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Who needs Burberry? Sure, that brand’s exit from the menswear shows has cut a hole in the London schedule. But maybe we should stop worrying about waning heritage brands. A triumvirate of shows on Sunday proved the London calendar can be anchored by the still young. At JW Anderson, Christopher Shannon and Wales Bonner, there was a palpable shift of power, making the loss of Burberry feel irrelevant. This morning, JW Anderson stepped up with his most compelling and least antagonistic menswear show to date. Opening look? A trench.
Everything was ramped up: the quality of the make, the richness of the ideas, the willingness to convey them to an eventual customer. “I liked it sugary,” he said backstage. He was swigging on a bottle of water. “I liked that it was opulent in a childlike way.” That trench was short and jewel coloured. Long knits with sleeves hanging off the hand were like a size XL worn by a 6 year old, in blocks of vivid colour. But let’s not obsess too much about this kid thing, because what was best here deserves an adult eye.
A khaki zip-up blouson had ribbing at the waist the pink and green of Ellsworth Kelly. A long, grey double-breasted soft unstructured coat had body and sleeve from the same panel of fabric, the edges raw cut. Bombers had a curve of fabric inserted from cuff to elbow and back again, pushing the sleeve forward and round. A pale green stripe sweater featured a fluid cartoonish figure walking and pointing to the sky. It was the sort of show where notes had to be taken on each look, such was their individuality.
Particularly strong was a long shirt printed with a drawn mix of near-completed jigsaw puzzle pieces, grained wood and a doleful woman smoking a cigarette. “It was done by someone in the studio playing on their iPad,” said Anderson. “It’s a fun programme. You take an image and you work over the top, and over the top, you can airbrush it or you can change the colour of it.” If any justification needed for using an iPad to create: “ David Hockney does it.”
That extra long shirt will presumably be rendered in a more commercial shape, likewise the long warped plaid dresses, and those ultra-long colour block knits. Right now, so many other luxury brands look like the work of Anderson, particularly his LVMH labelmate Dior. Maybe owner Bernard Arnault should be done with it and give Anderson the still-vacant creative director’s job.
But wait, there are others with their own fierce intent. Christopher Shannon is a contemporary of Anderson, the two of them appearing in the same MAN group shows at the beginning of their careers. Shannon’s has been a different path, one of independence and a belief in the importance of original thought. He’s been elevating sportswear since his Central Saint Martins graduate collection in 2008. Now everyone’s doing it, why stay the same?
A focus on denim gave him fresh impetus, resulting in his strongest collection for some while, perhaps one of the best of his career. His zip-up denim tracktop was cut lean through the body, a broad shoulder emphasised by chevrons of paler denim that ran from chest to point down over the sleeves before raising up at the back. It was a similar effect on a washed orange sweatshirt. There were neat denim cagoules. Elsewhere, denim was spliced, shredded, cutaway. It was work of desirability and clarity, a bravura display of how to evolve, edit and elevate ideas.
Shannon is not a designer to hold back. A series of tops played on the logo of Sports Direct, the UK high street discounter. Its founder, Mike Ashley, this week faced questions from MPs about his employment practices. One top read “Haters Direct”. Another read “Lovers Direct”. The store’s slogan is “low prices guaranteed”. Here it was changed to “no ideas guaranteed”. Shannon was a pupil and friend of the late Louise Wilson, the Central Saint Martins professor who taught many of London’s great designers. It was easy to imagine the words coming from her mouth, a damning and true admonishment of many in fashion.
And then there is Grace. 25 year-old Grace Wales Bonner has opened a new field in menswear. It is one founded in the exploration of black masculinity, as well as a poetic interweaving of historical narratives that stretch time. She has already won Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards, and is on the shortlist for next week’s LVMH Prize. Her age again: 25.
This was only her fourth collection, her first standing alone from talent incubators Fashion East and MAN. Her signature fluid line was pared back for the occasion, the attention all on her shaped, sharp and yet still somehow languid tailoring. The blazer of a slender white suit had two black buttons high at the base of the lapel. The back of a black jacket had vertical seams that fitted it close to the curve of the spine.
Elements of Caribbean handicraft were sometimes added, like a belt of crochet hanging from under a suit jacket. Some words I have never said before: I want that midnight blue velvet suit. Memo to all those traditional brands which have chickened out from showing in London this season: Wales Bonner is showing you exactly how tailoring can evolve in the 21st century.
Afterwards, she said was thinking about Hailee Selaisse, his ceremonial dress and his visit to the Caribbean. She had also been listening to Chevalier de Saint-Georges. “He was the Carribean’s first composer.” Behind her, his compositions were being played by Chineke, London’s first string quartet for black and minority ethnic musicians. Saint-Georges lived and worked in 18th century Paris. “He and Hailee Selaisse were interesting to me,” she said, “because they mixed with European society and understood the formalities and codes of dress. Then they also had their expressions of personal style.”
That explains the handicrafts, as well as the rich beading on capes. Yeah, capes. You know what they made me think of? Alexander McQueen in his beginnings. The McQueen label is taking a break this season because of creative director Sarah Burton’s maternity leave. In its absence, Wales Bonner deftly stepped in its place. “I’m really happy,” she said. “It’s where my head’s at right now. I had to push myself to be restrained and not do any tricks. It gave me the freedom to do other things.”
The designer Rifat Ozbek had been at the show, and he came over to introduce himself. “It was wonderful,” he said. “I love all the crochets and the embroideries, everything. Amazing. Well done.” From a man of the importance of Ozbek, this was high praise.
The joys of my job are the things each day I had no idea I would get to think about. Who knew I was going to learn about Saint-Georges? I want to hear his work. Is it on Spotify?
“It is,” she said.
What a thrill.