STATE OF PLAY: Fighting Back at London's Menswear Shows

It might have been the sunny first day of a shiny new season, but it was impossible to ignore the uneasy, morning-after feeling that hung over London’s menswear shows yesterday. It's still less than a week since the attack in Southwark, just a few bridges downriver from the BFC's official venue on the Strand. And Thursday's general election, preceded by a short, bitter campaign, had just thrown the political world into chaos. “I know, I know,” designer Raimund Berthold groaned backstage at the BFC’s official venue. “I was staying up to watch the results, but then I thought ‘I HAVE to go to bed’ - because I have to be ready for the show!

A look from the Berthold Fashion Show (Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)

    It seems like an eternity (though it's only been a year) since the menswear shows first moved to the Strand. Then, in the weeks before the Brexit vote, audiences sat cheering designers like E. Tautz, Christopher Raeburn and Daniel W. Fletcher, whose collections were studded with slogans that we now know were doomed; ‘REMAIN’, ‘IN’ and ‘BETTER TOGETHER’.
    The mood this season, though, has drastically and inevitably changed. Along the Strand, crowds are sparser and hovering street style snappers are in short supply, while security guards stand outside the showspace with scanners and sniffer dogs. On listings, big-name draws like JW Anderson (showing at Pitti this season) are notably absent. And offstage, Jeremy Scott stole London's prime spot on the menswear calendar by showcasing Moschino's latest collection in Los Angeles the night before, whilst Gosha Rubchinskiy went one further, unveiling his latest collection (complete with a Burberry collaboration) in St. Petersburg on the same day.

     It's probably asking a lot of designers to expect them to somehow communicate this new mood. But it seemed only fitting, given the context, that Berthold's show was inspired by uncertainty and conflict.
"In terms of design, everything’s been slightly different this season," he explained. "We’ve started with a new mood board, a new way of working. Also, this is the first runway show. SO I wanted it to be grown-up - a serious collection, that’s both fun but also commercial in parts. I think it needs to work both ways.
     The collection was characteristically  androgynous, with flapping fatigue trousers, long tunics, languid knits and loose shirts wrapped and knotted to mould the wearer's body into subtly feminine silhouettes. Light technical fabrics in vivid blocks of yellow, red and powdery blue injected a surprisingly upbeat tone - one that was reflected quietly, over and over again, across the day.

     Across town at Edward Crutchley, staged in the Barbican's medieval Ironmongers Hall, there was a similar seesaw between positivity and unease - but this time with Britain's mongrel history woven into an intricate, century-hopping narrative that juxtaposed Converse kicks with viciously laced corsets, slouchy sportswear and sweeping, Fragonard-coloured skirts. Crutchley's print expertise was dialled down this season to focus on extravagance of shape rather than surface or colour - although a finale of lavishly embellished robes and jackets showed that he hasn't lost his feeling for sensual detail.

Looks from the Edward Crutchley Show (Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

     A more pointed floral narrative came to the fore courtesy of Bodybound - a label that first came to prominence some years ago, in the early days of the menswear boom. “Thrive and fight." designers  Kim Choong-Willins and Pliny Champion proclaimed after the show, when asked about their stance. "Austerity has hit the arts incredibly hard, and the freedom of press is at an all-time low. Mediocrity isn't an option for any young designers. This is the time for creatives - all British creatives - to stand up and be heard."
     On the runway, that translated into a quiet defiance, inspired by 1967's Summer of Love. As at Berthold, masculine utilitarian notes were subverted with softness and sensuality - in this case, in the shape of sheer separates embroidered with stripes of barbed wire and daisy chain coils, and washed-out denim patchworked with digital florals. For anyone that might have missed it, slogan appliqués made the point loud and clear, WE WILL NOT WILT.

    2017 may well be celebrated as the anniversary of the Flower Power revolution - but it's also designer Nigel Cabourn's 50th anniversary. He's a brand that's chosen, quite deliberately and consistently, to sit separately from the mainstream that we know as modern British menswear. But it was intriguing, browsing around the Covent Garden gallery where he'd hung his latest collection, to see how many threads of Cabourn's work - the military aesthetic, the reappropriated vintage garments, the collaborations, the casually interspersed womenswear elements - can now be spotted in the work of the legions of younger designers who've emerged in his wake.

     Over in Mayfair, the heartland of British menswear for centuries, the day ended with a re-introduction to yet another long-established British menswear label, Dunhill. Formerly helmed in turn by Kim Jones, John Ray and Wouter Baartmans, the latest incumbent is Mark Weston - an alumnus of Coach, DKNY and Burberry. Weston's starting point was all about approachability, as Dunhill's old-world appeal got freshened up, replacing buttoned-up tailoring with finely-cut outerwear, contemporary separates and splashes of traditional accessorising. The presentation offered a vision of a brand that felt relevant and desirable, whilst maintaining its clear point of view. And when it boils down to it, in these turbulent, unsettling times, that's really all any of London's menswear brands are trying to do.