High style hits men's casuals

It may be the influence of such Italians as Giorgio Armani. Or it could be the energizing effect of a spate of relatively new American designers like Lee Wright.

Whatever the case, fashion with a capital F is moving into menswear at a lively pace. Clothes for men are beginning to rival women's fashions, with seasonal changes that threaten to outmode the masculine wardrobes almost as swiftly as women's have traditionally been outdated.

As might be expected, the new looks for men do not involve vast differences in the clothes men wear to business. Subtle changes in proportion and coloring are about it, in what Ralph Lauren calls the "continuum of style," for what men wear to the office. Weekends and after hours are another story, though.

In both categories -- suits for work and sportswear separates -- the designer label carries more and more clout, particularly with the younger customer. A fashion image seems to be a necessity, and mainstays of the menswear industry have been upping their prestige by establishing new divisions. The Manhattan Shirt Company, for instance, has lately added Camel, a progressive sportswear line, to its John Henry label.

Besides such familiar names as Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Pierra Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Dior, Sal Cesarani, and Calvin Klein, a number of new names are becoming bywords. Some, like Wright, Jeff Sayre (who works in Europe) , and Gill Truedsson, are males. Others, like necktiemaker Vicky Davis and 26 -year-old sportswear designer Jhane Barnes, happen to be women. No matter what sex, they all take an innovative approach to men's dress, and their contributions have all been duly recognized by Coty American Fashion Critics Awards.

These designers, with Italy's Armani in the lead, know better than to tamper too radically with suit styles, the male of the species being the conservative he is in his workaday life. But they do take certain forward steps that eventually reach the mass customer.

Armani's famous hefty shoulders and thin lapes (which he has since modified and added greatly widened lapels) are just beginning to reach Mr. Everyman. Vicky Davis's skinny string ties have also had their effect on both the dimensions and the fabrications of men's neckwear (Mrs. Davis has used linens, tweeds, and metallics).

Shoulder treatments like Jhane Barnes's cording, fabrications like the violet glazed crinkle cloth Lee Wright is using for sports jackets, and bicolor treatments like Chereskin's split color yellow and navy canvas windbreaker may seem far out, even for casual wear, but given time, they may be far-in. The predictions are that menswear will not be standing still from now on.

Meanwhile, the proportions of men's suits for spring are: rounded and broadened across the shoulders and chest, narrow long lapes buttoning low (usually below the belt line) on single or double-breasted jackets, patch pockets, easy fit with shaped but not markedly indented waistlines, and a single vent in the back. Trousers have a somewhat higher rise, are pleated at the waist, and straight and narrow in the leg.

Color is introduced with caution in suitings, although thin pink stripes and rust pinchecks mingled with gray or navy worsted are not unknown. Jhane Barnes bases her scheme on taupe with dusty pink.

But it is in after-hours casual clothes that men have a chance to really branch out. Ralph Lauren thinks nothing of putting an indigo blue sweater with pink pants or a grass green pullover with taupe pants and a mauve scarf.

The sweater is a key element in sporty turnouts, especially v-necks. The pebbly cotton knits in cropped-lengths with v-necks should be as popular for men as for women this spring and summer.

Many sweaters, like Lauren's functional terry cloth pullover, are based on the sweat-shirt principle. Besides cableknits, the top spring sweater is the thin multicolor stripe -- Wright does it in gray with violet and fuchsia in silk and acrylic. Tweedy terry cloth is Ron Chereskin's novel idea for a v-neck pullover.

For the man who wants to be advanced in fashion, glaces and oilskins are the fabrics to look for in snap- or zip-front all-weather jackets.

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