Can London's first fashion week for men turn a scruffy writer into a snappy dresser?
That's the challenge facing The Independent's style writer Harriet Walker as she drags the less sartorially aware Tim Walker (no relation) to his first show
Harriet Walker: The fashionista
Most British men were more interested in watching the football yesterday than watching a catwalk show. But the first day of London's inaugural menswear collections were proof of a growing interest in style among sartorially minded gents.
My companion Tim – a man, yes, and unused to the scrums of fashion week – is a case in point. He knows what he likes and buys clothes from a broad range of shops, many of which are set to show their wares over the weekend.
Names on the schedule yesterday included Hackett, Oliver Spencer, YMC and Topman, representative in each of their own inimicable ways of the state of British menswear. They are retailers rather than couturiers, but they have realised that men are as fascinated by fashion as their female counterparts. They just don't know it yet.
"So what am I supposed to be looking for?" Tim asks me as the lights go down. "Cut, colour, reference points..." I reply. "Or just see if you like it, I guess."
Designer Lou Dalton's collection is sporty but subdued, skinny on the bottom and boxy on top, with tailored silk baseball jackets that Tim suggests would easily hide a spare tyre. He's getting the hang of it – catwalk shows are about imagining how clothes could work in real life, once you take away the styling and break outfits down into their composite parts.
Men don't shop for pleasure, they're more pragmatic; they also, for the most part, don't seem to care what they look like. But that's changing – percentage growth in menswear sales is now higher than those in womenswear. High-end websites such as Mr Porter and my-wardrobe are proof enough of a new strain of bloke that is style- conscious in a way his father and grandfather were not.
This blossoming in men's retail harks back to a more nostalgic time, when men were louche and dandified. At Hackett, models wore three-piece suits, seersucker blazers and chinos, summoning the lawns of Brideshead and Gatsby's drawing room. Tim is excited to have got the reference: "well the film's out soon, isn't it," he shrugs. Yet another brilliant marketing technique to make men's fashion relevant, and tempt men into arraying themselves in new season pieces.
Ultimately, the catwalk at London Collections: Men is as far removed from the street as the female equivalent is from the ringing tills of Topshop, but the very fact of the event is evidence enough of a growing market for high-end and highly designed menswear. "It's funny," says Tim as we go our separate ways, "I liked the designer stuff more than the high street, and I thought it'd be the other way round"
Sounds like someone's caught the fashion bug. And that's precisely what the designers are hoping for.
Tim Walker: The young fogey
Are men interested in catwalk fashion? The ones who've turned out for the first London Men's Fashion Week certainly are. And boy, have they turned out: in cutting-edge streetwear, impeccable tailoring, or both. But as for the rest of us, I'm not so sure – or, at least, I never used to be. Menswear sales may be booming, but most men don't study fashion mags and catwalk reports in search of next season's look. They pick the brands they trust, and when they need a new pair of trousers, they go to the shop and buy whatever's on the rack. Men's style is more static than women's, less subject to trends. We wear a narrower range of colours and designs. Do we really need a Fashion Week to ourselves?
Yes, says Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire. "In menswear there's a difference between fashion and style," Bilmes explains. "Most men are interested more in style than in fashion, but style is influenced by fashion. If you look at suits 20 or 40 years ago, they're dramatically different in terms of cut, pattern, fabric and style to today's – and fashion has made them like that. What was stylish then and now is dramatically different, even though it seems like you're just wearing a classic Savile Row suit. Men at large aren't influenced by catwalk shows, but those catwalk shows could have a dramatic effect on how they dress a year from now."
And so to Fashion Week, to find out what I'll be wearing in 2013. My first show, by designer Lou Dalton, begins inauspiciously. First, I inadvertently queue-barge Very Important Fashion Person Hilary Alexander. Then I'm flattered, and temporarily blinded, by a barrage of photographers' flashbulbs. (Turns out I'm seated two rows behind Alexa Chung). Once my vision returns, though, I see that Dalton's clothes are eminently wearable. I ask Harriet what I ought to be looking out for from the designs. "Shapes and colours," she says, as if patiently demonstrating an educational toy to a toddler. One hi-vis, ribbed flouro sweater aside, the cuts are unthreatening, and so are the blues, browns and whites.
At the Hackett show, the Jazz Age references are explicit: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is coming out, and so is seersucker – and coral trousers, and silk scarves, and three-piece linen suits. The 1920s are the new 1950s. At Topman Design, the looks are all based on Eighties New York streetwear: Basquiat prints, flourescent colours. As the average man, I'm not expected to wear an entire outfit from a single collection. But I think I could see myself in a Basquiat T-shirt (TopMan), coral trousers (Hackett) and a brown raincoat (Lou Dalton) come April. I've also noticed, I tell Harriet over lunch, that there were baseball shirts in one of the shows, gridiron shirts at another, even some 1920s golfing attire. I reckon there's an American sportwear trend emerging. She agrees: "Well done!" I'd ask her for a gold star, but I think it might clash with my blazer.
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