The Young ones: Sense and Sensuality at Fashion East

It’s tempting to use Fashion East, the mechanism that’s acted as a launchpad for much of the new British fashion establishment, to trace the course of menswear’s evolution. It’s true, most of the tentpole names that represent British design, both at home and abroad, are graduates of the programme – Kim Jones, JW Anderson, Craig Green, and Meadham Kirchhoff amongst them. (Not to mention the opportunities it’s given to international designers, from Gosha Rubchinskiy to a young Lotta Volkova.)

 

Fashion East Presentation in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

But Fashion East is as much a tracker of disruption and discontinuity as it is of any grand theory of fashion evolution. The names the panel have selected over the past decade are an indicator of talent, potential, and ambition. But selection is no guarantee of lasting success. Season after season, generations of raw new designers blossom in the heat of its spotlight; some flourish spectacularly (most recently Grace Wales Bonner, who went from Fashion East debut to winning the third LVMH Prize in the space of 18 months), some fail. The rest? In one way or another, they survive. Take Martine Rose, who appeared at one of the first presentations in 2009; ever since, she's veered wildly in and out of the schedule – but last night, in the unlikely setting of a North London food market, she staged a comeback with what could well turn out to be the collection of the week.

In the absence of a formal off-schedule dimension to London’s menswear event, though, Fashion East offers a vital counterpoint to the weight of the city’s heritage names. That was particularly evident this season, in a week which (even by London’s standards) was notably scattered in intent. Taking over the Topman showspace – a disused hotel grafted onto the back of Selfridges’ department store – two very different visions of fashion (of how it’s conceived, of how it’s produced, and most of all how it’s communicated) were on show.

 

Fashion East Presentation in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Rottingdean Bazaar were the old-timers this time out; building on their debut last season, CSM-trained duo James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks took the showcase concept literally. Their wares were laid out on trestle tables and picnic blankets for visitors to pick over as though browsing at a car boot sale. And those wares were an intriguing mix of the mundane and the precious, the incidental and the abandoned; sports socks and flesh-coloured tights needle-punched into scarves, sweaters, and flannel shirts (even the slogans the tights came twisted into had a diffidence about them; YES, NO, OK, WHY?). Generic monochrome t-shirts were embellished with swirls of iron filings, or tatters of ancient textiles purchased from eBay; jewellery was formed by embedding Roman coins into a thick gum. There was plenty of much-needed, flippantly serious humour on show, too, from long socks that stretched out several feet beyond the wearer’s toes, to the carousel of care labels the duo provided, offering the customer the chance to create their own clothes – and overlay the Rottingdean brand afterwards. (Sample instruction; DRAW A PICTURE OF YOUR IDEAL T-SHIRT AND HAVE IT PRINTED ONTO A T-SHIRT. ATTACH THIS LABEL).

 

Fashion East Presentation in London (by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

 

Around the corner, newcomers Art School staged a very different kind of presentation. Founded by fashion designer Eden Loweth and performer/artist Tom Barratt, the label’s focus is on the exploration of contemporary gender identities. A troupe of performers moved around the space, melding into group formations at some points and breaking off into dramatic tableaux at others, their movements and actions syncing to a dreamy Seventies soundtrack. The clothes themselves were inspired by the duo’s own wardrobes, and those of their friends, and drew the audience into a romantic bohemian world; ethereal slips worn over corsets, supple velvet greatcoats, beaded flares and punk plaid twinsets. Was it menswear? Well, it was clothing, worn by men (and some women). So, yes, it’s menswear, just as Meadham Kirchhoff and Charles Jeffrey’s work is menswear. And yet it’s not. Amidst all the hype about seasons blurring and brands combining menswear and womenswear into single runway presentations, it took a debutant brand to question the fundamental division between masculine and feminine (and then dance right across it). Art School’s response, for all its’ grease-painted artificiality, had a sense of freedom about it which has been almost entirely absent from the rest of London’s menswear shows. And if Rottingdean Bazaar appealed to the head, with its playful re-evaluation of fashion display and consumption, then Art School went straight for the heart. What’s next, for either brand, is as uncertain as anything else in 2017 (though Rottingdean Bazaar’s first collection is already on sale, on the other side of the wall that separates the Fashion East space from Selfridges’ menswear floor). But, in the moment, they brought some much-needed wit, romance – and perhaps even optimism – to the start of this new menswear season.

 

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