At fashion shows, the focus is meant to be on what is finished: the completed looks that have taken months of toil to create. But on day two of the London Collections: Men, autumn/winter 2014, the subject was largely process and motive: specifically how clothes were made, and by whom. Perhaps it was inevitable given two of the brands in focus – JW Anderson and Christopher Kane – recently became part of major conglomerates (Mr Anderson as designer for LVMH’s Loewe, and Mr Kane by selling a majority stake to Kering) and both clearly benefited from stretching their legs with larger budgets. But what does this say about British manufacturing, if designers have to seek investment from abroad to look slick?
Put bluntly, the clothes at JW Anderson suddenly seemed better made. In previous Anderson collections it often felt like the garments could fall apart before the model made it round the catwalk, but here many were of exceptional quality. Of course, this being JW Anderson, these were pieces that challenged a man to face humiliation: long tabard tops of vivid colour knit; an asymmetric, off-the-shoulder cape top that was pretty much a dress; a boat-neck top with one deep cuff banded in white (you get the drill).
Still there were pieces to sell – simple camel V-neck sweaters, plain tweed shirts and a rather nice knitted T-shirt with leg-of-mutton sleeves – and when the designer himself came out for his bow, he was wearing a grey sweater, jeans, and Converse high-tops. Which made it hard not to think: for all of the newfound excellence in manufacture, the attention-getting clothes would have more conviction if Mr Anderson sent out pieces he was prepared to wear himself.
By contrast, Christopher Kane’s menswear presentations have traditionally been pretty much limited to a T-shirt and sweats collection, but since the injection of Kering cash have become expansive: tailored suits, coats, cable knits. This season the theme was the weirdness of science, with a cartoonish molecule logo that looked like the Atomium building in Brussels, plus a snakeskin effect on tailored suits, and neat snakeskin accessories, all of which added up to a confident and commercial step for the house.
A few of London’s labels have lived the conglomerate life very happily for years, of course, such as Alexander McQueen, also owned by Kering. The inspiration here was the hard romantics of 1950s Soho life, with a John Deakin photograph of Lucian Freud printed large on the front of shirts, or woven in silk on the back of long coats. Creative director Sarah Burton said she wanted the silhouette to be strict, with a lean line coming from a square shoulder. Often, kilts were worn over matching trousers. Graphic and mirrored lines were patchworked into tailoring and excess zips provided decorative trims. The setting, an old church, added menace, though Ms Burton took her bow with her menswear designer, Harley Hughes, which was a nice touch. Mr McQueen himself once brought his protégé Ms Burton out at the end of a womenswear show to share the applause. Here it was well deserved.
Still, independents also did just fine, especially the established British labels that are known for their construction. Richard James was at his best when he removed the padding from the shoulder for a couple of little cropped tweed jackets. Suddenly, things looked modern, which was a good thing in a show titled The New Edwardians. It was great to see Mr James occasionally loosen up, especially with a covetable raglan sleeve herringbone coat. Meanwhile, Margaret Howell presented a version of her soft-focus man, this time happily urbanised in a micro houndstooth suit, a neat peacoat and an eloquently simple petrol blue mac.
In the end, however, it was the little guys without big backing or even much record who won the day. Making a strong debut was new label Pieter, the work of recent graduate Sebastiaan Groenen, who showed clothes of varying length, including dresses for men that still managed to look strangely masculine. As if to prove their functionality, unlike JW Anderson, Mr Groenen even had the guts to wear one himself. True, he did wear his black knit dress with a gaping slash at the midriff over jeans, but it is a start.
As for James Long, he sent out a tight, sharp selection that was at its best in a series of panelled quilted bombers, the quilting varying in size to add body contouring. What Mr Long may lack in budget, he gains in passion. On each seat was a heartfelt tribute to Bryan McMahon, a much-loved British stylist who died from a brain tumour on New Year’s eve. In the dedication, Mr Long spoke of McMahon’s love of fashion. This same love and dedication was clear in every bit of Mr Long’s work.