Men’s fashion shows play a very different role in the industry from the one women’s shows do. “Men’s runway really appeals to a small percentage of consumers,” says Robert Burke, a fashion consultant. “The business being done during a men’s show is about branding. It’s attitude, it’s positioning, because these are lifestyle brands; it’s about men’s, women’s accessories, home, travel.” Men don’t respond to trends like women do: Runway pictures are scoff-worthy for a great number of men, whose style tends to change in a slow morph of details over years or even decades. When men’s fashion gets extreme—kilts! Speedos!—it tends to get giggles rather than gasps. “Look, it can be scary for me, and I get it!” Macko says.
Because men’s fashion, at its core, is conservative. Even men who are considered “well dressed” aren’t into fashion; scan any best-dressed list and you’ll find its members get their suits from tiny bespoke tailors in London and Florence. Splashy menswear launches of recent memory include Thom Browne, whose inspiration is a fifties accountant who likes stiff Scotch and racquetball, and Tom Ford, who surrounds very traditional suiting with egregious luxury and astonishing price tags. His suits aren’t radical, though their marketing is, and that, perhaps, is the key to his success. Because too much fashion on a man just isn’t, when it comes down to it, masculine enough for most men.
Van Assche’s debut for Dior was, he says, an homage to Dior’s famous atelier, a showcase for what such highly skilled hands can do. It was sort of camp Fitzgerald, with tableaux vivants of Van Assche’s beautiful, beautiful boys in endless combinations of white shirts and black trousers in every conceivable permutation: flat-fronted and narrow, full and pleated a bit, pleated a bit more, pleated all the way down the leg. “I want to bring back the feeling of a salon,” Van Assche says, “the feeling of Mr. Dior.”
But there isn’t a great tradition of “Mr. Dior,” as far as menswear is concerned. The great French houses have status because of their work in womenswear: in couture, in ready-to-wear. The men’s businesses appeared as appendages, without particular identities apart from an idea of luxury and craft, until Hedi Slimane came along.
And so this celebration of luxury and skill, perhaps, is what Van Assche means. Because it was all quite perfect, with rich, soft fabrics and precise, couture-level finishes.
The critical response was mixed: It was beautifully executed, but what was the message? But does men’s fashion really need a message? Van Assche seemed to be saying that he hadn’t quite decided on one, but that perhaps luxury and quality can be enough. Men want nice white shirts and well-tailored pants, and Dior’s atelier is more than ready to provide these things. “I don’t like fashion when it gets too theatrical,” Van Assche says. “I like my inspiration closer to reality.”
Slimane is working on his photography now, mostly, and rumors (which he declines to comment on) swirl that PPR (the group that owns Gucci) or Karl Lagerfeld is moments from backing him. But he is not currently making clothes, and he insists that he has no imminent plans to do so.
It’s not the first time a big success has found a big corporation too difficult to work with: Witness Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Jil Sander, Helmut Lang—all of whom struggled for creative autonomy under corporate umbrellas.
“You have to threaten to overshadow the brand, but not actually overshadow it,” says one retailer who asked not to be named, such are the relationships with these big companies. Dior needs to sell because it’s Dior, not Hedi Slimane for Dior, and that stands for something; despite his cult following (there are rumors of Hedi tattoos on some fashion forearms), Dior will work just fine as something quieter. “You do have the men’s fashion customer who knows about Hedi, who knows that there’s been a switch,” says Macko, “but that’s a very small percentage. I think ultimately, the name of the house is far bigger than any designer.”
And Van Assche can, happily, hold his neoclassical ground. “I’ve never related to things that aren’t beautiful,” he says. “I like good shape, nice skin. I spend a lot of time in libraries, and with my grandmother.
“Sometimes I am inspired by tango dancers or Arabic tribes. Sometimes it is crazy stuff, but the idea never outgrows the essence of fashion, which I believe is to make people more beautiful. An idea should never overshadow the essence of beauty. And an idea should never make things grotesque.”