When we say British menswear, we mean London; we mean Savile Row tailoring, Carnaby Street Mod gear, the ever-changing rainbow of East End style tribes. But if there's one thing that last year's referendum proved, it's that London ISN'T Britain – and vice versa.
Christopher Shannon Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)
Savile Row and Carnaby Street might have been the places the world flocked to see British clothing, but the faraway North of England was the engine which produced those clothes in the first place. Most of the brands that make up the British menswear’s backbone – Crombie, Pringle, Mackintosh – got their start there, in a time when the great mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire produced most of the developed world's fabric, and cities like Manchester, Liverpool, and Bradford grew into vast hubs of trade and wealth in the process. And centuries later, as the textile industry imploded and the splendour of those boom towns fell into decay, the North emerged with its own distinctive visual identity – one which continues to shape the fashion aesthetic far beyond Britain’s borders. It’s Elsie
Tanner in curlers and fur striding down a cobbled street, or bottle-blonde Viv Nicholson shouting "Spend, spend, spend." It’s the Blackpool illuminations and the Arndale Centre; it’s fish-and-chip shops and working-mens’ clubs and the Byker Wall. It’s Liverpool’s shell suits and football supporters in their ruthlessly-tribal terrace uniforms, and David Hockney in stripey t-shirts and slippers, and the bright-and-baggy explosion that was Manchester’s take on the rave generation. It’s bright. It’s bold. It’s bleak. It’s bitter. And it’s always much, much too much.
Gareth Pugh Fashion Show Menswear Collection Spring Summer 2017 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)
Coinciding with the launch of LFWM, an exhibition tracing the North’s influence on fashion, photography, and identity has just opened at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery. It’s both local (including Northern-bred names like Simon Foxton, Gareth Pugh, Claire Barrow and Mark Leckey) and global (Raf Simons’ AW2003 collection, a collaboration with Manchester’s Peter Saville, featured alongside a series of graphic totems commissioned by Virgil Abloh from Hacienda design legend Ben Kelly). In between, there’s a comprehensive sweep of work by comtemporary designers, stylists, and image-makers, showing just how influential this "other" Britain has been.
Lou Dalton Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2017 in London (by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)
You didn’t have to look much further than LFWM’s catwalks for proof of the exhibition’s vision. Take Lou Dalton, whose presentation in St. James's Market put another kind of North on show – the hidden rural topography of the designer's Shropshire home, a place she returns to again and again. This time out, that landscape was reinterpreted by artist John Booth, whose colourful abstract forms were printed onto slim knits by Derbyshire-based firm John Smedley.
E.Tautz Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2016 in London (by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)
At E. Tautz, Patrick Grant also had landscapes on his mind, thanks to the work of Leeds photographer Peter Mitchell. Mitchell's imagery of scarecrows inspired a collection of light, loose separates that flapped as the models circled the runway space, their flat surfaces shaded in muted clay, earth, and navy tones. It felt far, far away from Savile Row's buttoned-up pomp.
Christopher Shannon Fashion Show Menswear Collection Fall Winter 2016 in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)
Set against that quiet bleakness, Liverpool-born Christopher Shannon offered something far more uncompromisingly urban. The designer's reinvention of streetwear codes has helped shape one of the defining aesthetics of British menswear over the past decade. His show – even where it flared with sudden neon colour – tilted towards toughness, with pumped-up combat trousers, scraped denim, and quilted nylon bombers. Parody brand logos (Tumbleweed for Timberland; Consumer Stress instead of Calvin Klein) were splashed across boxy sweatshirts and tees, whilst the models’ faces were plastered with shredded flags that seemed merged into their skin.
Beyond the wall that surrounded Shannon's show space lies the menswear floor of Selfridges, one of London's busiest department stores. It's where most of the designers showing on the schedule would dearly love to be stocked; and Shannon's already there. His SS17 collection, stamped with slogans that reference a very modern Northern fashion powerhouse (Sports Direct) are selling briskly. Why? Perhaps because what "North" represents – the outsider, the angry, the disaffected, the uncontrolled – is so seductively other. And perhaps because that otherness, and that disaffection, are increasingly coming to define menswear's emerging cults, from Gosha Rubchinskiy to Vetements and beyond.