Miuccia Prada may have a track record of reading the runes of the male wardrobe, but even she could not have known that, as her models traipsed down artificial turf in Milan this month to preview collections for spring/summer 2012, coverage of the US Open golf tournament was about to create a media storm thanks to its being won in record style by a 22-year-old. And yet there her cool caddies were, with their kiltie-fringed golf shoes, floral-printed or studded golf bags and Prada-branded golf-clubs.
Golf may be, as Prada has put it, "completely international", but it is also often seen as a signifier of giving up on youth, when a man abandons sports for games and turns from the excitement of change to the safe territory of tradition. It is, in other words, the opposite of fashion. But that golf should prove a starting point for the influential Italian is not entirely surprising: less and less hampered by clubhouse rules, golfwear increasingly seems to reflect the simple, occasionally colourful but above all comfortable dressing that, freed from the suit, men aspire to. And much of Prada's new collection gets to the heart of this: printed resort shirts and mismatched fabrics, boxy blazers and knee-length shorts, the pastel colours and uncomplicated cuts of 1950s Americana.
Sport seems to have sparked Vivienne Westwood too, but if Prada is retro, Westwood looks to the future - well, next year at least - with sweatshirts, track-pants and baggy shorts, teamed with T-shirts bearing possibly ironic Olympics 2012 graphics, ancient Grecian athletes and trompe l'oeil medals. If it wasn't for Westwood's classic three-piece suits and asymmetric tuxedos, this would have been slobby-chic, weekend barbecue style.
Indeed, it may all have summer sun in mind, but shorts are big news for the collections. Well, mostly big. Raf Simons' designs for Jil Sander see darkest macs, boxy short-sleeved shirts and pinstriped tailored jackets teamed with high-waisted roomy, mid thigh-length versions - ideal for the bank manager who never has to get up from behind his desk. But then short options from Missoni - whose knitted blazers perfectly fit the new louche look - come either teeny weeny or hot-pant style.
Armani may be best known for wearing his signature navy T-shirt, but even he is in sportier mood with his Emporio line - shirts are untucked, trousers pleated and baggy and barely tailored jackets in trademark neutral tones crumpled, loose and stylishly dishevelled, as though their wearers had just played three sets with Rafael Nadal but forgotten to change after the office. Armani called the collection "lightness" but "layered" may have been just as accurate. The desire to dress up outside of work has been posited as a counter to the decline in requirement for smart attire at it - but the idea has never really convinced. Rather, spring/summer's easy pieces approach seems like a timely response as men discover the advantages of separates of a Bohemian, semi-slouchy, go-anywhere bent.
This neutered tailoring is also the theme for John Varvatos, whose cardigan-like jackets, low-cut, gauzy T-shirts, outsized, semi-transparent shirts, floppy duster coats and unbuttoned fencing jackets - all running the full spectrum... of greys - add up to a uniform for some 21st century Byron. Think Jim Morrison being taken home to meet mother for the first time. Morrison might also choose Salvatore Ferragamo, whose catwalk similarly seemed to be channelling the tortured romantic of Van Gogh, with wide-legged trousers, collarless tunic shirts, undone double-breasted linen blazers with scrunched-up sleeves and belted cardigan jackets, all in a Cote d'Azur palette of azure, brick and sand. Or maybe it was the tatty straw hats.
Although neater and narrower, the collection from Tomas Maier of Bottega Veneta comes from the same love of the languid: treated fabrics given a worn-in look, mismatched layering, materials patched, cut up and reassembled, shirts buttoned to the neck but tieless, shades of chocolate, indigo and pewter, even a cropped, collarless jacket and trousers Maier has compared to a pair of coveralls - all feed the demand for relaxation over complication.
Indeed, for all that Dolce & Gabbana is recognised as a label in love with the sexiest of suits - and next year's slim, low-buttoning monochrome styles continue the theme - this time it has also explored a lack of structure. And in a memorable way. T-shirts, sweaters, shorts, even leather jackets and boiler suits all get a mesh treatment, as though the designers have taken lightness to its logical conclusion and are trying to make the garment disappear altogether. Ermenegildo Zegna, while unlikely ever to abandon its tailoring heritage altogether, has gone some way to softening all of the edges too, crumpling up and de-stuffing the suiting with unstructured shoulders and straight-legged trousers in the palest shades of sand, stone, pink and green, worn with flyweight nylon macs.
"There comes a time to live with a carefree spirit, to embrace a lighter a freer look," as Alessandro Sartori, one of Zegna's designers, puts it. And that time is, apparently, about eight months away. Slick, hard, strong certainly is not what spring/summer is about. Even Burberry Prorsum, which has pushed a highly polished look of military bearing, has gone all down-home and homespun, with oversized shirts, sweaters, T-shirts and cardigans coming in rich, deep, earthy tones with a touch of beading, appliqué or raffia trimming and tailoring taken out of the boardroom thanks to high-waisted, loose trousers and patch pockets.
Of course, not every new collection has gone wandering down this primrose path of déshabillé, and arguably these are all the more distinctive for bucking the dominant trends for the soft, loose-fitting, rumpled, see-through and pale. And boiler suits. Trussardi 1911, whose boiler suit comes in an off-white - and so is one mechanics should strike from their shopping list - is now designed by the hot ticket Umit Benan. His 1980s mood sees leather trousers, safari jackets and square-shouldered, four-button double-breasted suits with nipped-in waists in shades of apricot and burnt orange. Models showed the collection, each carrying luggage, as though in a hurry to leave the decade behind. Or maybe break into Robert Cavalli's 1970s playboy excess.
But possibly the collection of the new season belongs to Neil Barrett, who largely sticks to what he is good at and does it well: playful proportions that see trousers cropped at the ankle but long in the rise, jackets short in the body, truncated trench-coats, sleeveless jackets and contrast sleeve biker jackets. It is saying a lot that this is one of the most directional catwalk offerings so far for spring/summer. That's good news for men who like clothing, maybe. Bad news, perhaps, for men who like fashion.