The first day of the autumn/winter 16 menswear season posed a question: micro or macro? Over the coming days in London, Milan, Paris and New York, the conglomerate brands will stage their shows under the pressure of the current turbulent financial market: that rout on the Shanghai stock exchange pleases no one in fashion.
Right now, London menswear offers a thrillingly focused alternative to the major label nerves. Craig Green and Grace Wales Bonner are among the best of the city’s small-scale independents who show what can be achieved by those with youth and conviction.
Craig Green is a designer of humble intention, including in each of his collections a new take on the simple workwear jacket. He only graduated from the MA of Central Saint Martins in 2012, but his work is already in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
He’s a nice guy who’s also a big deal. For autumn/winter 16, he was looking at protection in various guises, whether it be storm jackets with a hood so tightly pulled on the face it could fend off a hurricane, or soft quilted silks like a comforting bedspread. In between was that workwear jacket in nubbly wools, or semi-unbuttoned tops of panels that were like soft armour.
Those washed and quilted silks. Backstage on the rail, I found my favourite, which had sweet floral patterns stitched into the dusty green cloth. It had been held in the hand by one of the models, looked like an old and much-loved eiderdown rediscovered. As is Green’s way, it was work done for the sake of it, effort for the satisfaction that comes from honest, intelligent labour.
In 2014, Green was the recipient of the Emerging Menswear Designer prize at the British Fashion Awards. The most recent recipient was 25-year-old Grace Wales Bonner, who at the time of the ceremony in December hadn’t even staged a catwalk show. Today, she made that debut in London as part of the MAN show, a not-for-profit platform for young designers, of which Craig Green is an alumnus. With her first turn on the catwalk, Wales Bonner sent out a collection that already vies for show of the season.
She is a designer who understands evocation, going deep into African histories to connect disparate narratives that through her can speak to the present day. Here it was Sun Ra, Sly Stone and Miles Davis, but really she already has a signature look of her own. It is founded in either louche long-line tailoring with a flared pant, or little sporting zip-ups and wide trackpants. It’s an intentionally awkward silhouette of specific sight lines, especially with her little cropped jackets that sit above high-waist pants.
At the top of her catwalk sat the Nigerian Irish composer Tunde Jegede, who provided the music on his west African 21-string harp known as a kora. As each model emerged, they stopped in front of him, bowed, then went on. Backstage, Wales Bonner said she wanted Jegede to take the role of a griot — an African storyteller and praise singer. She wanted the models to pay respect to the past, before walking into the future. She said this was how the collection was for her too — using history to project forwards.
Hers is one of the most fascinating stories in fashion. Her design is so particular that when she showed her first collection a year ago, buyers didn’t know what to do with it. She often uses feminine fabrics such as velvet, and jewels jackets with crystals and shells, and for her second collection, some stores have bought it as womenswear. But this is clothing that’s originally intended for men. This season Wales Bonner has realised that her path is the one of special pieces, not mass product. She has pushed the quality of production and richness of detailing to levels rare for one so young. Menswear stores should be fighting each other to stock her work, and London should feel privileged to have her show here.
For more reports from the shows, go to our fashion weeks page on FT.com