Menswear fashion shows might seem a world apart from what we wear on a daily basis but, as Stephen Doig discovers, there’s plenty that works into your real life wardrobe.
Ask your average metropolitan, style conscious guy what he’s excited about seeing in this season’s London Collections: Men catwalk presentations, which kick off today, and even the most well-heeled gentleman will most likely shrug his shoulders. Even if you’re a chap who knows your Acne from your Ami or your Drakes from your Dries, the curious fantasia of fashion presentations can seem wildly disconnected to real lifestyle.
As much as the fashion industry might try to shrug off accusations of insularity, closed-ranks cliquishness and occasional ridiculousness, there are times when even the staunchest defender can’t help but acknowledge the high camp Zoolander-ness of it all. Models’ faces obscured by a splintered mash of wooden planks, knitted crop tops with nipples coyly peeping out, and grown men in leather dresses and riding boots (all of which featured in last season’s LC:M shows): when what’s happening on the catwalk looks like dream sequence from 1920s Italian surrealist cinema spliced with a Berlin sex dungeon, you’d be forgiven for thinking it has very little to do with what you’ll be wearing down the Crown and Anchor.
But that’s not the whole story. The catwalk theatrics might be what garners headlines – or at least the snigger of joke-makers on Twitter – but a lot of the ideas on the catwalks of London Collections: Men are viable, relevant ways to inject your wardrobe with a bit of pep and vigour. It might seem like there’s a disconnect between what the average fellow wears and what comes down the catwalk to a blaze of flashbulbs, but the gap isn’t as yawning as you’d think.
"The challenge is in balancing Savile Row tradition with relevant fashion", says Gieves & Hawkes Creative Director Jason Basmajian of how a tailoring institution as august as theirs can work fluidly into a man’s lifestyle. The label’s tailoring, from handsome tuxedos and impeccable suiting to rakish peacock blue velvet smoking jackets, might seem like the stuff of sartorial dreams (or at least the kind of thing you’d reserve for your wedding suit), but as Basmajian points out, a good designer should be able to offer pieces that build on what you have. "Gieves & Hawkes is a brand that is always about style and quality. The collection is very wearable and most of the looks can walk off the runway and onto the street or office without seeming intimidating. However, I always want to show new cuts, textures, colours, fabrics and ways of breaking a Gentleman’s wardrobe down and putting it back together."
Basmajian is perhaps the best advert for how to incorporate something that could be relegated as ‘precious’ – that masterful suit that you keep for Sunday best – into an everyday uniform; a casual bomber jacket with some tailored trousers, a formal jacket worn with a wool roll-neck for 50s matinee idol élan.
Often, it’s the subtlest of suggestions that can have an influence on how we dress. The idea of ‘experimenting’ with your tie might have once conjured images of novelty horrors bought in museum gift shops. But designers like E. Tautz, Richard James, and Gieves & Hawkes have shown how textured ties in knitted wool or raw spun shantung can add depth and richness to your business suit and lend a touch of individuality, without frightening the horses around the conference table.
Similarly, the idea of tampering with the DNA of a well-made suit might seem like sartorial heresy, but designers like Casely-Hayford, the London-based father and son duo who make their impeccably tailored suit jackets in Japan using experimental, lightweight fabric technology, show how deftly it can be done. They've piqued the interest of many a tech geek too; there’s more engineering in these suits than at NASA, with the fabric designed to mold around your frame.
"The average guy on the street might not be au fait with what’s shown on the catwalk beyond seeing something in a newspaper column, but often there’s a way to take elements of what goes on in menswear and apply them", says Other Shop co-owner Matthew Murphy, who runs fashion brand Other and whose store stocks London’s more cutting edge young designers. In fact, Craig Green (the designer who sent models down the catwalk with shards of wood around their head) and Matthew Miller (who showcase psychedelic tie-dye suits) both feature in his boutique. But, says Murphy, look beyond the high jinx and you’ll find wearable offerings too. "What actually filters through to the customer – the really great soft cotton black T-shirt or perfectly fitted shirt – will be the thing that’s totally relevant to them."
And what makes menswear designers so in tune with what we actually want from our clothes is that they appreciate longevity above trends. "Trends don’t really feature in menswear any more", says Murphy. "Which makes it much more appealing to men. Instead, it’s just about finding a way to update a guy’s uniform. The consumer wants to be challenged a bit, they want something different, but they’re often surprised how wearable the clothes are too."