“England is all about rules and breaking them.” So says fashion designer Luella Bartley in her new book, Luella’s Guide to English Style.
Though the book is a celebration of all things fashionably English, it is the country look that emerges as the quintessential national style, as seen on Princess Anne (hacking jacket and jodhpurs), the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (pearls and a Barbour to muck out the chickens), and, suddenly, a host of twentysomethings in east London. Inspired by Alexa Chung and Kate Moss, these Londoners have adopted a distinctly non-urban uniform of Barbour jackets, cords, sheepskin and even jodhpurs.
Bartley, who wears her hacking jacket almost every day, has christened the current urban subculture the “Hackney farmer” and says it is a way to challenge preconceptions. “The country look is integral to English style,” she says from her home in Cornwall in the west of England. “We’re all obsessed with tradition and the country in England. It’s used either as a very practical thing or a statement of rebellion.”
Citing tartan-wearing punks from the 1970s and tweed-loving Teddy Boys in the 1950s, she says: “We [the English] love to take tradition and turn it on its head. Country style is perfect for that, especially if you make it ironic by taking it to town.”
Other designers have joined Bartley in adopting the country look. Clothes of the sort usually found covered in mud and flung in the back of a Range Rover were sprinkled throughout the European and American autumn/winter collections to the extent that it’s hard not to think that country is about to take over the high street. See, for example, the current issue of American Vogue, which has devoted 12 pages to it, as photographed on Stella Tennant, granddaughter of the Duchess of Devonshire.
English designers such as Hussein Chalayan, Burberry, Topshop Unique and Mulberry all favoured the ruggedness of shearling on sheepskin jackets; Christian Dior, Daks and Kenzo boasted the tweeds, hacking jackets, kilts and jodhpurs of a Home Counties riding stable; and Marc Jacobs, Pringle of Scotland and Prada turned to the classic chunky knit, perfect for lazing in front of a roaring hearth. Even New York brand Rag & Bone offered a tweed bomber jacket with zip-off sleeves. Ed Burstell, buying director of Liberty, believes this “twisted country” take is key for urban consumers. “It’s eccentric and quirky but there’s real heritage underneath,” he says.
Designer Sir Paul Smith says: “I often take inspiration from English country manors and stately homes. I love the romance of country dressing.” Native New Yorker Sheila Mckain-Waid, who designs for century-old British tailoring brand Daks, says: “The heritage is exciting, and it’s an interesting challenge to make these things new again. A kilt looks completely different when worn with a boot.”
Classic British brands such as Barbour and Hunter Wellington boots are an essential part of the look. Claire Saunders, the brand’s marketing director, says: “Hunter was originally adopted by the festival crowd because the functionality allowed them to go out and have fun. We couldn’t have asked for better publicity.” Hunter recorded a 16 per cent rise in pre-tax profits from 2008 to 2009.
Gary Burnand, director of global marketing and strategy at Barbour, which saw its profits rise from £68m in 2008 to £74m in 2009, believes this is down to a desire to invest in hard-wearing, classic styles over fad trends. “There is a flight to quality and a brand that you know will last,” he says. “Barbours are unique in the sense that they age well and develop a character of their own.”
To maintain the interest of new customers, however, both brands have engaged in urban-friendly collaborations: Hunter with Jimmy Choo (result: a pair of crocodile print Wellington boots, £255), and Barbour with Anya Hindmarch and Japanese designer Tokihito Yoshida (result: two fashion-forward outerwear collections, prices from £199). “The consumer wants heritage but it’s not about literal representations of the past,” says Burnand.
Clare Waight Keller, creative director of Pringle of Scotland, says: “There is a comfort in familiar things.” She says that in times of austerity, it’s only natural to return to the wardrobe basics that withstood difficult times. “The trick,” adds Waight Keller, “is to do a modern version. You want that feeling of familiarity without actually wearing your dad’s outdoor coat.”
‘Luella’s Guide to English Style’, (Fourth Estate, £20) was published last month