to achieve its effects. In this collection, the fabrics bordered on diaphanous and sheer. The trousers – loose, and cut with pleats – looked opaque until the model walked and their legs pressed against the fabric. Then, you could see a hint of skin through the fabric and it became clear how light the materials actually were. The materials moved with the models' walk, and there was an airiness and buoyancy all of a sudden to these otherwise traditional suits. A sort of relationship to their wearer's bodies that felt easier, kinder, more forgiving, tender and sensitive.
There were madras prints used throughout too, at certain points in vibrant pastels that served as tonal sumptuousness, and at most others on more traditional suiting fabrics as a subtle suggestion of lightness. On those greys, the madras looked almost faded and washed out, not unlike pieces of clothing that have been so lovingly worn they’ve become as familiar as a second skin. There’s a very sensual quality to that idea of clothes that we are so intimate with, and have such a relationship with, that they become cherished and loved even more so because of the ways they’ve been broken in and taken up their shapes and forms around our bodies.
That’s not to say, however, that there was anything sloppy about this collection. Tailoring is the lifeblood of the Zegna brand, and Pilati’s sense of cut and proportion is formidable. The silhouette up top was a more slender one, and it retained the soft, sloped shoulders and nipped waist of a traditional Italian cut. The jackets were light enough that it became possible to layer two jackets, a double-breasted under a single-breasted one. Critically, the tailoring had a sense of fluidity and looseness that is not typically the product of, well, the tailoring process. Haute couture ateliers typically divide the work between two workrooms: tailleur and flou. The former specialises on structured pieces that draw from tailoring techniques, and the latter on dressmaking techniques that require more draped work.
Pilati introduced the concept of Couture to the brand, and even today it remains the pinnacle of the Zegna suiting offering. Maybe what doesn’t get acknowledged enough is that Pilati brought a much-needed dose of femininity to a men’s fashion house, and in this collection epitomized that advancement and progress with ennervating lightness. It was a breath of fresh air, and one that, if you watch the way menswear has grown, the industry continues to breathe.