It’s probably naive (if not downright unfashionable) to talk about hope in 2016.
We live in a nervily uncertain world, hyper-informed about its increasingly messy realities. And an emotion as datedly innocent as hope feels entirely out of step with what we see all around us — whether it’s as all-consuming as the deepening cracks in global financial and political systems, or as specific as the piles of last-season sale stock still languishing on shop-rails all across London.
Nonetheless, the city has decided to celebrate hope in 2016, in the form of a year-long festival marking the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. So, at the start of a new season, it feels as though a little optimism might be in order. Especially given that this is the first day of the Winter 2016 shows — and that it’s the one day in London’s schedule whose very focus is on youth, idealism and newness itself.
This time round, youth came in the form of high street mammoth Topman, the place where most of the country’s young men actually shop: idealism through the ten designers from the London College of Fashion’s menswear MA course, showing in a group event; and newness from MAN, the initiative which kick-started London’s menswear renaissance a decade ago, and which has gone on to provided the schedule with most of its shiniest stars.
Kicking off the day, the LCF designers were perhaps the most contemporary, at least in their aesthetic. Stand-outs like Xiao Zhou Su’s jigsaw-puzzle silhouettes, Jekeuj Cho’s sad-clown graphics, Bethany Williams’ slumped, reconstituted knits and Alexis Housden’s fragile veils provided a brightly eclectic range of directions — whilst also, by and large, sitting within the parameters of gender-fluid-ish, modern-ish, abstract-ish clothing laid down by London’s menswear and womenswear over the past few years. Streetwear references were largely absent — interestingly so, given that the surge in that movement’s popularity has played such a critical role in undermining Savile Row’s tight stranglehold on British menswear. The fact that these new designers seemed to be looking beyond that conflict was intriguing in itself.
Topman Design sits uneasily to the side of Topman’s main offer, straddling the gap between everyman approachability and challenging fashion. Today their focus was on opulent surfaces and fluid, unstructured shapes, with washed-out velvets and Brideshead-ish silk pyjamas, softened denim and devoré floral prints. The overall impact — baggy, lazy but louche — felt strangely mature for the brand’s demographic.
Throughout its existence, the lineups for MAN (and its womenswear counterpart, Fashion East) have been notably — and sometimes pointedly — diverse. That explosive elasticity, after all, is precisely what’s made London’s schedule so compellingly energetic. But the lineups have often made a stronger point when there's been an element of synchronicity — like the 2013 womenswear show, when Claire Barrow, Ashley Williams and Ryan Lo collided in a moment that focused less on shared aesthetics than on a shared post-recession reality — a reality that is common to most new London names. It’s a reality of painfully tight budgets and crushing overheads, of pragmatically repurposing garments and fabrics, and of employing hand-done, homemade techniques in place of luxury craftsmanship.
But that was three years ago. Today three very different (and once again, diverse) names were on show. Rory Parnell-Mooney, in his third and final outing under the MAN umbrella, stayed true to his brand of austere and abstracted tailoring, weaving cut-up clerical robes and sulky streetwear into an evocative blend (stamped with uneasily-worn slogans like NANC/YBOY and REPENT, and teamed with tear-streaked faces); at points — when jolts of violet broke through the all-conquering black, and when the designer’s harnesses cinched folds of fabric into unexpectedly sculptural shapes — the clothes were almost fabulous. He came sandwiched between Grace Wales Bonner and Charles Jeffrey, who were both transitioning from presentation to runway formats for the first time, and who both brought a new dynamism to their garments-in-motion. Wales Bonner’s pieces were rich and sensual, glittering with crystal embellishment and caressing the body with their soft textures and sumptuous colours; Jeffrey’s were lurching, uneven but joyfully celebratory. But both made good use of powerful casting to establish convincing visions.
Conviction, in fact, seemed the only common thread. Backstage, there was little sense of post-show euphoria but instead, three serious individuals, already focused on the task ahead; translating the magic of the runway moment into a viable showroom reality. For all his show’s chaotic flamboyance, Jeffrey is intent about the process. “Loverboy (the already-infamous club night he runs in East London), all that stuff out there, is my laboratory. It’s where I test my ideas out. But when we get to Paris, to the showrooms, and start getting the buyers’ reactions, that’s when the collection will really start to grow.” Is Jeffrey hopeful? “Yeah, you kind of have to be, don’t you?” he ponders, yanking at his clothes just as the tailoring itself yanked at its own constraints. “Oh, it’s fifty-fifty,” Parnell-Mooney agrees. “There are so many great designers out there. And there are days when you’re just bashing your head against a wall, and wondering why you even bother. But today is a good day!”
And today, at least, these three are the future. But what they also share, in all their box-fresh newness, is the burden of history; Nineties anthems like Placebo’s Nancy Boy and Supergrass’s Alright on the soundtrack, familiar slogans and punk iconography, retro colours and misfitting, clashing silhouettes — all pulled from the vast rag-and-bone yard that is modern (for want of a better word) menswear. Is it new? Hard to say, with all those old and blue and borrowed somethings on show. It was easy, on the surface, to look at Jeffrey’s clothes and see old-school Westwood run through a high-speed spin cycle; at Wales Bonner, and see a whole Tumblr’s worth of gorgeously-curated period street-style; at Parnell-Mooney, and see a whole line of minimalist design stretching back through Damir Doma to Helmut Lang and beyond. But it was what they did with those familiar tropes, particularly in terms of reconstituting proportions, that felt newest of all. And these days the idea of newness — just like hope itself — is proving an increasingly evasive one. Or maybe we just need a new definition of "new."