British designers are injecting a new spirit into menswear
London has always been the home of all that is edgy and cool in fashion - it's the city that gave us punk, miniskirts and, more recently, talented young designers, such as Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane and Peter Pilotto.
And, while womenswear has always dominated the British capital's fashion scene, the past year has seen the arrival of several designers who are offering a cool, new proposition on menswear.
"Menswear is now a much bigger business," says Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ and chairman of the British Fashion Council's menswear committee. "Plus, we have always had a wealth of creative talent, and these days it's being harnessed with good business sense. Britain has the best young menswear designers in the world, and they all know that in order to become successful on their own terms they need to build brands."
It was only a matter of time before the country's menswear talents came into the spotlight. In addition to sponsorship schemes, such as NewGen Men (by TopMan) and Fashion Forward (by eBay), last year the British Fashion Council announced the introduction of the London men's collections that have now become a highlight on the international fashion calendar. Its second season wrapped up in January with an exciting line-up of 60 designers, including emerging names and established brands such as Tom Ford, Paul Smith, Burberry Prorsum and Alexander McQueen.
Indeed, the British have always been known for their unique take on fashion, which can best be summed up as a cool combination of tradition and innovation. As such, many menswear designers are inspired in part by their heritage (think traditional Savile Row tailoring) and pop culture.
"We have the edge when it comes to menswear because of our heritage. We invented the suit, we have Savile Row, but we have also been responsible for the birth of every major youth culture since the Edwardians, via Teds, mods, rockers, punks, New Romantics, Britpop, everything," Jones says.
Patrick Grant of E. Tautz is one of many designers inspired by Britain's tailoring heritage, albeit with a thoroughly modern outlook. Winner of the Menswear Designer award at the British Fashion Awards 2010, he has been running Norton & Sons, a custom-made tailoring house on Savile Row since 2005. E. Tautz was incorporated into the company with Grant as creative director in 2009. Many of his collections respect the traditions of Savile Row - think elegant shoulders, suppressed waists, military and sporting cuts, which are then paired with bold accents of colour and patterns for a fun touch.
"At its heart, it is about cut and cloth," Grant says. "It is very simple. We focus on shape and volume, and colour and materials; it's rather architectural. Our collections are an exploration of my personal clothing history and my love of the history of men's clothing because this is all I know."
His spring/summer 2013 collection is inspired by great British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, and includes a pinstripe navy suit worn with a fuchsia duster cloak or shirt underneath. Other tongue-in-cheek touches include engineered sweatshirts printed with a bespectacled face and ankle-length overshirts.
Also referencing traditional menswear elements is Central Saint Martin's graduate Lee Roach, although his approach is understated and refined. His minimalist silhouettes are tailored yet non-restrictive and free of fussy details. The spring/summer collection is "based upon the continual exploration into the principle of reduction and repetition" and features collarless jackets fastened with nylon straps rather than buttons. Ankle-length trousers and rubber sandals complete the look.
"Savile Row has strongly influenced me and my interpretation of menswear," Roach says. "And working for Peter Saville, who has produced some of the most iconic works of British graphic design, is a constant source of inspiration."
While British tailoring traditions interest Royal College of Art graduate Matthew Miller, the country's rich culture provides an edge to his utilitarian collections.
"I love the multicultural aspect of British life, and the freedom to explore different beliefs through music, food and religion. It is incredibly informative to me as a designer in a modern globalised society," he says. Technology and fabric innovation are at the core of his work, which he describes as "innovative, interactive, philosophical". For spring, suits are deconstructed down to sleeveless jackets and tailored shorts. Tees come in luxe, high-performance fabrics (and are layered over crisp shirts), while silver hooks appear in jackets and on the back of trousers. One suit is covered in a customised digital print made up on CCTV imagery taken of British council estates.
Prints are what designer duo Agi Mdumulla and Sam Cotton, aka Agi & Sam, also do best. Cotton studied illustration and ended up working at Alexander McQueen, where Mdumulla was part of the menswear design team. Their clothing appeals to the younger generation, thanks to its heavy lashings of humour and custom-made prints.
"I began working in fashion because I was frustrated at the state of men's clothing at that time, and struggled heavily to find anything I liked," Mdumulla says. "My response was, 'why not create my own?' Our customer is someone who values and appreciates craftsmanship and originality."
The duo's latest collection is inspired by memories of watching kitschy detective programmes from the 1980s at their grandparents' home, so cue a Miami Vice-inspired colour palette. Relaxed silhouettes are updated with prints featuring florals, embroideries, tapestries and even doilies. Materials include jersey, cotton and leather in addition to recycled fabrics.
"London has always been considered one of the most creative fashion capitals in the world, and we think much of this comes from the multiculturalism and eclecticism of the city," Mdumulla says. "There is so much inspiration from art, fashion, architecture, people and cultures, and all sitting side by side, that it is difficult to not take a little from everything."
Also one to watch is Shaun Samson, an outsider who is frequently inspired by London's subcultures. An American living in London, he has become known for modern streetwear that references everything from underground music to pop culture movements. His 1990s-inspired spring collection pays homage to the grunge movement, with androgynous layered looks featuring shirts and shorts, punctuated with details such as metallic knitwear, spikes and silver embellishments.
These few designers are not only just carving their own niche in Britain's lucrative menswear market - they are paving the way for more talents to surface.
"All of a sudden, we seem to have hit a really rich vein of talent in London. Designers, such as James Long and Christopher Shannon, and I hope E. Tautz, are building strong and unique identities, and right behind us are Shaun Samson, Agi & Sam, Matthew Miller, and even newer guys, such as Kit Neale and Craig Green, have incredible talent and can see the way forward," Grant says. "We help, encourage and support each other. And we have fun. All of their incredible creativity and talent inspires me to do better."