If the late Sir Hardy Amies crosses anyone's radar now, it's usually as the man who was official dressmaker to the Queen until his retirement in 1989. His impact on the history of menswear has been largely sidelined. And yet he dressed the likes of Cary Grant from his Savile Row headquarters, and he was forward-thinking enough to put his men's collection on the catwalk a good 50 years ago, in a show with a soundtrack, a set, and a designer's bow at the finale, all of them previously unheard of. Like all self-inventions, Amies was supremely confident in his own judgment. "Who was the greatest person you've ever met?" he was once asked. "Me," came the instant response.
Is that reason enough to run the Amies brand up the flagpole one more time and see who salutes? Li & Fung, the Chinese multinational who is its current owners, clearly think so. Wednesday night saw the debut at Pitti Uomo in Florence of the new collection from recently installed design director Claire Malcolm, after which there was a dinner at the Palazzo Borghese with a guest of honor, the impressively sonorous Prince Michael of Kent, who's been keeping that royal connection alive.
After the show, Malcolm defined her challenge as "reinventing the gentleman." And, given the chance, she's going to do it one item at a time. Here, she started with the gray flannel suit. "I like the conflicting messages it can send," she said. "It can seem utterly conventional or extremely glamorous." Working with every possible weave of flannel specially commissioned from flannel specialists Fox Brothers & Co., Malcolm offered both options and more, although she wrapped her straight suit in a huge muffler to give it some added allure. When the fabric was woven with reflective thread, it had the silvery sheen of a Hollywood movie in the thirties. The styling amplified the matinee idol mood. Malcolm used the kaleidoscopic effects of Busby Berkeley's classic Gold Diggers of 1933 as inspiration for the patterns on silk shirts and dinner jackets and the specially commissioned Globe-Trotter cases. Marc Hare's nickel-toed shoes added another flash of old Hollywood glam.
But references aside, this was no wallow in past glories. After years of experience on Savile Row, Malcolm speaks the language of contemporary menswear fluently. You could see that in the precise proportions and, even more, in the curious interplay between hard and soft. "That masculine-feminine thing is there all the time," she acknowledged. She herself is a fascinating physical embodiment of it, and that helps make her one to watch. Though we surely wouldn't care to know what Hardy himself would have to say about that.