The boys are back in town: London is once again the centre of the menswear universe
London fashion is booming. Statements such as this have been uttered since the mid-Nineties and that Vanity Fair 'Cool Britannia' cover, but by and large they have been directed at London's attention-grabbing womenswear scene.
London men's 'fashion' – if you can call it that – is still defined by the caricature of the English gentleman: bowler-hatted, furled umbrella firmly clutched in hand (even under cloudless skies), and decidedly suited and booted. For a touch of variety, the former may be navy blue, or even pinstripe if you're feeling especially avant-garde.
But now, it's London's menswear that's grabbing the limelight. Rather than a dozen shows packed into a day tail-ending the womenswear fashion weeks in February and September, Man now has his own offshoot, titled 'London Collections: Men' and shown alongside the international menswear weeks in January and June. It's only two seasons in, but such is the buzz that Burberry Prorsum has been coaxed back from Milan to showcase its spring 2014 menswear in the capital come June.
It's fitting, because just as Paris is indisputably the beating heart of the women's fashion scene, London has always been the capital for men's attire. Although it's questionable how much fashion came into that equation until now. After all, our menswear is built on the solid – some would say stolid – foundation of the tailored suit, an English innovation of the late-18th century when men switched from silk stockings and knee-breeches to subtly-moulded and pad-stitched wools. The Brits invented the suit, and we are still the home of bespoke.
The collective noun for a group of tailors is a disguiser – and Savile Row is about the only one left in the world. And on 'The Row', the important thing has always been cut and quality over flashy theatrics. As Beau Brummell, the quintessential English gentleman, once said, "If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well-dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable".
What would Beau Brummell have to say about today's generation of young London menswear talent, where the idea seems to be turning heads at all costs, and where a man can never be too fashionable? What would he have made of the provocative pinstripes of JW Anderson, sliced into curvy tops and ruffle-hemmed shorts soaring high above the thigh?
"I've always made sure that, in my own work, there are tailored aspects, and a nostalgic fabric which is reappropriated – a pinstripe, a duffle wool. You use it as a kind of trickery to pull people in," says Jonathan. He is the 'J' of JW Anderson, the ring-leader of London's new generation of high-visibility, high-octane menswear, including the likes of James Long, Martine Rose and Katie Eary. It's highly editorial, too – grabbing media attention, even if it isn't making most buyers grab for their chequebooks. That said, Anderson is savvy enough to back up his mainline collection with saleable knits and shirts.
Realism is something the young London menswear industry is acutely aware of. It has to be; let's face it, men don't really take risks. So when rising star Craig Green boxes his models' faces with enormous picket-fence headpieces, or the up-and-coming Fashion East designer Bobby Abley hoists his models into makeshift spaceships for the ideal Instagram photo-op, they make sure there's also a saleable collection hanging on the rail. The days of fly-by-your-pants fantasy coupled with zero business acumen are over in womenswear. In menswear, they never even began.
The counterpart to the Young Upstarts are the Classicists; not just traditional tailors like Richard James showing on-schedule, but the hefty likes of Tom Ford. After dressing Bond for Skyfall, it felt natural for Ford to pitch up and show his wares in London. "I like men in classic clothes," he declared, name-checking mid-century Cary Grant (an Englishman, after all) for an autumn/winter collection that included such outré menswear delights as a baby-pink Fair Isle knit in swansdown-soft cashmere and calf-length wild fox overcoats, alongside seven different tie widths. God is in the details.
It's the same with designers such as Richard Nicoll and Jonathan Saunders; as with their resolutely quiet, considered womenswear, they thrill through subtle design details rather than the grand gesture. "It allows me to do things that come quite naturally to me that sometimes I can't do for womenswear," says Saunders of his men's line, now in its fourth season. "There's a more stripped-back approach to it; there's a graphicness to it which is sometimes quite difficult in womenswear. And there's a simplicity to it." Despite the centuries, it's an ethos Beau would agree with.
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