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Menswear, with the Earth in Mind

By Guy Trebay

Marni men’s, Spring 2020.
Valerio Mezzanotti
Marni men’s, Spring 2020.

We were at the bottom of an imaginary ocean in an industrial headquarters somewhere in Milan. There being no folding chairs on the seabed, red dots had been scattered across the floor for guests to anchor themselves. The glistening flotsam of thousands of plastic bottles caught in fishnets stretched above our heads.

It was as though we’d gotten stuck on the underside of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and, standing and waiting on Saturday for the Marni show to begin, like coral polyps drifting in a crazy current, we were encouraged to reflect on the disheveled state of poor old Earth.

Valerio MezzanottiErmenegildo Zegna men’s, Spring 2020.
Ermenegildo Zegna men’s, Spring 2020.

It is probably worth remembering that there was a time not so long ago in this fashion capital when rampant excess was a given, when sustainability was thought to be of concern mainly to American tree-huggers and when designers used the pelts of exotic animals so profligately that the survival of certain endangered species seemed like an oversight.

That has all started to change. And, while there is ample reason to be dubious about the environmentalism that has crept up on the menswear shows here, taken in aggregate it appears as though sustainability as a key element of modern design may be more than just another example of fashion attempting to be on trend.

Consider labels like Ralph Lauren, which — at an impeccable Purple Label presentation held in a Liberty-era palazzo as liveried waiters circulated through lily-heaped salons with trays of hors d’oeuvres — showed a suite of knife-sharp tailored men’s evening suits in saturated yellow, orange and fuchsia silk shantung adjacent to a grouping of RLX waterproof parkas and sailing jackets made from recycled plastic. “It’s polyester, basically,” said John Wrazej, the label’s creative director for men’s design, who added that a companywide initiative is underway to shift toward environmentally sustainable production over the next five years.

Consider an announcement made last week by Prada at the Pitti Uomo trade fair in Florence that the gear it has created for the Luna Rossa Pirelli team to wear in the America’s Cup competition — everything from parkas to wet suits — will be crafted entirely from what the company termed “naturally renewable” and biodegradable merino wool.

Consider that Ermenegildo Zegna, which opened Milan Fashion Week Men’s, was held in the dystopian setting of a colossal industrial ruin outside the city limits. From its founding in 1906 until the last of its furnaces closed in 1995, the Falck steel mill produced the raw materials to fuel the growth of the Lombardy region as Italy’s industrial superpower. When the facility was shuttered, it left behind a desolate brownfield poisoned by toxic seepage. Cleaned now, the area is destined to become an immense new “City of Health,” designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano and featuring affordable housing, a neurology hospital and an institute devoted to cancer research. The ghostly hulking carcass of the mill will remain.

The choice of setting underscored an environmentalist message put forth by the Zegna designer Alessandro Sartori, who presented an array of crinkled, somber suits in a machine-shop palette, much of it created using industrial offcuts. As much as 20 percent of the clothes shown to guests, who included the two-time Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, were crafted of waste fabrics recycled from the Zegna mills in northern Italy. (Current research, according to Mr. Sartori, suggests wool and nylon can be recycled as many as four times.)

Ralph LaurenRalph Lauren Purple Label, Spring 2020.
Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Spring 2020.

The Marni designer Francesco Risso called his spring 2020 show ACT 1 and accompanied it with an oracular manifesto about sustainable practice and ethical values. “We are here today to confirm our position in the world and to move towards action,” the designer said in printed show notes hilariously mistranslated into English — the bottles suspended above the show were described as “a cloud of waste that hoovers over our heads” — and layered with kidlike sincerity and trippy metaphor.

“Let’s be vocal about our beliefs,” Mr. Risso insisted, as he conjured up a mythical marriage between Truman Capote and Che Guevara. (Picture that love child.)

In Mr. Risso’s telling, the two meet cute when the American writer decides one day to ditch his society swans and seek out the Marxist revolutionary in the “guerrilla jungle.” The dress code for their impossible union, held beneath the “hoovering” Damocles of plastic and presided over by a shamanic spirit called MC Magma, is “camouflage meets carnival.”

Somehow it made sense. When the show at last got started, the wedding party of Marni rebels snaked its way along the pathway of yellow polka dots that wound through the guests stationed on red ones. The rebels were alternately dressed in tailored or safari suits; striped polo shirts; two-tone work jackets patched with flap pockets; checkered shirts splashed with scrawls and painterly daubs; V-neck sweaters that looked as if they had been swiped from granddad’s closet; camouflage overshirts patterned with random slashing; high-waist trousers so wide at the hem a wearer would not get far as he bushwhacked through that jungle.

As it happened, the sprightliest element of a richly imaginative show came in the form of headgear by the artist Shalva Nikvashvili. Shaped like kettles or carburetors or ice bags or something you could easily imagine in “Jabberwocky,” the hats were legitimately recycled, having been stapled, patched or duct-taped together from garbage.

“It is important for each of us to reconsider our presence in this world,” said Mr. Risso who, for his next collection, pledged to collaborate with another artist, Judith Hopf, to transform the plastic bottles used in his show into something of beauty and regenerated function.

Relative to the half-trillion plastic bottles estimated to be sold in 2020, Mr. Risso’s is a modest enough proposition. But it’s a start.