12.20pm, Thursday, June 28, 2012. 8 Boulevard de Bercy, Paris.
Men gather, smoke cigarettes, discuss, debate and look decidedly comfortable. They are standing outside the Rick Owens spring/summer 2013 menswear runway show. They are international men; Japanese, British, Italian, French, American, Dutch - many are fashion retail buyers, they are wearing a combination of clothes that belong to an alternative order of menswear, one that is not governed by an outdated ruling of what masculinity should look like.
10.20am, Thursday , August 9, 2012. St Pauls St, Auckland.
Another group of men, equally comfortable in their world, gather, discuss, debate; some look remarkably similar to the men observed in Paris. Some wear clothes by designers such as Rick Owens and Damir Doma, others make and wear their own clothes. These are New Zealand men, they are Auckland University of Technology fashion and textile design students.
Anyone with a passing interest in clothes will have noticed fashion is changing. Womenswear may dominate the scene but there are new players in the game now, the men are back.
Over the past 12 years menswear has steadily been gathering momentum. This year the Guardian newspaper reported sales of men's tailored clothing in Britain jumped 26 per cent in 12 months. Apparel trade journal Drapers Magazine Online confirmed that in Britain, menswear was clearly out-performing womenswear at every level and according to analysts at Euromonitor International, in 2011 the United States' womenswear market grew by just 1.4 per cent against a considerably higher 5.3 per cent in menswear. They also point out that although some of this is due to internet-based retailing, the internet "cannot be credited with the wider evolution of the men's apparel market as sales growth has been evident across all retail channels". In further support of this growth, in June 2012, Britain launched a new men's fashion week - London Collections: MEN - with designers showing their spring/summer 2013 collections and slotting into the Paris and Milan international menswear calendar.
In New Zealand we have also witnessed a rise of interest in menswear, this growth coinciding not only with the emergence of new fashion trends but also with major social and political shifts, shifts that have already had an impact on design education. In 2007 at AUT, 1 per cent of fashion students were male. In 2012, 20 per cent are male and the interest in menswear design is also on the rise becoming a significant component within the fashion design degree. Five years ago a menswear elective was introduced and taught by experienced menswear designers. The course was inundated with students and it ran successfully for the next few years. It became so popular that it was decided menswear be permanently included and today there are up to 50 students specialising in menswear across the three-year degree.
So what is behind this renewed interest in men's clothing?
During a recent design forum made up of a group of final-year fashion students, a number said they had primarily chosen to specialise in menswear as an antidote to the more frivolous (often celebrity-focused) aspects of womenswear. Some of the students felt womenswear had already pushed many creative design boundaries and much had already been achieved, whereas menswear offered a greater challenge, an opportunity to engage with newer, intellectually creative ideas. They identified it as an uncharted place - a place from where they could critically develop their design practice and create work that was not part of industrial mass-consumerist fashion. They spoke of trying to achieve a very new aesthetic but one where technical craftsmanship, traditional tailoring practices and the hand-made were still fundamental to their work.
The strong need to reconnect with tradition is also a factor in the huge growth of sales in men's clothing, men are searching out the authentic as a response to mass-production. This trend can be seen in many areas of contemporary design and is evident in a yearning for a mid-20th century-style utopia (Mad Men, modernism, mid-century design, etc). It has rekindled an interest in traditional tailoring, inspiring men to reconnect with the idea that having an awareness of clothes and design does not have to undermine their masculinity.
This has helped to redefine male identity by disrupting the recent phenomenon where the distinction between the clothing of a toddler, a teenager and a man became very, very blurred.
Together with this longing for tradition, there has also been a major change in the look of international streetwear, initially driven by the premium denim boom and then in the more playful approach of Australasian labels such as Ksubi and Stolen Girlfriends Club.
These brands have, in recent years, helped young New Zealand men feel good about wearing brogues without socks, skinny low-slung, turned-up pants and scooped-necked oversized T-shirts.
This is fantastic news for men, especially for men who have embraced these trends, for they have inadvertently participated in the early days of a much bigger change, one that will offer us an even greater sense of creative freedom, something not simply "on-trend" but relates to a more profound shift of masculine identity, one that is just beginning to unfold.
Fashion is a cyclical process and in the bigger universal picture of clothing, men have certainly had their moments. The last big change that happened was in the early 19th century when as a consequence of the impact of the French and Industrial revolutions, men lost the right to be decorative. Modernity reared its mean little head and declared men's clothing become streamlined, efficient and what we now define as masculine.
We are just at the beginning of the next big change, the beginning of a major journey for menswear and it will undoubtedly take a few more decades to get to a point where it becomes commonplace or conventional.
It is probable that it will form part of a bigger shift and that this realignment will result in far less gender-specific items of clothing, allowing a more non-binary look to how we will all dress.
The new menswear is, in a way, a return to a previous order of thinking, a new understanding of what we wear, one that will integrate a more global view of dress and clothing into a Western tradition, one that will probably have a lot in common with the clothing systems of our medieval ancestors and a certain nod to our Polynesian cultural history, where masculinity will be represented through an alternative understanding of what we look like today.
* Andreas Mikellis is the head of the fashion and textiles department, at AUT School of Art and Design.