What does fashion mean to the average man? Is it experimental and fun with bold colours and prints? Is it the eccentricity of wearing a voluminous cocoon coat and printed sweatshirt with a cat on its front? Is fashion wearing complicated, multi-strap shoes or Raf Simons’ latest trainers? Is it about uniform and the consistent, edited wardrobe full of good quality, well-crafted clothes that do not ask for attention?
In reality fashion sits in between these two parallels and fittingly, with their emphasis on bespoke print and humour, the London based design duo Agi & Sam (Agi Mdumulla and Sam Cotton) in their manifesto recommend that we shouldn’t take fashion too seriously. Perhaps the worst thing that fashion can do is to ask itself what it is. “Having so many brands out there can push the limits of menswear too far almost to the point where they can become irrelevant and alienate the average guy,” Cotton says. “We always aim to make clothing that sits in the middle; it must always be relevant to our customer. In our eyes, relevance manifests itself in a certain kind of wearability.”
Since the British Fashion Council established the London Collections: Men initiative in June 2012 the city’s menswear shows have become a staple in the fashion calendar. Before Milan and Paris, buyers and editors from all over the world Tweet, Instagram and comment unfailingly about the vitality, diversity and creativity of the city. The industry appears to be enamoured by London’s approach to design and its “designers not brands” philosophy. There is an artisanal humility to the clothes shown in London; the muse is confident and artistic.
It was in 2009 that Burberry brought their womenswear show to London Fashion Week and in March last year, after ten years of showing in Milan, their menswear followed. “London is the creative heart of Burberry and our global headquarters, so we are incredibly excited to be showing our next men's collection here. The country's proud menswear heritage and outstanding contemporary talent give it a unique and powerful energy. It is a wonderful time to be bringing our menswear show home,” Burberry’s CEO Christopher Bailey said at the time. When both Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford – both global luxury businesses – chose to join LC:M’s autumn/winter 2013 schedule in January last year too, the message was clear: London is swinging again and there is a lot to see.
Take for example J.W. Anderson’s relentless stream of clothes that suggest they are the result of deep intellectual observation that straddles the gulf between commerciality and conceptual thinking. The bright covetable knits offered by Jonathan Saunders. The designer Katie Eary’s bold, glamorous street wear and Peter Jensen’s comfortable, cheery separates. You could also look to the current wunderkind (and self proclaimed D-I-Y enthusiast) Craig Green’s utilitarian, handcrafted clothes. London doesn’t just offer one thing and its menswear designers do not present a united front. In fact, they’re doing just the opposite. Cotton reflects, “London is probably the most culturally diverse city in the world and is a constant melting pot of ideas, attitudes, music, styles, food. It definitely influences our work because we are constantly exposed to it. It becomes inherent in our handwriting. It is impossible not to be constantly inspired in London.” This presents its challenges. How do you pick at the city’s influences in a way that suits what you want to say? Contrary to past misconception, menswear doesn’t mean playing safe anymore as the clothes being made today have to suit an overabundance of tastes and occasions. A designer has to be a good editor. “Having so many influences is of course a great thing but for us but we have had to learn how to tame this down and to constantly edit. In the past, we have definitely been known for putting too many ideas into our collections. So the real challenge is to know when to stop,” Cotton says. Katie Eary’s advice? “I would say the only challenge is to not try and do too much. Just pick one thing and run with it!” she laughs.
Because of this diversity, London is in effect like its own small country and the menswear talent in the city cannot help but take it all in. “The difficulty in London is not in finding inspiration – that is everywhere – it is in boiling down those ideas to a simple thesis that has relevance and coherence,” says Patrick Grant, the Creative Director of Savile Row bespoke tailor Norton & Sons who re-launched the long-forgotten brand E. Tautz in 2009 with a focus on creating simple pieces, made by hand in the U.K. “I always strive to produce collections that seem to be completely harmonious, both with themselves and with the history of the house of Tautz.” Grant’s influences taken from the streets of London can vary from the traditional dress worn by East London’s Muslim community to the red wool of Household Cavalry capes. “The men we sell to want clothing that feels real. We want to engineer our garments so that they are both functional and beautiful and we choose our materials with great care so that our clothes wear well and last,” he says.
From conversations with nine of London’s key menswear talents, they fall into two specific camps. There are those that challenge the aesthetic traditions dictated by menswear and those who are striving for a certain classicism, heritage and functionality with their clothes. With both of these approaches what does remain is the need for a constant revaluation into how men think about dress. How they approach shape, fabric and silhouette, cut and drape. During her interview with HUGE, designer Lou Dalton admitted, “Men are the hardest to crack in terms of clothing because there is a regimented thing about it, about the trouser that suits you or the type of neckline you like.” She said, “I want men to pull the clothes they buy from me in years to come. My clothes are wearable and I am trying to create a contemporary mans wardrobe.” Grant of E. Tautz talks about the space between applied art and craft. “Fashion needs to lead you somewhere new but at the same time give you a sense of comfort. If it becomes an abstraction, it becomes irrelevant.” Christopher Raeburn too is focused on wearable clothes: “That’s the driving force of what we do,” he says.
So what about those designers working in a more conceptually driven way, how important is it that we understand their inspirations and more intangible ideas each season? Martine Rose originally began as a menswear shirting label, showcasing a debut collection of ten shirts in 2007. She then went on to create an installation as part of the first menswear day on the London Fashion Week schedule going on to produce full collections that have been picked up by stores around the world. Rose has never settled for the traditional runway to show her clothes and most recently chose to showcase her autumn/winter 2014 collection as a series of images that were released online. “When I started I was definitely far more concerned that people were aware of the references I was drawing from and that they understood what I was saying. But now with a stronger sense of confidence, I try not to get too caught up in whether people understand what I do or intellectualise it to much,” she says. “I think that can sterilise what I am doing and turn it into a heavy and laborious thing. People either like my clothes or they don't.” Back in 2007, Rose admits that there wasn’t the support or fanfare that menswear is enjoying right now. “It was a bit like shouting down a well. I would rather have this alternative, vast array of choice, support and interest that we do now.” Her most challenging times were early on and in the time it has taken for the industry to focus on menswear, men’s own relationship to fashion has changed too. The relative conservatism that used to be applied to fashion posed its challenges to a designer like Rose but now, as she says, “the male consumer is much braver than before and I guess in most part, that’s thanks to the exposure to more alternatives. Now for me as a designer, it is about knowing where that fine line is and really how far is too far. That’s the real joy.”
Another designer unconcerned with cultivating mass appeal is the London based, Danish born designer Astrid Andersen. “Not everyone is meant to understand my clothes,” she says. “I think the day my brand pleases all it will have lost its spark.” Andersen graduated at the top of her class from Royal College of Art in 2010 and in 2011 had her first independent show in Copenhagen, later going on to become part of London’s Fashion East initiative. Her collections often reference American hip-hop culture and she uses fur, lace and traditional sportswear jerseys to present a uniquely personal vision of machismo and style. “It’s important to create something that people have an opinion about whether that is good or bad. I always consider if the way I dress men is attractive to me – that is the ultimate guideline for my work. I know when I think a guy is looking good and that’s very important to the brand.” And you know, maybe where clothing is concerned, that might just be all there is to it.