A long-held bugbear of mine has been why London Fashion Week has been so fixated on womenswear. Over the past six seasons, however, a showcase called MAN has taken its place among the 60-odd other shows at London Fashion Week, aiming to raise support and recognition for the city's menswear designers. And such momentum has built up around it that, this season, off-schedule menswear events coordinated to take advantage of the attention. From nowhere, London Fashion Week suddenly gained an unofficial day of menswear.
MAN was set up by Lulu Kennedy, whose Fashion East show has given early exposure to such stars as Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab, Gareth Pugh and Jonathan Saunders. When she saw the 2005 MA graduate show from St Martins, she realised only half the story was being told. "The menswear students were stronger than womenswear," she says. "That's what started it all." So MAN was born: each season, three fresh menswear designers are given a budget and the on-schedule platform to show what they can do. It's simple, but thrillingly effective.
"All MAN is trying to say is that menswear has been grossly neglected," says Gordon Richardson, design director of Topman, which works with Kennedy to put on MAN. Though it is not involved in the workpresented by the three new names, Topman piggybacks the biannual show to present its own upper-scale Design range. "Under the surface, there's so much going on, and now there is a voice for it," adds Richardson.
This season's MAN designers were all new names to the catwalk: the blog-based entrepreneur Kesh, and recent graduates James Long and Hans Christian Madsen. I should state a disclaimer here: I sit on the panel that helps select each season's designers. But it's in my interest as a male fashion-obsessive as much as it is for my job: it is to the benefit of all men who love clothes that design in London is encouraged.
MAN has had some particular successes in its brief life. Cassette Playa is sold at internationally renowned stores such as Dover Street Market and Seven in New York, while Aitor Throup has collaborated with his beloved Stone Island. It has also given a platform to slightly more established names, including the cult menswear designer Siv Stoldal and London stalwart Kim Jones, who has recently signed on the dotted line to become creative director of Dunhill.
But for Kennedy, appearing at the show is an achievement in itself and does not mean the designers have to strike out on their own. "People ask me if I consider someone a failure if they haven't kept their own label going; if they do the show then get a great job somewhere, great," she says. "Why everyone has to have their own label, I don't know."
No one is claiming that being a menswear designer is suddenly plain sailing. It is hard enough for London's new womenswear talents to innovate – and they have the fashion world's attention. Menswear is a much smaller market, gridlocked by the big brands, which also swallow up most of our graduates to work unsung in their design studios. There is less room for manoeuvre, both for consumers and designers.
"There's not much menswear yet showing in London that is applicable to a store our size," says Lee Douros, menswear buyer for Liberty, who was highly visible on the unofficial men's day. "If I was working at an independent store I could buy into the younger brands, but I think it's important for me to be aware what they're doing." This cautious approach is appropriate: Douros knows that the young menswear designers probably don't yet have the production in place to produce enough clothes for him to stock.
James Long is a case in point. The Royal College of Art graduate sent out a bold collection focused on knits and sheepskin more to showcase his skills than to be put on the shelves – the contact he has had from some stores asking to see the collection was a bonus. So it was even more gutting that, a few hours after MAN, almost his entire collection was stolen from his studio. But London is rallying round. "I've still got my patterns," says Long. "And loads of people said they'll help, even students and teachers from the RCA."
Menswear has doubtless suffered neglect; yet, in correcting this, there is a shining opportunity to mould something new. The unofficial menswear activity on the final day of London Fashion Week was thrillingly varied, from catwalk shows by MAN alumni Carola Euler and menswear champions B Store to knitwear designer Lou Dalton's decision to show off her wares in a pub, and the switched-on Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons.
Although all involved know growth needs to be slow and natural, plans are already afoot for next season and the powers that be are watching – and itching to support. "Menswear is so much harder," says Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, which runs London Fashion Week. "It is so small, and sewn up by all the big brands. But there is clearly something exciting happening underground, and when the time is right, we should shout about it."
Charlie Porter is associate editor of 'GQ'. For more on Topman, visit www.topman.com