French menswear: it's all in the wash

Until the advent of the '80s, haughty French tailors were prone to say "We don't do synthetics." Now it's a whole different story, with menswear designers taking to man-made miracle fibers and washable fabrics like that proverbial duck to water.

The ultrapractical concept of wash and wear clothing for men, particularly during the warm weather months, has been taken for granted in the United States for light years. But here it's a minor revolution, especially at the high echelon of couture tailoring.

This latest influence from the US, following fast foods, collegiate T-shirts, roller skating, and tap dancing, is particularly revolutionary at very "haute" prices, which about 10,000 men in France are willing to pay for custom-made suits and high quality "off the peg" jackets, blazers, and trousers.

Professional buyers at the biannual menswear salon insist that overall prices have increased again by about 8 percent this season. Even the wealthy man, mesmerized by the latest sartorial splendors, now ponders the practical aspects of his wardrobe as well as its fashion impact.

Daniel Hechter, well-known designer of menswear (as well as women's ready-to- wear) claims that Frenchmen have shifted values in the past few years. "They will readily spend money for holidays, a car, or a boat, but not for expensive clothing that constantly requires tender and loving care."

Thus the solution appears to evolve in the unprecedented use of cotton, nylon , and all the various synthetic blends slated for a quick dip, an easy dry, a minimal amount of time to dry, and no need for a complete overhaul with the iron. Eighty percent of the current Lanvin collection for this coming summer is featured in washable fabrics. Simple unlined cotton seersucker blazers may retail for over $200, but think of all the money Monsieur is going to save on his dry cleaning bills.

No one has ever asked whether a $5,000 custom-made Dior evening gown will drip dry. No one has ever queried if President Giscard d'Estaing has his summer clothes laundered when he's off on a state visit or a holiday.

But in the mainstream average life, convenience, regardless of cost, gets top priority. Frenchmen are suddenly incarnating the American tourist in garbed and searing colored seersucker apparel which he rinses out in his hotel room after a long hard day's sightseeing.

Washable fabrics are coming through for town wear as well as for casual clothes.Styling changes slowly from one year to the next, but all the cottons such as poplin, seersucker, denim, jacquard piques, and sailcloth, heretofore confined to the great outdoors, are staging their own minor revolution on city streets.

Pure linen is a favorite in high priced collections, but as every pure fiber fan is aware, linen has its limitations. It's guaranteed to wash but also to wrinkle, and the wearer too often ends up looking like a reasonable facsimile of the laundry bag.

Times are certainly changing, old bastions are falling, and "it's all in the wash."

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