Does that parka on the catwalk look familiar? Is that military jacket a dead ringer for the one in Bridge Over the River Kwai? It’s no secret that many of the designs shown during fashion week will have been inspired by – or even copied from – vintage looks.
Now, menswear brands will get another source of retrospective inspiration courtesy of new book Vintage Menswear: A Collection from the Vintage Showroom. It’s a compendium of images and descriptions of clothing collected by Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett, who run the Vintage Showroom, a service used by numerous designer and high street brands. Designers make appointments to visit the west London archive of historic menswear from around the world, or rent or buy clothes from the collection. The owners will also hunt down specific pieces – or do what co-owner Gunn calls inspiration work: “looking into a company’s history or buying up archive pieces”.
Though few brands will publicly admit to using the service, Gunn says, “If you are a menswear designer, chances are you have visited the Vintage Showroom or the website.”
“Certain designers and companies rely heavily on vintage pieces, sometimes from their own archives,” says Robert Leach, lecturer at Central Saint Martin’s College and the University of Westminster. “Think of companies like Burberry or Belstaff, with their long histories of trademark details that can be drawn on for inspiration.”
Indeed, pieces in the book – such as a 1930s striped boxing blazer, a 1950s mountain rucksack that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s Urban Outfitters, or a 1920s canvas parka that could have been plucked from Gap’s shelves – show how little menswear has changed.
The most the Vintage Showroom has spent on one item is £20,000 – on a submarine coat made in the 1930s for HMS Ursula. “The captain of the boat went to Barbour to get them to design a two-piece wax cotton suit,” says Gunn. “We spoke to Barbour but they didn’t want to sell theirs, and we spent a lot of time tracking one down.”
Nigel Cabourn, whose menswear line is based around British heritage clothing with a practical focus (for instance, the Everest parka, £2,200, in his current range is inspired by the one worn by Sir Edmund Hillary to scale Everest), is one of the few designers who will discuss his work with the Vintage Showroom. Indeed, he says he finds it invaluable. “For me it’s no secret because my brand is based around vintage designs, but some brands don’t want to expose how they got their ideas,” he says. “I quite often recognise the originals that inspired them.”
Cabourn says his designs are sometimes “very similar to historic pieces”, explaining that “actual clothing can tell you more [about a period] than a photo or film ... colour, fabric, weight, etc.”
Gunn says he has noticed that more brands are looking to build up their archives with early advertising books or fabrics in a bid to cultivate that all-important aura of heritage. After all, in the fashion industry, the past isn’t really a foreign country, and they don’t do things so differently there.
‘Vintage Menswear: a Collection from the Vintage Showroom’ by Josh Sims, Douglas Gunn, Roy Luckett (Laurence King, £30)