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Menswear? Men’s where? The opening day of the Autumn/Winter 2019 menswear season in London questioned gender and blurred boundaries — it began at Art School with a bias-cut dress, which was technically the first look of a fashion week with the word “men” tacked on to the end. Yet what relevance does a men’s-only fashion week have in a cultural landscape of increasing gender fluidity? Particularly when billion-pound behemoths like Burberry and Gucci are combining men’s and women’s into single showcases (economic in both creative and financial senses).
Well, menswear is big business by itself, for one. The UK market alone is worth £15bn; a further 11 per cent growth is anticipated over the next three years, to £17.1bn. It is expected to outperform womenswear entirely by 2020.
But those numbers speak more of the blockbuster men’s shows of Milan and Paris, the latter of which is swollen with new shows this season from Celine, Loewe, JW Anderson and a presentation by Givenchy in its haute couture salons (a precursor to a standalone men’s show later this year). London men’s “week” by contrast spans only three days, and is sparsely populated. And, given the proclivities of its designers, feels increasingly tenuous.
That’s not a dig at the designers’ talents — which vary, some proven, other nascent — but rather that bothersome label of “men’s”. London’s designers are largely progressive in outlook when it comes to gender boundaries. Take, for instance, the aforementioned Art School, a young London label helmed by designers Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt — who have barely graduated from Ravensbourne and Central Saint Martins, respectively. This was their first standalone show after three seasons as part of the fashion incubator scheme MAN. And not just that opening slinky bias-cut slip, but the model inside was, to borrow contemporary parlance, “female-presenting” — like the nipples the online platform Tumblr just banned from exposure. Tumblr’s wording reflects the concerns of new Tumblr-ised generation, of fluid gender and non-binary identification.
Those are the people Art School are really interested in dressing, which makes compelling grounds for exploration, although it is limited in commercial viability, particularly when framed in a men’s fashion week. Plainly speaking, there are many more women than men willing to wear dresses and skirts. All of which can make Art School’s output feel more art project than fashion — especially, again, in that menswear context. There was a lot of focus on who was wearing these clothes, as opposed to what they actually were: shredded T-shirts printed with slogans (“Art School Dropout” read one) and slithery dresses. The intricately choreographed catwalk show made for spectacle, but what would compel anyone of any gender identity to buy? It was an advertisement for an idea, above all else.
Incidentally, many of London’s men’s labels are stocked in womenswear departments — Charles Jeffrey’s Loverboy brand, for instance, which is labelled as womenswear by MatchesFashion.com. Jeffrey is precociously talented, in the mould of John Galliano or Vivienne Westwood, shaped by London club counter-culture. And there were shades of both here, in the bias-cut dresses (a menswear trend?) and a predilection for tartan (more convincing). Yet amid his memories of fashions past — he cited Cecil Beaton portraits of the androgynous 1920s Bright Young Things — Jeffrey found his own path to propose a viable selection of clothes for her and, yes, for him.
He was inspired by Peter Pan and his Lost Boys, but Jeffrey didn’t lose his way, even though he diverted Pan and Wendy on a merry wander through the 1920s, with make-up looks culled from Erté and Cocteau. Yet for every transparent, gossamer-tulle pleated dress camping up an homme fatale, there were another three or four trench coats breaking with kilt pleats, or hardy tartan suits and coats (the best of the latter oversized, in mohair with chain between the seams). Fantasy but heads with reality. The show was on a par with the best you may see in Milan or Paris. It was just a pity that, in a hydraulic power station in Wapping, East London, there were relatively few to experience the divine madness first-hand.
Which is another issue with London: starting less than a week into the new year, desperately crow-barred in before juggernaut weeks in Europe and without the anchoring heft of, say, Burberry (who used to show a standalone men’s show until February 2016, when they combined their men’s and women’s offerings), audiences often feel scant. But there is no remedy, other than luring a brand who advertises heavily enough to make the week a must-see.
The other option, of course, could be to combine London Fashion Week Men’s with plain old London Fashion Week, whose attendance is far stronger. These designers deserve a wider audience. Not just Jeffrey but also Edward Crutchley, who showed a collection inspired both by business wear, and by Grace Jones in A View to a Kill. Not as antithetical nor extreme as one may assume — Crutchley mixed womenswear in with his men’s (which took the brunt of the Bond Girl inspirations), but both shared luxurious cashmere knits, eyelash lurex chiffons, velvets and furs. They also shared flawless tailoring, long, soft coats with a swaggering rounded shoulder and printed lounging pyjamas, inspired by Japanese and American mid-eighties sportswear.
The masculinity of the silhouette pulled the femininity of certain fabrics back to the realm of the wearable: hats by Stephen Jones, including a witchy-poo Oliver Cromwell wide-brimmed number apparently inspired by traditional Korean headgear and a bunch of astrakhan pillboxes, were witty and fun. A kimono-esque motif — an intarsia executed in various furs of a Japanese secretary bird in flight that spanned a cape and a short bomber jacket — was jaw-dropping in its unapologetic luxury.
Yes, it was a lot of a look. But there are men who would pay a lot of money to look just like that.
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