June 14, 2013 6:35 pm

London calling

The city was once a desert for menswear shows – so what is attracting so many big brands now?
Alexander McQueen’s debut show at London Collections: Men, in January 2013©Catwalking

Alexander McQueen’s debut show at London Collections: Men, in January 2013

The new men’s catwalk season begins in London this weekend under the banner London Collections: Men (“LC:M”). It kicks off the international menswear shows for spring/summer 2014 and has prompted head-scratching in the traditional menswear cities of Milan and Paris. They can’t figure out why LC:M, launched only a year ago, has suddenly become the hottest fashion week on the schedule. Any schedule.

Tom Ford©Getty

Tom Ford, who is showing in London this year

This season Burberry has moved its Prorsum show from Milan to London, Dolce & Gabbana is holding a presentation of tailoring in its new men’s store, Jimmy Choo is showcasing its men’s shoes, and Rag & Bone has been lured from New York. They are joining other big international names such as Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford (both of which used to show their menswear elsewhere), generating catwalk energy at a time when many are questioning the very purpose of fashion shows in the multimedia age. The question is, why?

“There’s a real commercial imperative,” says Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ and chair of LC:M. “Menswear is increasing, whether it’s high street, young design, luxury or bespoke. It means you don’t have to try to build this edifice. It’s out there. It’s working. Having Rag & Bone come to show from New York has been incredible and has created a lot of waves. Business has become the story.”

Indeed, prime minister David Cameron hosted a cocktail event last January, demonstrating that support for menswear in London goes wider than the fashion community.

Yet 10 years ago, despite its renowned fashion colleges and the heritage of Savile Row, there wasn’t a single menswear show in London. Kim Jones, now the menswear designer for Louis Vuitton, attempted to show menswear at London Fashion Week in 2003. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says, “You had to show womenswear as well.”

He collaborated with another graduate, Marios Schwab, on some women’s pieces, which he mixed with his men’s collection. “I felt very much on my own,” he says. “No one would come to London for menswear. I had to go and show in Paris.”

The first person to tackle the problem was Fashion East founder Lulu Kennedy, who approached Topman for funding and partnership. In 2005 they launched MAN, a group show in which three young designers were given funding to present their collections, followed by a show from Topman Design, held at the end of the women’s schedule. For the next few years, it was the only place to see menswear in London. Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, says: “It really all started from there.”

By 2009, a head of steam was building. That season’s MAN featured JW Anderson, James Long and Christopher Shannon, now three of London’s most-watched designers. The BFC gave the end of London Fashion Week to men’s shows, including, for the first time, Savile Row. It became a men’s day, but because it took place during womenswear – rather than in the men’s season that always precedes it by a few months – buyers had already closed their books. Finally, 18 months ago, the BFC decided things needed to change.

The first LC:M was scheduled just after the Diamond Jubilee and before the Olympics, in part because London was abuzz with anticipation and in part because “if the whole thing had been a disaster, we could have said it was a legacy project,” jokes Jones.

The opposite was true. “We punched above our weight,” says Rush, “and created so much noise that we could start talks with the likes of Alexander McQueen to say, ‘We really want your menswear to be in London’.” McQueen signed on, as did Tom Ford. “He said: ‘My headquarters are here, I want to show here. Who else do you want, who else do you want me to call?’” Rush recalls.

Of course, this is not quite as generous a gesture as it sounds. Menswear is still a smaller concern than women’s fashion, and its brands are therefore less entrenched in their catwalk habits. McQueen still shows womenswear in Paris, for example, because it wants to stand alongside its luxury peers.

In addition, all the brands bringing their shows to London immediately gain in stature. In Milan, Burberry’s shows were part of the predictable schedule; in London, its show can become a defining multimedia event, with a sense of importance beyond the catwalk. That increase in exposure is also true for McQueen, Rag & Bone and Jimmy Choo. Their work is immediately elevated.

Amid all this big-brand jostling, however, young brands continue to hold their own. MAN will present three rookie designers this week: Craig Green, Bobby Abley and Alan Taylor. Of the 29 catwalk shows, 12 are from alumni of MAN or Fashion East. This is central to LC:M and the evolving idea of menswear and its possibilities.

Indeed, this may be the key to the success of LC:M: the fact it is developing its own framework rather than replicating the known formats of fashion weeks around the world. “For us, it’s ‘How can we break some of the rules?’” says Rush. “Then not only do we change perception, but we change the industry as well.”

For daily reports from the menswear shows, visit www.ft.com/luxury360

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