Spring’s super-bright florals may be in full bloom in boutiques the world over, but many of us are stuck firmly in the grip of a Siberian winter. Fortunately there are a handful of brands that have ignored seasonality altogether – especially when it comes to knitwear. Often loose and supersized, these sweaters riff on monochrome motifs, asymmetry and edge, and offer a cool way to stay warm.
Some of the most interesting knits this season come from Rick Owens, a Paris-based designer and arch purveyor of the underground goth look. On the second floor of Owens’ atelier in Paris, there’s a room that houses a row of samples of mixed knitted and fur pieces from his studio’s Hun range.
“Hun” is Owens’ nickname for his wife and muse Michele Lamy, and the collection is the couple’s stab at couture. The elephant knit pieces are typically black and bold.
“They seem to satisfy Hun’s savage and voodoo inclinations,” says Owens, attributing the mood of (and credit for) the line to his wife. “I see her patron saints as [French symbolist painter] Gustave Moreau – all swirling perfumed smoke and jewelled emotion – and Attila, with a savage little snarl.”
The knits, which start from €4,500, are as sumptuous as they are wild, crafted in Marrakech in a small studio operated by Owens.
Todd Lynn also has several knits for men and women this season that reflect his otherwise tough tailoring with leather detailing. “The ladders in the knits are the focal point of each garment,” says Lynn. “It’s about textures but also the feeling of aggression that comes with that distressed look.”
Lynn collaborated with London-based knitwear expert Sid Bryan on the collection. Bryan is known for the pieces he made for the late Alexander McQueen’s 1999-2000 “Overlook” collection, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. Bryan says: “I think I have an instinctive, spontaneous approach that’s about reacting to the knit and the outcomes thrown up through experimentation.”
As it happens, the pieces that Lynn showed for spring were strongly reminiscent of some of the work of Richard Torry, who, along with Galliano and Bodymap, is part of the celebrated “Britpack” of the 1980s. Torry has recently recreated some of his classic men’s knits, with an expanded range being planned for Japan in April.
Torry all but gave up fashion in 1991 to work in music but his work has remained influential, and his name a key insider reference. The new pieces have an intense, dramatic, organic feeling to them, most notably the classic “Herringbone Sweater” (£550). First designed in 1985, they take their visual cues from fish bones and are hand-knitted in the UK.
This makes Torry’s work – like Rick Owens’ Hun range – inherently special but also time intensive, expensive and very limited. “There aren’t the knitting pools of little old ladies any more, like there were in the 1980s,” Torry says.
Similar issues have affected Dublin-based John Rocha, who frequently incorporates punk-tinged knitted elements in his work and showed a range of black Amazonian-tribal inspired knits for spring, with leather detailing.
“I insist on the knits all being done by hand, but few people are training in it today,” says Rocha. “Knits can be very contemporary – you can boil it to make it denser, and knit it hard and tight.”
Much of the new style of knitwear treats an otherwise soft textile as an unlikely, provocative, body armour. In Mark Fast’s work, body-conscious dresses are as overtly sexual as vintage, figure-hugging Alaïa.
Swedish designer Sandra Backlund, meanwhile, shapes her knits for women (starting at €1,700) into strong and sculptural shapes, with immense shoulders and necklines.
“Heavy knitwear has become my signature,” she says. “This season I’m focusing a lot on details, and how to create 3D effects close to the body.”
Many labels are pushing the accepted boundaries of what constitutes knitwear, with Maison Martin Margiela’s sleeveless cardigan for women in a chunky cotton-blend stitch worked into a rope-like motif, and its men’s pieces knitted using shredded shirts.
While the technique is different from Vivienne Westwood’s loosely woven Seditionaries mohair pieces from the 1970s, or the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s overlong, frayed sleeves of early 1990s grunge, it’s still all about attitude. The results make sense of a seeming oxymoron: they are soft but hard; winter wear for summer; knitwear with a needle-sharp edge.