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Men’s Wear Flies its Freak Flag

“I don’t think there really is a right time to start a business,” Carter Altman said Monday before his presentation at the kickoff of New York Fashion Week: Men’s, an event that nowadays barely merits the grandiose name. For a start, it covers little more than three days, features fewer designers than in any recent season (under two dozen) and has a single headline designer in Todd Snyder.

Mr. Snyder, whatever his considerable chops, is hardly the household name Tom Ford is. And Mr. Ford, who is as of Jan. 1 the chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the group that schedules and oversees the twice yearly gathering, will hold his fashion show on Friday in Los Angeles.

Mr. Altman has a point, though. The time is never optimal for a fashion start-up in a town like New York, with its astronomical rents, dwindling ranks of wholesale suppliers and a garment district that big tech swallowed whole. Seen through that lens, that independent designers would still elect to show here says as much perhaps about native pluck as skill, and maybe also a kind of indomitable naïveté.

Mr. Altman, whose label is called Carter Young, is 21 and newly graduated from New York University. Though he has no retail clients yet (his work sells online at carteryoung.shop), what he does have is talent and a precociously developed viewpoint. For his presentation at New York Men’s Day, he edited his ideas down to a tight grouping of deceptively simple and durable stuff: a cropped and boxy patch-pocket sports coat, a slightly off-kilter denim barn jacket, some letter carrier trousers, a coat upcycled from the same fabric used to make uniforms for the California Highway Patrol.

There was a so-called vegan suit, rough cowhide belts intended to shred over time and get gnarly, and an Eisenhower jacket and shirting embroidered with silhouettes drawn from the artist Kristin Beaver’s “Sidekick Portraits.”

Ms. Beaver’s images were first created in the decaying, yeasty and intensely creative city that was the ruined Detroit of the early aughts. The loft building where New York Fashion Week: Men’s takes place is the kind of rough industrial holdout that abounded in Manhattan in the 1970s, when areas of this city looked an awful lot like the ruin Detroit would soon become. That loft building is now hemmed on all sides by glass-walled skyscrapers that form the Hudson Yards development. Although the gleaming cynical hulk of that mall was just across 10th Avenue from the loft building, it felt light years away from the raw aspirations on view during New York Men’s Day.

In reality, there may be few commercial prospects available in a landscape dominated by malls and mass chain retailers for independent designers like Pablo Leon, a young Mexican-American designer whose family members worked as undocumented field hands in California’s Central Valley.

“As Mexicans we had to be invisible there,” Mr. Leon said before a show that, as in the work of Willy Chavarria, a powerful Mexican-American designer also from Fresno, fused hothouse theatricality, ruffs and surplices and other ecclesiastical elements with some sartorial markers of gang culture. “I was invisible being brown and being gay. The problem is how to be seen.”

The customary mobs turned out for New York Men’s Day in their usual wonderful glad rags — and following them, the predictable packs of street style photographers. Often it is hard to say which is more compelling, what’s on the runway and what drifts in off the street. Just as challenging is imagining what will become of the mountains of images captured of people like Paris Warren, who walked eastward on Monday from 10th Avenue into a throng of professional shutterbugs and at least one reporter wielding his iPhone camera.

What was it we were each so eager to document? For me, it was the droll way Mr. Warren, a creative director and stylist, both updated and queered the look of macho ’70s blaxploitation film stars — the leather jacket with floppy lapels stitched in white, the snuggly mock turtleneck and the snugly knotted durag made from an Hermès scarf.

Moments like that generate their own brand of ephemeral magic. You want to bottle it just as you hope someone may find a way to harness the reverberant energy of labels like Official Rebrand, whose collection was so rife with wacko references — graffiti, sloganeering, kiddie sketches and femme-butch dualities — that if the designer, MI Leggett, omitted the kitchen sink it must have been an oversight.

You hope that the Timo Weiland, Donna Kang and Alan Eckstein, the talents behind the label Timo Weiland, can finally make a paying career out of plumbing the depths of their youthful nerdiness. (“I played piano and had my hair permed into an Asian Afro when I was a kid,” Ms. Kang explained.) You want their assortment of separates in Necco wafer colors and fireplug red suits to wear for shocking the judge at your pretrial hearing to find their way into the wider world.

You wish for someone like Aaron Potts, who started APOTTS to “fill my life with beauty, creativity, passion, direction and people I love and who inspire me” after being laid off from a job he loathed, he said, to connect with backers able to support a vision for a fashion future in which people dress, if they care to, like a cross between a Mormon Elder and a roadie for Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

In a recent Instagram post promoting an evening discussion on “The Search for Signs of Intelligence in Men’s Fashion” (held at the CORE Club, that YMCA for the 1 percent), the Airmail columnist Richard David Story decried what he judged to be the sorry state of men’s fashion and the sheer madness of what he sees on the runways of New York, Milan, Paris and also the pages of The New York Times.

Conundrums and outrages of the sort that fuss Mr. Story are at the heart of events, however uncommercial, like New York Fashion Week: Men’s, and of what remains of fashion creativity in this town. In reality, there is no shortage of opportunities for men to drag up in three-piece suits or stuffy French-cuff shirts or the general attire of “Businessman Realness.”

But why bother? For all that ails it, New York fashion, including that for men, could use a healthy a dose of “Funny Face” medicine. “Banish the black!” as Kay Thompson famously intoned in that 1957 cinema classic. “Think pink!”

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