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Macho America Storms Europe's Runways By: Cathy Horyn
New York Times | Friday, July 04, 2003


A remarkable reversal of sentiment and symbolism has occurred in the five months since designers here and in Milan and London, the site of fervent antiwar rallies, displayed peace flags and, in one instance, staged a love-in that featured a couple in a bed. At that time, European opposition to President Bush's position on Iraq ran so high that Tom Ford, the creative director of Gucci and a fellow Texan, told reporters after his women's show in February, "I'm embarrassed to be an American."

But last week in Milan, on the same runway where he had criticized the president, Mr. Ford struck an image that symbolized the virile Texas cowboy in boots and broad hat. Other tried-and-true symbols of American strength and power appeared at Prada, as correct displays of 1950's country-club attire; at Jean Paul Gaultier, as waistcoats inspired by James West, the 1960's television cowboy version of James Bond; at Junya Watanabe, as battle jackets and cartridge belts fashioned from banker's broadcloth; and at Louis Vuitton, as well-scrubbed young men in tennis whites and navy blazers.

As a backdrop for the Vuitton show, its designer, Marc Jacobs, had an imposing wall of marble erected, to heighten the sense of power evoked by gray double-breasted suits, which to his design staff, Mr. Jacobs said, were reminiscent of the actor Christian Bale's grooming-obsessed Wall Street character in "American Psycho." And in what was surely the first fashion show to treat combat as performance art, Bernhard Willhelm, a designer from Belgium, had beefy models in commando gear scramble over tabletops and explode balloons.

"I enjoyed the reaction of people," said Mr. Willhelm, who had opposed the Iraq war. "They said, `These guys really look like they could take Saddam's palaces.' "

Why so many designers of differing styles and nationalities chose these largely positive American themes and why now, when in Europe there is still deep distrust of America's foreign policy, is puzzling.

Stefano Tonchi, the fashion creative director of Esquire magazine, who attended the shows, suggested that in periods of gloom and doubt, American symbols "are still the strongest security blanket."

Designers, who plan their collections months in advance, rarely set out to make overt references to current events, and as often as not have their heads buried in history books or articles of vintage clothing. They typically explain that when fashion and politics collide, it is accidental and not intended as commentary.

Though Mr. Watanabe called his show "Lovely Army" and played the theme song from "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a movie depicting the harsh treatment of British soldiers in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, he insisted in a telephone interview from his office in Tokyo that he was not making an antiwar statement. Rather, he was fascinated by the construction of military uniforms.

Designers may be armchair tourists when it comes to politics, but perhaps they protest too much. They are constantly bombarded by images, and are themselves astute image-makers. So while they may not be able or willing to articulate their feelings about world events, they are nonetheless, at some level, tapping into the zeitgeist.

"Whether you believe in America's power and hegemony, you can't help but be affected by it, even subconsciously," said Adrian Joffe, the Paris managing director of Comme des Garçons, which produces Mr. Watanabe's label.

The timing of the men's shows was in a way fortuitous: had designers been showing women's clothes, the symbols would have been radically different, and might not have revealed this collision between politics and fashion. But cowboy clothes and combat fatigues are intrinsically masculine. They are also uniforms, connoting a high degree of function. And their return was not accidental, said Aileen Ribeiro, chief of the history of dress department at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Since the 18th century, "the uniform as a fashion statement has followed the progress of successful military campaigns," Ms. Ribeiro said. The "least glorious war," World War I, she added, produced perhaps the most practical fashion, the Burberry trench coat. "What we've got with the early 21st century, with America's `successful' war, is that everyone wants to be part of the action," she said. "And that means things like camouflage, which all the boys in London are wearing."

Mr. Willhelm, who watched the war on television, said he was fascinated by the technical aspects of the combat uniform, and aside from being influenced by its shape and the number of pockets, wanted to create a camouflage that served an urban landscape. Ms. Ribeiro noted that designers and their young followers are drawn to G.I. uniforms, rather than to officer styles, because they reflect more casual fashion.

In their collective reach for unambiguous symbols of masculinity, designers including Mr. Ford also project a longing for clear rules and gender lines. "For Tom, the western theme is about going back to his roots," Mr. Tonchi said. But, he added, "with cowboys, there is also less gender confusion. Cowboys are not girly." From the stream of news images of virile-looking soldiers on their Bradleys, you would have no trouble making the same conclusion.

Inevitably, clothes that depict a sense of order are nostalgic and comforting. As Mr. Ford said, "People want a positive world." And Mr. Tonchi noted that DSquared, a Milan label, presented its collection in a make-believe 1950's diner, complete with muscle cars. "It's `Happy Days,' " he said, referring to the popular sitcom. "Or happier days."

For many fashion houses, which have seen profits significantly squeezed by the economy, there may be pragmatic reasons to offer classic styles like blazers and cowboy shirts that men can readily accept. Gucci, the world's third-largest luxury group, reported today that its first-quarter earnings for 2003 slid 97 percent, which Domenico De Sole, president and chief executive, attributed to a weaker dollar and a decline in tourism caused by the war and the SARS epidemic. Sales were strong in May and June, he said.

American retailers were encouraged by the direction of the shows. Looking at Mr. Watanabe's cotton striped battle tunics on Tuesday, Wanda Colon, a vice president for men's fashion at Barneys New York, said, "I don't think customers will react negatively."

People in the rest of the world may react sharply to America's political and cultural reach. And even in fashion, it can often be appallingly insidious. Martin Margiela, a designer in Belgium, makes high-priced fashion recycled from old denim and polyester that American mills, looking for cheap outlets, once sold to countries in the former Soviet bloc. "Now it comes back to Barneys," Mr. Tonchi said. "It's a long, long trip."

What goes down a runway, of course, is not going to change real sentiment. But, as François Heisbourg, a political analyst here, said: "Anti-Americanism, whether it's French, German or Italian, is essentially political. It's about the Bush administration. We don't trust the guy. But there's nothing particularly personal or emotional about it. People have not stopped buying hamburgers."




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