"American heritage" has become such an overworked concept that it would seem impossible to keep coming up with fresh angles. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case for Mark McNairy. His initial inspiration for his Spring 2012 collection for Woolrich Woolen Mills was The Rat Patrol, the classic TV show set in the North African desert during World War II. (The designer has fond memories of watching episodes with his father.) But then, seeking a closer link to Woolrich's roots, McNairy was also thinking of Hemingway on safari in 1954. At the same time, he was interested in the birth of technical fabrics in the 1970's. The upshot: The collection became about Papa on an imaginary trek across the savannah in '74, not '54.

It's that kind of storytelling that raises McNairy's clothes above the mundane. Mixed in among the khaki safari jackets, for example, were shirts in a traditional African print. That motif has shown up in other Milan shows, most notably at Burberry, but with McNairy, there's a personal twist. He used to design a women's line called Finis. (period very much intentional), and his first order was for clothes in an African print he had sourced in New York. When the orders came through, he suddenly found himself on a plane to Dakar, Senegal, to fulfill the demand.

Ironically, though, the coolest items here were the simplest: an army green cotton coat that zips up into a bag and a pair of khaki/sweatpant hybrids. Somehow, the designer manages to give even these utilitarian pieces a bit of soul.