Traditionally conservative in how much flesh it exposes, menswear has now hoisted itself on to the podium, wearing tassels and dipped in Vaseline, and announced a new era that is soft focus and tight fitting.
Leading the strut is 29-year-old Ludovic de Saint Sernin, who has quickly become a name to know, thanks to a now-infamous moment in his SS20 show when he sent a model down the catwalk wearing only a white towel. A throwback to the gay bathhouse era of the 70s, the video went viral. Vogue reported that a woman in the audience squeaked, “Oh my goodness” as he sauntered past. Welcome to menswear’s New Sexy.
De Saint Sernin’s love of drapey, balletic clothes that accentuate the body is infectious. Friends with Rick Owens and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, he’s brought back some X-rated classics such as the bulge, the codpiece, the jockstrap, the deep V and the bum cleavage, and it’s making us feel… chilly. Less about Tom of Finland beefcake archetypes and more lithe and voyeuristic, de Saint Sernin calls his aesthetic “desire, but at a distance” and it mixes the homoerotic with a touch of surrealism.
The collection, Wet’N’Wild, was both sensual and minimalist, featuring organza suits and vest tops, short shorts and chest-baring shirts, worn by lissome, youthful-looking models. The snatches of flesh in his shows are both a come-on and unsettling with their mise en scènes and youthful suggestiveness. In de Saint Sernin’s hands, the New Sexy is fluid and feminine (see also Thom Browne’s codpiece, paired with tennis skirts and kilts, and Owens’s deep V with Larry Legaspi-style stacked space heels). “Nudity is a big part of my life,” he says. “I want to celebrate the body, whether that’s by being dressed or undressed.”
While de Saint Sernin is a millennial, he has precedents in eras in which male sexuality was more nuanced than the current dominant ideal, with the hench young men seen by the Love Island pool or on the treadmill at your local gym. Think of Jagger and Hendrix in louche silks in the 60s, Bowie as Aladdin Sane, or Prince naked, sitting in a flower on the front of Lovesexy in 1988. Like Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, with his androgynous models in blouses, de Saint Sernin harks back to this more permissive idea of how a sexy man looks.
De Saint Sernin had an itinerant childhood; he was born in Belgium, moved to Africa when he was two, then to Paris at eight (“When I arrived, I was the only white boy in my class and I didn’t know I was white. It was like my Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls moment”) and his interest in fashion began slowly, “watching Yves Saint Laurent and Dior shows on VHS”. He felt removed from the women’s fashion he was studying at college: “I wasn’t thinking of fashion as something I could wear. It was a fantasy,” he recalls. After internships at Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, he landed a job at the luxe, Kardashian-beloved Balmain label which he enjoyed but “aesthetically, I wasn’t satisfied”. A detox was in order. “I had to get away from the glitz and glamour,” he says. “To de-Balmainise.”
This involved going from something spangly and loud to an aesthetic that feels introverted and autobiographical. His first collection, for AW18, told the story of his own sexual awakening. “I grew up straight and was in love with a girl for the longest time,” he says. But while working at Balmain he read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, the tale of her love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, which moved him. “He was in love with her but he had a curiosity to see guys and it turned out he was gay. I was so interested in the fact he was exploring his sexuality through photography.”
Mapplethorpe’s story, he says, mirrored his own: “My first collection was a coming out story, a coming of age story.” The 2017 show featured a breadcrumb trail of personal items, including his boyfriend’s Paul Smith jumper and pants inspired by the lace-up trousers on the cover of Christina Aguilera’s Stripped (a childhood favourite).
As well as going beneath his consciousness, the designer also went beneath the clothes. One key look was a pair of baby blue corduroy popper trousers, opened, banana-like, to reveal matching briefs with silver buttons. Another featured a long leather jacket worn with black ballet shoes and a lace-up jockstrap, a callback to Dirty Mind-era Prince. “I love the idea of men being allowed to enhance their bodies, the same way women can,” he says. “Push-up bras are common for girls and nothing to be ashamed of, but enhancing underwear for males is still shamed upon.”
De Saint Sernin’s structurally complex underwear has become a trademark, the slow sensuality of his laced-up pieces and cut-out tops leading the way of the New Sexy. Languid and suggestive, it is like stepping into an illusion. His menswear vision, he says, is a “realisation of my fantasy guy. I love the idea of not being in your face too much, returning to elegance but through sexuality and sensuality.”
The New Sexy lies in stark contrast to the not-so-subtle sexual sloganeering of Liam Payne in Hugo Boss or Jason Derulo’s in-your-face Instagram posts. Instead of a sexual sledgehammer, it is slight, intense and makes a point. “Even if you are wearing less clothing, it doesn’t mean you are less serious,” de Saint Sernin says. “It’s important to remind ourselves that male sexuality is part of the spectrum and should be celebrated.”