Something interesting's happening with British men and suits. It's too complicated to be neatly defined as a trend, and it's not a development that's going to come and go in a season. Nevertheless, it was at June and July's catwalk shows for the men's spring/summer 2013 collections that this development saw its most eloquent and striking expression yet. In Milan and Paris, a trio of leading British designers - Paul Smith, Z Zegna's recent appointee, Paul Surridge, and Burberry Prorsum's Christopher Bailey - all found ways to make the suit a brighter, bolder and more liberated-seeming choice than it has for decades.
Thirty years ago, for the mass of British men, a suit was something you wore to work or school. An obligation to be endured only when necessary, and escaped or undermined whenever possible. Perhaps those national icons of naff '80s suiting, estate agents and used car salesmen, combined with the arrival of the red-braced city boy, were factors in this. Equally, the decline of made-to-measure high-street tailoring, a standard feature of the lives of British men of all classes until the mid-20th century, probably helped us forget how flattering they could be.
So instead, the suit became a relic from the age of our fathers. Sure, there were exceptions but, as a rule, this was what decades of street style based on sportswear, denim and T-shirts had done to the average guy. For hippies, then punks and skins, then goths, hip-hoppers, ravers, Britpoppers, and any other style tribes of note that arose between the '70s and the '90s, the unreconstructed suit was the enemy, an emblem of The Man and his insistence on conformity.
In the mid-2000s, Hedi Slimane's reign at Dior Homme made the suit rock'n'roll, reclaiming the jeans-suit jacket combo from ad men and restoring it to dangerous territory, under the inspiration of his favourite British indie bands, such as the Libertines. At the same time, the advent of the vintage era and the premium it placed on lost style lore saw many men buy their first pair of proper shoes since leaving school. A third phase developed four or five years ago - when David Beckham was snapped in a three-piece Tom Ford suit, Mad Men first hit screens, the Sartorialist surfaced online and Savile Row began to get its mojo back. By the turn of this decade, the classic suit and everything it signified had been restored to a level of social acceptance not seen in quite some time.
But anyway, back to those European catwalks. Because if the restoration of the full-on, pocket-squared suit constituted phase three of the modern British male's understanding of style and the suit, then those designers showing their wares across the Channel in June seemed to be quietly bringing forth a vision of its fourth phase. A new phase in which the suit stops being a set of familiar regulations and associations, positive or negative, and starts to become a flexible, mobile moodboard.
The menswear writer Tim Blanks detected a cloudy mood at Burberry Prorsum, where the label's familiar autumnal palette and pastoral mood was lit up by metallic macs, ties and lapels in Jeff Koons-bright colours. Blanks saw the change as a kind of fashion armour, designer dystopia-wear for a climate-changed world: fitting for a new world of rainy summers, and a day on which Bailey's mother had called from home to report flooding in her village.
The second Brit cutting a bold new stride on the Milan catwalk was Paul Surridge, the British ex-Calvin Klein and Jil Sander man who was appointed creative director at Z Zegna last year. His crisp futurism had some shimmer, but it was more notably about reclaiming colours like avocado from Abigail's Party purgatory, in conjunction with a host of other judiciously-chosen and fresh shades. When he first spoke about the job at Zegna, he talked about his admiration for Pierre Cardin's brand of space-age ingenuity and conviction in men's suits.
Optimistic was the unlikely mood Paul Smith said he was in with his collection in Paris a few days later, and that seemed to rub off on the audience, because many grizzled veterans were moved to say his parade of intriguing, classy colour combinations and breezy, sexy cuts was their favourite Smith men's show in years. "Tough world, so optimism shows through," he said afterwards.
The Dutch duo, Viktor & Rolf, who have long seen menswear's key interest as the exploration of the suit, were among the smattering of non-Brits making a similarly bold, sporty comment on the suit in Paris. In their case, there was an identifiable, winning "theme" colour: a dusky orange mirrored in tailoring that blended traditional Indian silhouettes with Savile Row ones.
Britain's own 2013 menswear showcase, London Collections: Men, preceded Paris and Milan. There were further steps into new shades at Margaret Howell and at Oliver Spencer, who has spoken enthusiastically about men's increased capacity to choose and mix colour wisely. Rising stars Agi & Sam, who've managed to combine intense pastel shades, photorealistic prints, wit and a Wickes' worth of colour combos in a handful of collections to date, wowed again. Looking back on the show season, they agreed that there was something in the air.
Agi Mdumulla, one half of the Midlands-raised pair, said, "Suits in a casual context have become completely normal. From your phase three where it was exciting and 'new' again, I think there has now definitely been an underlying urge to push this on. That seems to have come in the way of colour, embellishment, print and outlay." He talked about the skill of designers like Raf Simons in making the suit's conventions fresh by cleverly re-engineering them in interesting ways, "both familiar and jarring" a couple of seasons back. "For me," he added, "the most recent spring/summer 2013 Paul Smith collection was the epitome of confidence, expertise, and forward thinking in its use of colour."
The innovative, lighter fabrications used by many of these designers, Mdumulla added, help argue the case that a suit is once again for every season and occasion, formal or not: "the idea that the suit is becoming a gesture, rather than a statement."
His partner Sam Cotton mentioned the idea of "Peacocking", a mode of male display that's about trying to dress uniquely - but in a way that's intriguing, or even amusing, rather than ostentatious or immediately identifiable with a "look". "I feel that experimentation and the strive to find something new, especially with colour within menswear has become a key feature of self-identification."
I asked Mark Bage, CEO of York store and online retailer Coggles, if this change to a lighter, brighter, sexier age of men and suits had translated into a change in tastes at the till. Not so much yet, he said, because men were still very keen on the heritage groove they were in, and the way traditional, heavy fabrics hid a multitude of bodily imperfections. But, like Paul Smith, Bage opted for optimism, regardless of the economic outlook. People are bored of being blue, he said: sooner rather than later, he said, "people will want to have fun again, get back to the gym" and embrace the figure-hugging, spectrum-stretching future of the suit.
I do hope so. For the first time in a gloomy, backward-looking while, the future became something to look forward to with those June and July shows. It was the great innovator Pierre Cardin, who made the collarless, shiny suits in which The Beatles first became global pin-ups. Perhaps today's generation of Brit designers will be able call the next swinging age of the suit their own.