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Fashion June, 24 2014

Second Look | How British Menswear Grew Up

Reputations are a hard thing to shake. For instance, take the reputation of London’s fashion week. It’s “creative,” “bursting with energy,” “has a great buzz.” What they don’t have, according to popular theory, is sellable products. Of course, this is a simplified take on things. There’s always been British brands capable of making interesting products as well as selling. It’s just that this isn’t necessarily seen as newsworthy (understandable; “clothing brand sells clothing” isn’t exactly Man Bites Dog).

But this reputation led to several brands who missed the LC:M boat to either disappear, downscale or have their designer leave to work for a stable high street company. Before LC:M, London lacked a sufficient showcase of the sheer breadth of menswear available. While people like to separate tailoring and sportswear, new guard and old guard, there’s usually less space between these categories than people obsessed with binary ways of taking in information care to admit. After all, there’s no one way of dress that’ll get us through everything we do in our lives.

Often you’d see a brand who make wearable items ramp up the showpieces and alienate people, with one crowd thinking they’d gone too far and another thinking it didn’t go far enough. And when stockists don’t come knocking on their door, they’re left with a stockist they may have turned down if they weren’t desperate. This has a knock-on effect, with the desired retailers saying, “You’re stocked where? No thanks.” And while the British Fashion Council is great at supporting young brands, there comes a point where the labels have to actually make some money. Add all this up, along with a place at the end of the calendar, and you’ve got issues.

At one point, the menswear day was essentially a showcase instead of a trade event. The move to the start means buyers haven’t run down their budget and are actually willing to consider a couple of new additions to their store roster. People who do the full fashion month are well-known for skipping menswear day so they could get to Milan, leading to a semi-ghost town. But, while LC:M has been impressive, the main factor in British menswear’s growth has been the designers themselves. They’ve learnt from the mistakes of others, working on becoming functioning businesses as opposed to creative types stitching pieces of fabric together in their bedroom.

J.W. Anderson has gained a reputation as a provocateur, but, like another provocateur, Thom Browne, his shows are essentially a theatrical way of pushing out new ideas. The main backbone of his menswear business that actually sells in stores are his sweatshirts, biker jackets and other items that you’d call staples. The likes of Matthew Miller, Sibling, Christopher Raeburn, Lou Dalton, Christopher Shannon (and many, many, many more) have maintained a healthy stockist list, which leads to people being able to see their items on a regular basis instead of catwalk images -0 which still alienates people who aren’t sure how to digest clothing shown in a catwalk format. There’s also the issue about how a lot of people who write about menswear tend to confuse styling with the products themselves. But that’s a topic for another day.

Despite all this, there’s still plenty of issues. Although there are currently three days in LC:M, you could easily argue for four. This is important because, when the schedule’s squeezed, people tend to choose what they already know. This means the potential for the press or buyers to be surprised by something they didn’t know they’d like is diminished, simply because the person didn’t have the time to view the show. There’s also the question of whether certain established brands should be showing at all. When you’ve already got a healthy list of wholesale accounts and everyone who should know about your brand already knows, there’s little point of a catwalk show. There’s also an issue with the current ambassadors, a ragtag bunch of celebrities who generally don’t have that much knowledge of fashion, let alone how to distill it to the general public. Then there’s the double edged sword of being primarily seen as a breeding ground for creativity — London designers are especially prone to being copied.

Being copied is crippling. When you’re a young brand with no recourse to usually extremely expensive legal counsel, it’s even worse. Those at the lower end of the fashion scale are typically the worst culprits of copying. For one, they usually have entire teams dedicated to the task, masking what they do by calling them “buying trips.” These are when they go to shops, buy product they like, take it back to the office and decide whether to copy it or not. But they’re not the only ones doing it. To pull a a couple of random examples out of an imaginary hat, Marc by Marc Jacobs’s range of trainers have looked remarkably similar to Common Projects, even down to the gold print. Gucci produced a coat that was incredibly similar to an Acronym coat. And to bring a British example into the mix, Alan Taylor pointed out similarities between his Fall/Winter 2014 collection and Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2015 collection on Twitter. But, the never-ending carousel of “homage” and inspiration aside, where does London fit into the big four in terms of fashion weeks?

The cold commerciality of Milan is never something to inspire, what with the rows and rows of identical brands selling clothes to men who think slicking back their greying hair is the height of fashion. New York Fashion Week could take some tips from how LC:M is being run. Another issue in the US is the added factor of US attitudes to clothing being a little more, shall we say, retrograde than others. After all, the main undertone of that long heritage stretch in the US was “Yes I like clothes, but please don’t say I’m gay!” While London has plenty of crazy shows ripe for a slideshow click bait parody article, the average man here (in London at least) will be seen wearing something that’d be challenged as daring across the pond. Heck, even the goons here wear teeny tiny purses and call them flight bags.

So that leaves Paris as the main competitor. Paris has the likes of Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten showing, who are the epitome of a designer’s designer. If London Collections: Men can mix the myriad influences of tailoring, shoe heritage, trainer factories like Flimby, forward-thinking designers, the solid established brands and the big labels? They’ll be competing with Paris before you know it.

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