London lets loose

Menswear is a simple beast. Everyone says the shows are more relaxed than women’s, the people friendlier. Menswear is also easier to read. Consider last week’s London spring/summer 2014 collections: what jumped out were not facile trends, but signposts to the way men’s attitude towards their wardrobe is changing. Shifts in dressing denote changes in lifestyle, giving fashion its often overlooked role as a social bellwether.

Crucial was the dual dominance of the deconstructed blazer and zip-up bomber, and the disappearance of the business suit. Now, of course brands will still be stocking suits, and selling them by the truckload. But these London shows took place just as the UK parliamentary commission on banking standards was published, recommending jail terms for reckless bankers. Suit wearers? In the doghouse. Designers are increasingly looking elsewhere for their image of positive male empowerment.

At Burberry, for example, which held its first-ever menswear show in London after a decade in Milan, chief creative officer Christopher Bailey cited David Hockney as an inspiration and produced his best men’s show for years, possibly since 2005, the last time he turned to Hockney. Back then, it was the colour and vivacity of “A Bigger Splash”, Hockney’s 1967 painting; for this collection, it was how the 75-year-old artist wears clothes today, along with his fellow Yorkshireman, 79-year-old writer Alan Bennett.

What clicked here were ideas of enlightened dressing. Burberry’s blazer was so deconstructed, it was made from cashmere. Why live a kempt-up life when you can keep your hands cosy in big, deep pockets? Some might see this way of dressing as a hindrance to their career, but neither Hockney, Bennett nor Bailey are short of a penny or two. Think about the generations who have entered industry in the tech age. They don’t need rails of business suits. Maybe one ready for meetings to secure financing, but the rest of their wardrobe is crammed with comfortable stuff for when they’re hunched over a laptop.

From left: Gieves & Hawkes, Alexander McQueen and Richard Nicoll

And though at Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton presented a dressier idea of deconstruction, the silk blazers in faded whites were still super soft, while one was unpadded, its nipped-in form created by darts alone. Lace, woven with the McQueen skull and used in the opening look, was there mainly for effect, and to be echoed in a more commercial print on shirts, suits, and presumably many other garments once the collection hits stores.

Meanwhile, the zip-up bomber is fast becoming another reliable alternative to the blazer. See said garments at Rag & Bone, a brand who brought their show from New York to London; young designer James Long, who presented a breakout show of neat zip-ups, some mesh, others bonded leather; and London-based Lou Dalton, who continued to evolve her clever mix of clothing with hooded zip-ups in washed and faded linen, black nylon and lovely thick jersey rendered in delicious green.

In a country still obsessed with its class systems (oft-denoted by who is wearing the suit, it must be said), there’s a clutch of UK designers labelled “new establishment”, ie no longer young, but not quite major, labels. Three such designers, more famous for their womenswear, show men’s in London: Jonathan Saunders, who presented colourful citywear with an idealistic neatness; Richard Nicoll, who went from dark leathers to light tailored gingham, and Christopher Kane, who went for acid colour sweats and T-shirts with naive digital images. Kane’s work was on a rail at the back of his showroom. Hey! New controlling stakeholders Kering, give him some money for a proper men’s show!

Nevertheless, there remains a base of tailoring in London, and it is at its most interesting when it speaks of global conditions, whether that be Tom Ford and his colour-saturated suits for a fantasy life-turned-real, or Gieves & Hawkes, where Hong Kong-based owners Trinity have set the brand on a new direction of lighter cloths suitable for the Asian market. But London tailoring is also in danger of wallowing in heritage. After all, the suit in the era of Beau Brummell was a feat of radicalism. It should be again.

Thankfully, London has enough young radicals to make up for tailoring’s continued caution. Alert for brand forecasters: with this segment, blatancy is back. Overt branding appeared on underwear waistbands at Shaun Samson, under upturned collars at Bobby Abley, on chest-high logos at Astrid Andersen, warped into oversize knits at Christopher Shannon, and everywhere at Nasir Mazhar.

Then there are the individualists: Meadham Kirchhoff showed sweet soft shirted florals of varying lengths; Sibling’s knitwear calmed in silhouette but not in ideas, with a particularly fine collaboration with artist Richard Woods; Agi & Sam took inspiration from public transport upholstery – yes, really – to find their winning prints and weaves; E. Tautz used rich colour in pieces of relaxed formality; and JW Anderson presented his most coherent work yet, with long columns of tops that benefited from a sense of cut and fit.

But it was a designer only a year out of Central Saint Martins whose work had the most profound impact. Craig Green created a layered look in one shade, often paired with a construction of wood or cardboard. This season, some of the pieces were tie-dyed by hand. They had extraordinary expressive power. His message, which has to do with the emotions of youth, is rightly complex, but it comes across loud and clear. Suitably so.

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