The rise of men’s workwear

When the chef Fergus Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver of the Michelin-starred St John restaurant in London went to Manhattan for a food festival recently, it wasn’t just gourmets who were excited by their arrival. Gulliver says: “The New York fashion bloggers were much taken with my navy artisan’s jacket from Le Laboureur [from €34.70] in France.” Henderson’s recent conversion to the terroir-tinged British brand, Old Town, was similarly newsworthy.

The pair have long been proponents of the sartorial power of “workwear”: masculine, utilitarian garments; smarter than jeans and T-shirts but more relaxed than structured tailoring, and often fairly literal interpretations of skilled worker’s uniforms. Think, for example, of the single-breasted uniform worn by a Bauhaus tutor or an architect; clothes to break in and improve with age.

“Workwear is on the high street and on the racks at Topman, so the designers we stock are doing it in a more refined way,” says Stephen Ayres, men’s wear buyer at Liberty. For this spring he’s introducing the rough-and-tumble German label Acronym to the store, as well as Ralph Lauren’s “authentic Americana” RRL brand, while M Tokyo Japan returns for a second season. “The Japanese brands do the look particularly well,” says Ayres. “Junya Watanabe has produced a wonderful waxed jacket [€887] with a corduroy collar.”

The Japanese have frequently been inspired by workwear. One of designer Yohji Yamamoto’s most recurrent references, he says, is the 20th-century social documentaries of August Sander and his subject’s attire. Generally, however, international high-fashion “workwear” remains a western aesthetic. In Britain it harks back to the uniforms of the working classes, from the baker to the dustman and the railway worker, while in the US, it relates to western pioneers, the military and the production line.

New York-based Engineered Garments, for example, is so named because the label’s first pattern cutter claimed the items “weren’t designed but engineered”, due to the heft of the functional detailing, while Dickies, an American tradesman’s favourite, recently produced a $200 replica of its 1922 cuffed pant that may well be the ultimate chino of all time: the stitching and fabric used is military-grade and the cut is as hip as the fit is wide.

“Workwear is about clothes made for a purpose,” says Margaret Howell, the British designer most linked with haute workwear, whose “worker” striped shirt (£105), indigo twill jacket (£295) and blue cotton linen trousers (£175) for spring exemplify her words. “These clothes express authenticity, truth and strength. They aren’t age- or trend-related.”

“It’s a reaction against the teenage ‘indie’ uniform,” says Fraser Moss, designer of the London-based workwear-tinged label YMC. “The willowy silhouette that washed down from Dior Homme to the high street only suited men of a certain age and build. Workwear looks better on a slightly more mature man. It’s a more relaxed and wearable look for the sophisticated end of the market. It has an air of intrigue.”

Ironically, the shop that embodies the new workwear style best isn’t a clothes store; rather, Labour and Wait is essentially a hardware store that sells “good old days” items for the home, from airforce-blue enamel pots for the stove to toilet brushes, enhanced with Festival of Britain imagery and 1920s Gill Sans typography. Labour and Wait now has a branch on the top floor of Comme des Garçons’ trend-setting Dover Street Market, as well as a recently opened store in Shoreditch, in London, and nine outlets in Japan. Tellingly, co-owner Rachel Wythe-Moran and her partner used to work in men’s wear but changed direction. She says: “We got fed up having to reinvent everything every season. We had a passion for timeless products that were classic and well-made.” Theirs is, essentially, the modern workwear ethos.

“Fashion is usually obsessed with eternal youth, but has given way to a sort of permanence and consistency,” says men’s wear designer Joe Casely-Hayford, who creates the Casely-Hayford line with his son Charlie and whose collarless shirts (£290) and crushed jersey coats (£640) point to what Casely-Hayford calls “the crossing point between sartorial style and workwear. Our romantic heroes are more likely to be explorers than foppish aesthetes, and our followers appreciate a good back story.”

Case in point: the back stories at Old Town, a men’s wear label specialising in utility-inspired garments, are shamelessly fictitious, but charismatic. “Our single-breasted rever collar jacket (£138) is an unfaithful copy of one found in a tool locker during the demolition of Stratford locomotive works,” says its website.

“Fictitious provenance is an aid to the imagination,” says Old Town’s co-founder William Brown. And again, a certain maturity of style is central to the 50 garments that come out of their Norfolk workshop each week. “It’s a picturesque look that allows a middle-aged man to pose as an older man,” says Brown. “Dressing older is way more attractive than dressing younger.”

“My life story is in these past blue jackets,” says St John’s Henderson, explaining his affinity for what has become his working uniform. Meanwhile, for Gulliver, the versatility of the look is as important as its heritage. “I still wear my bleu de travail with matching high-waist trousers,” he says. “Believe it or not, it’s an acceptable suit under the Royal Automobile Club’s gentlemen’s dress code.”


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