Imaginary people play a surprisingly large role in fashion. Designers conjure them, retailers strategize for them, and we journalists try to put ourselves in their shoes. It’s not a rare feeling at a runway presentation to find oneself puzzling over who the consumer is that’s being pitched a particular designer’s vision.
This was certainly the case at Tom Ford’s men’s wear show on Tuesday, which some called the official curtain raiser for the start of New York Fashion Week.
Even calling it that has something fanciful about it, since Mr. Ford’s show was preceded by two full days of offerings by at least 34 other designers doing their best to meet the needs of a men’s wear market that stubbornly refuses to coalesce.
Like most designers, Mr. Ford is making a play for a demographic cohort half his age (he is 56). A loose consensus formed over the last month in the fashion capitals of Europe that we are nearing the end of the slob cycle epitomized by athleisure and that male consumers are drifting inexorably away from the hoodie and back to the suit.
If that’s so, Mr. Ford bids to greet them with his slick slimmed-down version (though one still featuring trademark elements he adapted from Savile Row tailors, like ticket pockets and a wide lapel) and, often enough, rendered in satins, brocade or lamé. Once, in conversation, Mr. Ford talked to me about the “cut and dried” rules of dressing that held fast when he was growing up in Texas in what he termed a middle-class American family: “You wore black shoes with a blue suit and brown shoes with gray.”
You can bet nobody in Texas went around wearing pink satin Wayne Newton suits with tasseled red sneakers or ill-fitting snakeskin-printed jeans. The likelihood is not great that many men, young or old, will want to do so now.
In a sense, it hardly matters. For one thing, it is Mr. Ford, the showman, who was greeted with applause at the Park Avenue Armory on Tuesday evening by members of an industry sorely in need of a tent-pole personality.
Second, the slick male consumer he professes to design for probably does not exist. It is the image of him — and the shiny, if dated, Hugh Hefner-style hedonism he apparently represents — Mr. Ford has been peddling so adroitly since forming his own label, one whose profits are substantially driven not by costly apparel but by high-margin offerings like fragrance, eyewear and, as of Tuesday, watches and underwear.
Likely it was the skivvies that brought Mr. Ford to New York, still the city you come to when you’ve got an idea to hawk. The briefs were shown on a peculiar cast of scrawny, chicken-chested models, otherwise clad in nothing but scrunched-up athletic socks.
With black waistbands bearing Mr. Ford’s name and produced in a satiny finish or covered in animal prints, they made their wearers seem vulnerable and vaguely sad. Possibly this is always true of guys in their underpants. Yet maybe posted to a Tinder feed or a Grindr cascade, Tom Ford drawers will offer a bit of relief from the Calvin Kleins that have crowded swipe screens for years.
And they represented a bit of cheer in a landscape that is lackluster to the point of occasionally seeming bleak. With the exception of Mr. Ford and Raf Simons (who had yet to show at this writing), few designers here generate much excitement. Partly this owes to a talent drain that has drawn gifted Americans like Thom Browne and Virgil Abloh to Europe to show. Partly it is because of what some say is a dearth of institutional support.
“We love New York, and we would prefer not to have to migrate overseas to the United Kingdom or Europe,” said William Watson who, along with Vincent Oshin, designs for the label Death to Tennis. “The energy is here in New York, but it’s up to the people in power,” he said, to restore the luster the city seems to have ceded as a necessary capital of fashion. “Why not here?” he asked.
It is not, after all, that the talent is lacking. “I don’t know if I should be the last one standing,” the designer Todd Snyder in an email after one of his characteristically confident and all-American shows on Monday.
Look to the show calendar, he suggested. “No Billy Reid, no Public School, no Michael Bastian, no Tim Coppens,” he wrote. “Where did everyone go?”
Some, like Mr. Bastian, remain, though showing in a modest presentation rather than the giddily sexualized runways that once made his shows a New York Fashion Week destination. The designer Thaddeus O’Neil said he had decided to “sit the season out,” as did others.
Looking around the Creative Drive studios — already packed with eager fans on a bitter cold Monday — the gifted young men’s wear designer David Hart noted that it had been three seasons since executives from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry’s key trade group, had attended his presentation. “There just isn’t that support for us,” he said.
Still, like Mr. Snyder or Mr. O’Neill or the talents behind Death to Tennis or Willy Chavarria, the soulful and indomitably gifted Mexican-American designer who lives in Denmark and yet insists on showing in Manhattan, Mr. Hart is determined to stick it out here. “It’s still the place to be,” he said.
There was never any doubt that making it to New York Fashion Week was the goal, said Courtenay Nearburg, one half of the fledgling Krammer & Stoudt. In under five years the brand has gone from being a Los Angeles obscurity to a cult label lauded by the industry (its designer, Mike Rubin, 59, was recently awarded the Fashion Group International’s Rising Star award) and carried in dozens of stores around the world.
“We gave up everything we had to do this,” Ms. Nearburg said, referring to the careers in photography (her) and scenic painting at Disney (him) that she and Mr. Rubin, who is her husband, formerly held.
“We started out with zero and knew nothing,” said Mr. Nearburg, who grubstaked the label with money the pair got for their honeymoon.
“We figured we might as well see if we could swing with the big boys,” she added. “And coming to the city completely changed everything for us. It’s a New York cliché, I know. But it’s true.”