There is a word you cannot escape in London as the autumn/winter 2014 menswear collections begin in the city. Forget fashion’s favourite catchphrase, “luxury”; in London it’s all about “austerity”.
The shows dawned with George Osborne, chancellor, warning of £25bn cuts after the next election, creating a conundrum for designers: how to communicate aspirational clothes while also reflecting the reality of Great Britain?
For Jonathan Saunders, one of London’s brightest stars, the answer was casualwear. “It’s the elegance of trackpants,” he said in front of an array of models in thin knits patterned in vivid colours. These knits were multiple and varied, and of particular note was a diamond red-on-white print, or a vertical stripe that looked like thin shutters partially open.
Savile Row, by contrast, addressed austerity by going global. Though Gieves & Hawkes makes its home on the Row, its view today is international, with a particular focus on Asia (natural since owners Trinity Group are based in Hong Kong). What matters to the brand are contemporary updates of British traditions that can lure a broader audience – see creative director Jason Basmajian’s focus on making country clothes feel city-appropriate, his favourite look a Donegal tweed suit worn with a cashmere tie.
“I love the country colour palette worn in the city,” he says, “to me it’s quite urban.” And maybe, in these pared-down times, a way for city men to be slick without looking vulgar. What’s clear at Gieves is that Mr Basmajian is being given the freedom, and budget, to create a globally valid vision of 21st century tailoring, and that has value.
Still, in austerity Britain, the young have to fight for what they believe, and have to do so with clarity and force of vision. Prime example is Craig Green, The designer is only in his third catwalk season but has already been nominated for a British Fashion Award and is stocked in uber-boutique Dover Street Market, both in London and its just-opened New York outpost. Mr Green’s was one of those rare fashion shows that are a sheer pleasure to witness, his succession of hand-painted outfits featuring complex spiral patterns invigorating to see.
Backstage he explained the process of each garment, involving painting, folding to squidge the lines, baking to fix them and then another layer of paint. What he did not explain was his belief that dresses are de rigueur for men, or his silhouette, with an audacious dropped shoulder finishing not far off the elbow. No matter; he’s clearly committed to his cause no matter the price.
Also notable from the younger names was recent graduate Liam Hodges’ show of grey layers inspired by band roadies and their utilitarian clobber, and Astrid Andersen and her luxury sportswear, which is building an obsessive global fan base. She’s Danish, and so she has no problem with using fur like any old cloth. Here she used real pelts for parkas printed in wild colours, then faux astrakhan for tracksuits. Both will sell in droves.
Much of London Collections: Men is bankrolled by Topman, especially the NewGen Men scheme through which many young designers get their break. The high street behemoth also shows its own more pricey Topman Design collection, and in it they hit a workwear note that marched well with the overall mood.
Duffel coats had leather patches, and a pinstripe greatcoat looked made for someone trying to get a job. It was not the only workwear on view either: Lou Dalton sent out an excellent collection inspired by the farmhands she remembers from her childhood. Denim of jeans and jackets was bleached out, the cord of a shirt softened as if from years of wear, the outerwear padded internally for working the land. There was luxury – a long black coat in a cashmere mix – but Ms Dalton is gaining a following of men who want affordable contemporary clothes with a fashion edge. They will find much of worth here.
And yet at least one designer on the London fashion scene dared to shrug in the face of austerity. Richard Nicoll is a designer who makes the kind of clothes that his contemporaries – thirtysomething men – love to wear. So there were sweet coats in shades of blue, cut with sweaters printed with words such as “brutal” and “discreet” and hinting at the hidden codes of men. The government may say austerity, but fashion says carry on.