Sometimes, in fashion, wear and tear is the best accessory. Of all the items on display at Hermès’ Leather Forever exhibition, opening next week in London as part of the label’s 175th anniversary, it’s the vintage designs that capture the attention. There are pieces commissioned by the Duke of Windsor that have the handsome patina of decades of use, and many, including a sporran, belt and a leather wheelbarrow used by Wallis Simpson to house her glove collection, tell a story beyond “royal appointment”. A story of depth, integrity and a little mystery. Not surprisingly (but perhaps ironically), some designers are trying to weave such elements into their work before it makes it to the point of first sale.
For many niche brands, this is partly about distancing themselves from the mainstream. “These producers are the antithesis of big brand, big thinking,” says Mark Quinn of the Shoreditch menswear boutique Hostem, one of several stores that trades on the aesthetic. “They are driven by a dedication to craft.”
Not to be confused with fads for distressed-denim and faux aged leather that appear every few fashion cycles, the current move toward the “new aged” has more to do with the fact that spending four figures on a jacket in a quality hide is an investment and for men, in particular, its gradual softening and scuffing suggests a life well lived and a certain insouciance.
The allure of the “old” is not limited to leather. A handful of contemporary designers have pioneered a similar approach to other textiles. For example, Homme Plus suits by Comme des Garçons are often made in boiled wool or polyester. Then there are the sneakers by Maison Martin Margiela that have been whitewashed; for men who remember having box-fresh trainers stamped on by classmates at school to “christen them”, there’s something reassuringly “ready” about these shoes. And at Belstaff, “Antique Black” is the new black: some boots are available in the former, but not the latter.
Many men – particularly those who would never consider vintage – will not succumb to what they see as pretension in fashion in the form of faux aging. Yet, says Quinn, “These labels are actually a refuge for the unpretentious. It’s not showy and it’s not the instant ageing of All Saints or Levis. What might be perceived as imperfections are highly desirable – the result of fabrication sourced from the few family-run mills left in business.”
These clothes aren’t meant to look pre-worn or distressed, merely relaxed and luxurious, with subtle evidence of their artisan craft. “Brands such as A1923 and Lost & Found produce clothing that has a story to tell,” says Michael Takkou, formerly of Mayfair boutique Layers. “We recently stocked a collaboration between LAYER-0 and Avantindietro where footwear was constructed with leather that had been buried for 10 years.”
Such avant-garde techniques can only be employed by small design houses. “These designers don’t follow trends,” says Quinn. “Geoffrey B Small hand makes his buttons and Carol Christian Poell dyes his leather in ox blood. Customers buy their clothes for decades, not seasons.”
Some labels such as Casey Vidalenc – known for their boiled wools and what they call “tight and tough fabrics” – aren’t even produced via traditionally structured collections. “We just make things when we want to wear them ourselves,” says Gareth Casey. “If clients want to buy them, then fine.”
Much of what’s currently on sale at London’s Dover Street Market and Hostem features fabrics that have been dyed, shrunk, laundered and distressed; many one-off Casey Vidalenc garments are made from short runs of textiles that Casey and his design partner Philippe Vidalenc “wash, wash and wash” and then twist by hand. The result appeals to a customer who sees himself as being above the predictable smart casual look. It’s also very well made. Most of it comes straight from the atelier as opposed to the production line, as it would have done before the advent of ready-to-wear.
The shop assistants in Rick Owens’ stores wear their proprietor’s black and “dark dust” coloured T-shirts to work, often in tatters, and serve as an instruction manual for newcomers to the brand; Owens designs some of his raw-edged items, such as his sheer cotton T-shirts, to distress, artfully, over time. Others, such as this season’s stonewashed, buttery soft leathers, are sold with a subtle weathering to the texture or with a pre-worn tone. “I see it as a restrained patina,” says Owens. “Think of British gentlemen who used to give their new shoes to a valet to reduce the newness.”
Brighton-based designer Paul Harnden creates tailoring that often has the warped heft and weirdness of a Joseph Beuys installation. Described as “very Greta Garbo” by longstanding customer John Galliano, Harnden makes music and Super-8 films but has never produced a catwalk show. He refuses party invitations, interviews and online retail, selling exclusively at a few stores (Dover Street Market; IF in New York; L’Eclaireur in Paris). Much of his work resembles wrinkled, rugged, American Civil War costume, with heavy cottons and twists of Victoriana. Nevertheless, he has a cult following among fans – including Brad Pitt – prepared to pay more than £1,000 for a coat, and the majority of each new collection sells out on arrival. Does anyone still doubt the maxim: “What was old is new again”?
‘Hermès Leather Forever’ runs at 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1 from May 8-27; www.hermes.com