BRAND NEW YOU: Hitting the Restart Button at London’s Menswear Shows

Another season starts in London. In lots of ways, it’s the same as ever – bleary-eyed audiences, still sleepwalking from Christmas hibernation and propped up by caffeine and beer; shop windows crammed with festive lights and FINAL DISCOUNT signs; suited-up men taking important phone calls in front of photogenic backdrops. And bitter cold. And rain. Inevitably, rain. 

But this time out, there’s been a reset. After five successful years as London Collections: Mens, Britain's menswear showcase has been rebranded London Fashion Week Men’s. The move was announced last summer, as part of a strategy to make the event more legible to a wider consumer audience. And in ways, it feels like an apt time to make a clean break. 

 

 Burberry Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2016 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

LC:M launched in a blaze of confident, expansive optimism back in 2012. The recession appeared to be over, and the international menswear market was booming (its growth rate far outstripping that of womenswear); Mr. Porter, one of the headline sponsors, was barely a year old – but was already on its way to becoming a major global retail phenomenon; London fashion was having an extended "moment," and a wave of young designers (JW Anderson, James Long, Christopher Raeburn, Lou Dalton, Agi & Sam) were forming something that seemed on the brink of becoming a new menswear establishment.

 

 MAN Fashion Show Menswear Collection Spring Summer 2017 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Five years in, things are looking – and feeling – very different. Post-Brexit and Post-Trump, the world mood is on shaky ground once more. Many of the tentpole names that came back to London during LC:M’s glory days – McQueen, Moschino, Coach, Tom Ford – have either decamped to other cities, or opted out of showing. Some of the schedule's most popular homegrown names, from James Long to Nasir Mazhar, are AWOL too. Several of the names still here – Sibling, KTZ, Christopher Raeburn, Nigel Cabourn – are showing womenswear alongside their mens' ranges. But others (including schedule stalwart Margaret Howell) are following Burberry’s lead and shifting their menswear line to the womenswear schedule.

 

 Gucci Fashion Show Ready-to-Wear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in Milan (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Of course, that reflects a broader shift. In Milan, for example, Gucci will show both collections in one show during womenswear, and DSquared2 will do the same (but during menswear). It's just the next step in the line of dominoes that Burberry set in motion last year – and one which, increasingly, is calling the current state of the calendar into question. 

By way of illustration, Stella McCartney launched her first menswear collection this season – but she did so in mid-December, a full month before the menswear calendar started; likewise with Daniel Kearns and David Beckham’s revamp of Kent & Curwen, which launched online with Mr. Porter at around the same time. (The brand is staging an AW17 presentation at LFWM this Sunday.)
And then there's the minor issue that, with Raf Simons' upcoming debut at Calvin Klein next month (combined with the fact that he’s also shifting his own label to New York's infant menswear showcase), much of this season's attention will inevitably shift Stateside. So it's hard not to wonder whether menswear's whole centre of gravity is shifting too. Which means that the #lfwm hashtag (a slender 5,000 uses on Instagram) is making its debut at an unprecedentedly vulnerable moment – if not for British menswear itself, then at the very least for the event created to promote it. 
But there's not much you can do about gravity. And the British are good at doing what it says on their souvenirs: Keeping Calm, and Carrying On. "Sure, maybe it's more pointless than usual," one menswear blogger suggested. "But in a way, that maybe takes a bit of the pressure off? You're not so desperate to be the big new thing. You can just show some decent clothes."

 

 Topman Design Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in London (by for NOWFASHION)

 

And on the Day 1 runways, the overall mood was very much business as usual. Take the Topman Design show, which used its usual kick-off slot to continue its exploration of British youth style. Last season, the brand went on a greaser rockabilly detour, but this time out they flipped back to their sportswear comfort zone. Sturdy utility jackets, brushed pinstripe separates and blown-up check coats provided an anchor of no-nonsense wearability – leaving plenty of space for the design team to play with exuberant activewear, slouchy denim, neon tracksuits, and swirl-print rave knits. 

 

 MAN Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Three hours later at MAN (always a reliable marker for the next generation’s mood), it was business as usual too. Per Götesson, who graduated from the RCA last summer, stayed true to his sleepy take on Nineties denim with swaggering, wildly oversized jeans and coats paired up with plaid and sinuous, skinny fit nude layers. Fengchen Wang, who graduated from the RCA the year above Götesson, used leather and foil to create swooping shapes in dark rose, charcoal grey, lemon yellow, and silver. Where Götesson's models were exposed, Wang's were covered-up – but her undulating, skin-like cocoons, in a much more abstract way, said just as much about the relationship between men, the male body, and menswear itself. And rounding the showcase off, Charles Jeffrey embraced 2017's looming dystopia with a collection that blended wailing dancers and lurid Gary Card monsters with a collection of tightly restrained tailoring that stood out – even amidst the chaos – as his strongest yet. Dark clerical forms were cut close to the body, with slim panels of pleating creating bursts of contained, graceful motion. 

 

 Liam Hodges Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Liam Hodges, one of MAN's many alumni, showed on the other side of Central London, in the venue at 180 Strand which will be home to all of London's fashion weeks from this season on. His collection mixed sturdy quilting and washed-out camouflage prints with sharp-contrast graphic panelling and scrawled slogans. Hodges' work always seems poised somewhere between pessimism and affection; in that context, it was hard to know whether the hoodie stamped "THIS YEAR" was a call to action – or a threat.
And before all that, across town at a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster (surrounded by slabs of government buildings where Brexit strategies are – allegedly – being finalised), the London College of Fashion staged their MA menswear show. It was disconnected from the rest of the shows, but it wasn't hard to see how the nine students presenting collections were connected into the larger conversation. They shared consistent preoccupations – with cut and volume, with cocooning and disjointed forms. (It's hard, incidentally, not to look at all the misfitting, sheltering layers on show runways without thinking back to the shadowy figures in badly-fitting, sheltering layers that haunt London's doorways and alleys). Zhenhao Guo's sleek-banded, boldly-knotted tailoring, Changxia Shao's wadded performancewear and Chang Zhang's splintered checks made for particular standouts.

It must be exciting (and terrifying) to be a graduating fashion designer now. As they took to the stage at the end of the show, the class of 2016 seemed like they were both. A hundred yards south of the LCF show venue, the vast Burberry headquarters on Horseferry Road shows what a young designer, with the right opportunities and skills, can achieve. It’s probably only a gap of a hundred metres – but it may as well be a million miles. Beyond that? It’s cold outside.

 

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