You'd think the big fashion story of last week would be America's new first lady, Michelle Obama. And yet, over in the global fashion capital, Paris, at the menswear winter 2009-10 shows, all eyes were, perhaps naturally, on her husband. You've got to admit he does cut quite a dash on the style front. In the days leading up to his much-anticipated inauguration, Barack (and wife and children) looked great. He braved the icy cold of Washington wearing - was that a black cashmere or alpaca tailored Crombie coat with the hint of yet another immaculate suit, shirt and tie beneath? If there was another story in the news last week, it was soaring obesity statistics. Newspapers used images of - you guessed it - a bare-chested Obama romping in the Hawaiian surf, wearing trendy shorts and showing off an enviable figure for a middle-aged man. No wonder the American fashion industry is hysterical about the prospect of having both Obamas on tap to show off all they have to offer. The rest of the fashion world is, too. A week ago in Florence at the Pitti Immagine Uomo, the commercial and textile arm of the designer menswear shows, manufacturers from all over the world were pinning hopes on the new president to ride them through the economic storm. Along with everything else the 21st century Superman has pledged, add getting men to dress sharply to the "to do" list. Still, if anyone can, Obama can afford a Clark Kent approach to dressing. Even when he's off duty he looks smart. On duty, he's suited and booted. (A suit is currently where it's at in menswear - in womenswear, too, but that's a different story.) Of the designers showing their winter 200910 collections in Florence (several, including Valentino, Fendi, Kilgour and Marni, dropped out due to the downturn), all seemed to agree that the major trend was the return to tailoring. No surprise here. No designer ever made serious money on T-shirts and casual gear.
Interestingly, though, alongside an exhibition of how workwear has influenced fashion (with Day-Glo strips, firefighting fabrics, goggles, overalls and more), stands featured the two piece synonymous with a salaryman. Hardly appropriate for the Bill Gates generation, I hear you say, but there may be another reason why the suit is winning over the younger generation. Having one not only looks the business, it hints that you are ... er, in business. In other words, you have a job. A suit speaks volumes but not any old suit will do. The idea is to look neither like some Lehman Brothers reject nor a Siegfried and Roy-type showman. The ideal suit is bespoke, in a serious black or grey with a bit of shoulder enhancement (although not Miami Vice) and waist definition that caresses a toned body. It adds height and oozes class and wealth. Men who wear suits well include actors like Javier Bardem and George Clooney who have adopted the Rat Pack look. Even Zac Efron, the High School Musical star, has graduated from the geeky prom tux to a Thomas Maier Brooks Brothers black skinny jacket and tie. Kanye West recently ditched track suit bottoms for a white suit on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (OK, so it did have angel wings attached, but you know what I mean). Pharrell Williams, who was recently voted Best Dressed Man in the World by Esquire magazine, might well have two fashion labels that specialise in young funky Japanese skateboarding-type street gear, but he now dresses in Commes suits bought from Dover Street market in London. It's been quite a while since an American president has had the pull of a pop star - or looked like one. He may have passed the swimming trunks test, but I wonder, can Mr Obama handle casual?
While it can never be as toe-curlingly bad as George W Bush in a brown leather jacket, chinos and baseball cap, leisurewear remains the great decider between the haves and the have nots of style. If anyone can rescue leisurewear from it's current null and void fashion status, here's the man.