Man power: James Long

James Long’s diverse influences may range from sci-fi to high camp, but the designer knows how to give men the wardrobe they want. Alexander Fury meets him

Sci-fi “Cosplayers”, Dickensian pollution, and Divine, John Waters’ coprophiliac heroine. They’re not the usual inspirations for fashion designers, especially those working in the traditionally staid, buttoned-up arena of menswear.

But they’re sources of inspiration for James Long, a much-lauded star of the London menswear scene, who shows his latest spring/summer 2015 collection today.

He presented his first, for winter 2008, as part of the Topman-supported talent showcase MAN, at a time when menswear was allotted only an afternoon on the crowded womenswear schedule. That expanded to an entire day, and in 2012 to London Collections: Men, the capital’s counterpart to menswear showcases in Milan and Paris.

James Long has been a cornerstone of them all, because his work pays off creatively and commercially. “It’s about what I want to wear, what my friends want to wear,” says Long, ensconced in his studio in the final preparations for today’s show. “I think it’s important that, at some time during the season, I try and wear everything… I’m not always the customer, though. There are some things that aren’t for me!”

That final assertion perhaps relates to Long’s more flamboyant turns – he’s a dab hand with appliqué, embroidery and beading. Indeed, for spring, there’s no digital print at all, with graphic effects instead built up with painstaking layers of needlework. The walls of Long’s east London studio are plastered with swatches of distressed denim, multicoloured ribbons, tear-sheets of graffiti and images of boxers. The idea, Long says, came while staying in Jesús in Ibiza – the story this time is a “fallen sports star”, dressed in hyper-luxe boxer shorts and hooded robes.

It sounds extreme, but Long somehow always makes his more extreme turns of design work – and it’s what customers, whose numbers increase every season, come to him for. It’s also netted him consultancies and capsule collections: he’s worked with Donatella Versace on her menswear lines, and last year released a sell-out range of his signature embellished knits for Topman.

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Inspiration for Spring/Summer collection '15

Long was born and raised in Northampton. It’s fitting, because Northampton has been known for shoe-making since the Middle Ages, and it was in accessories that Long began: his BA was at Cordwainers, specialising in millinery, footwear and leather goods, followed by an MA in menswear accessories at the Royal College of Art. Nevertheless, Long wanted to pursue fashion, not footwear, specifically menswear, but certainly not of the tailoring type. “At the Royal, I remember them asking me: ‘Do you want to do tailoring?’ And I said ‘No! I want to do fashion!’ It was very clear. Then there was lots of stuff they did that I didn’t need to know…”

His outing at Fashion East’s MAN scheme for emerging menswear designers came less than a year after graduation, and only three years into the scheme itself. Long is the only one left standing, a mark of the volatile menswear scene in London at the time – less embryonic, more a mere glimmer in the milkman’s eye. “At the first one, I showed with two other people… I can’t remember them,” Long honestly admits. “But my third MAN show was me, Christopher Shannon, and JW Anderson,” a triumvirate that now forms the backbone to London Collections: Men, an endeavour only on its fifth season.

“It’s fantastic,” says Long of London’s burgeoning showcase for blokeswear – not least because, when showing on the womenswear calendar, London menswear was presented months later than its continental counterparts. “When we started, we’d be trying to sell sheepskin coats when people were buying spring,” recalls Long. “Buyers would say, ‘We really love this, but we’re buying next season’s Ralph Lauren!’”

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Model wears Autumn/Winter collection '14

Long’s roster of stockists is impressive, encompassing Harvey Nichols and Browns in London, as well as a raft of stores from LA to Dubai, Moscow to Japan. Experiencing his clothes at retail is entirely different to seeing them on the catwalk: the fact that a fine colour running through a mesh T-shirt is actually a satin ribbon hand-laced through the fabric, for instance, can only be seen on the intimacy of the rail. And last season’s space-age sportswear – oddly inspired by the extreme garb adopted by fans at American sci-fi conventions – was almost all reversible. Long proudly showed that fact off in his Paris showroom, admitting his chagrin that the detail was lost in the presentation. Then again, he allows: “I mean… we couldn’t have the guys take the clothes off and reverse them on the catwalk. That’s a bit Nineties.”

To tie in with that Comic Con-chic collection, Long has come full circle to his accessories roots, creating a clutch of bags for London’s Browns boutique. They launch in store, along with his autumn/winter 2014 collection, just days after his spring show, featuring elasticated stitches puckering shiny nylon fabrics until they end up resembling exotic skins – think of them as smock croc.

Brown’s chief menswear buyer, Mei Chung, declares: “James just has the eye! I’ve been following James from day one and watching him grow. A few seasons ago, I saw this spark within his designs and knew we had to buy the collection.” Simon Burstein, CEO of the retailer, agrees: “The key reason why we have continued to support James is because Browns is known for being an unrivalled platform for new design talent and he is the epitome of just this. This special collection he has produced for us is beautifully made, the bags are light, fun and tactile. Talent is the key word to use when referring to James Long. Unabashed talent.”

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