jigsaw's easy solutions

Chris Bailey's menswear collection for Jigsaw is just three years old, but has grown up quickly. Now it rivals its older female counterpart for style and colour
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Indy Lifestyle Online
if Jigsaw man and Jigsaw woman were going out with each other, it was because they fell in love in high school. The two collections are now so diverse as to be almost divorced from their origin. Jigsaw woman is in her late twenties, dresses fashionably but safely for work, and gets drunk on Fridays; Jigsaw man is into indie bands, has discovered that clothes can be fun and treats his woman like his best friend. At least that's how I see it. Jigsaw Menswear is only three years old but has already overtaken the women's wear collection (which has been going for 18 years) in style and direction. Funky is the word that comes to mind. There are colours, cuts and fabrics used that have been long missing in men's wear "high street" collections, but are often seen in more expensive, and designer, collections.

Chris Bailey, director of Jigsaw and designer of Jigsaw Menswear is the man responsible. A strapping lad of 6ft 2in with very short hair, you might fear him at first. It is only when he says "I hope I didn't come across as a twat, I've never done this before [given interviews]," that you realise he is shy, down to earth and not into fashion bullshit, but informed and passionate about what he does. This is the secret of his success: if he loves the clothes (as he evidently does, showing you the new collection with the glee of a young boy bringing home his first girlfriend) then men like him will love it too. That and the fact that Jigsaw Menswear is a small operation, and they can take risks that retailers with 30 plus shops nationwide can't.

"Jigsaw Menswear started with the Spring/ Summer collection of 1993," explains Bailey, "but it wasn't what it is today - it was very different, very safe. It came about after John [John Robinson, MD of Jigsaw] and I had a talk about 'where should we take Jigsaw'. The men's wear collection was called Jigsaw Blues for the first season, and it was very blue as well, there was lots of blue in it and it was kind of boring." Not for long. By the next season Bailey had introduced more unusual fabrics for men, such as stretch jeans and washed gabardine.

It wasn't as simple as Jigsaw "just going into men's wear". Women's wear factories can't simply switch from one to the other, as men's wear is constructed in a very different way. "It also has to have a longer life: women's wear changes a lot whereas a man will buy a suit and it's an investment." The production wasn't the only stumbling block. Jigsaw decided that their men's wear worked better in stand-alone sites rather than amalgamating it with their women's wear shops: "Men seemed to be uncomfortable going into women's shops, so although we do have a few that are mixed, most are men's only." The interior of the shops are subtly different. "Men need to come in and know where the jeans are, most of them know what they're looking for, it has to be easy shopping," admits Bailey.

So what makes Jigsaw Menswear so funky and why can't other high street men's wear labels get it as right as they have? Firstly, they work just like a designer does, small and intimate. Bailey goes to the same yarn and fabric fairs that designers do. "I'm buying the same fabrics they are, except that my production costs are a lot less and I don't have to put a mark up, so I have that benefit. Designers can't do that. But we're all coming from the same direction, we're all watching the same film if you like." Designers don't often have the clout that a company like Jigsaw has. But equally, working in smaller numbers than most high street shops do (including their women's wear counterpart) means they can afford to take risks, and good fashion is all about risk-taking. In a sense, Jigsaw Menswear have the best of both worlds and far from being "mass produced" some of their garments will turn out to be quite exclusive. For example, one of their polo shirts this season will be produced initially no more than 150 times.

Bailey's background is not design school either. "I wanted to be a designer but in those days (18 years ago) it wasn't the boy's thing to do." Thus he learned everything he knows today from hands-on experience, starting from pattern cutting. His approach to design is logical, and touchingly unaffected. "I cut pictures out of magazines and something might spark off an idea, it could be a colour or a pair of shoes." Did he design with himself in mind in the beginning? (He doesn't seem the type to have a muse and if he did it would be a character from a Michael Caine film.) "Yes, in the beginning, but people complained 'cos the stuff was too big! At first you design stuff thinking 'I'd love to wear that', but then you have to think about what will sell. Not everyone is 6ft 2in."

His ideas behind the Spring / Summer collection, part of which is shown here and which has just gone into stores, were an extension of the last collection. "I've been into that mod thing for a long time, so all I did was extend it. Jackets have become more fitted, knitwear has become more Seventies. But I'm not led by anything in particular."

Attitudes to men's wear are finally changing. Whereas not many men may feel happy spending half their weekly wage on a suit (and why should they), they're still interested in fashion and still want to look nice. Next season Jigsaw man will chuck Jigsaw woman (and she will cry and then go out with Blazer man or something), and Jigsaw man will grow up, but only a bit, to become a cross between James Bond and Martini Man.

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