Clothes versus “fashion”, at Jonathan Saunders, Richard Nicoll and MAN
The question of clothing versus fashion fascinates me. Particularly in menswear, where even at the highest level the lines seem blurred. Clothing does what the name suggests. It clothes a body. But what does fashion do? It’s a noun and a verb. Perhaps fashion is about re-fashioning our bodies, or at least our perceptions of them. You could argue that’s what the pourpoint did – the fourteenth-century foundation garment worn beneath plate armour, heavily-padded on the chest to fill out the convex breastplate, which is acknowledged by many as the starting point of true fashion. Namely, when humans began to use the cut of the cloth to radically alter the shape of the human form. It still clothed the body, of course. But it also did something more. And it was worn by men.
Today, however, menswear skews more conservatively than its female counterpart. London’s three-day menswear showcase, which began today, officially opens the autumn/winter 2014 season. It’s called London Collections: Men. No mention of fashion. Maybe that’s at least a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that “fashion” per se play a less-than-pivotal role in much of menswear. The three-piece suit has been around for over 300 years, in its current form for 200, virtually unchanged – give or take width of lapels or trews – for almost a century. And it’s still the backbone of a man’s wardrobe today.
But is that enough to excite today? That’s the question that hefty historical back-story provokes me to ask. What I’m looking for are styles that have enough substance to mark them out as worthy of a catwalk showing. That’s a tough but fair demand to make of designers consciously placing their product on a global stage. It has to step up to the mark. Fashion is more than just clothes, especially in the twenty-first century.
You can’t help but wish that some designers would take a step away from the straitjacket of the catwalk, the demands of spectacle it places on them. Jonathan Saunders shows his menswear via static presentations, accompanied by rails of product. It feels buyer-focussed, commercial. But maybe that commerce angle comes from the fact that you want to buy pretty much everything, which conversely is a mark of Saunders’ skill as a designer. It would lose that on a catwalk. Lou Dalton’s resolutely quiet clothing would benefit from a quieter canvas. Her inside-out Fair Isle sweaters and neat tailoring, combinations of camouflage, bleached denim and wool evocative of the Hard Times aesthetic of early-eighties Echo and the Bunnymen and back-issues of The Face, had an appealing realism. But they seemed swamped by a catwalk show. Sometimes you felt the same was true of Richard Nicoll. The quieter pieces were the strongest, easy gingham shirts, sweaters and soft tailoring. He got waylaid into lurid fluoro organza and pile-ups of ruffles that, while amusing (the same nudge-nudge wink-wink amusement surrendered by, say, the rather more ‘experimental’ costume choices of Eurovision Song Contest contestants) ultimately felt void.
Nowhere was the dichotomy of clothing versus fashion more striking than at MAN – where a trio of talents show back-to-back as the first step (possibly) on the road to a full-fledged menswear career. This time, the offerings pitched firmly into the latter category, sometimes haphazardly, often annoyingly, once gloriously. Alan Taylor’s collection was especially clanging: lumpy, ill-fitting suits splattered with Matisse-inspired painted forms in white emulsion. The models hunched, as embarrassed to be modelling studenty, self-consciously avant-garde antics like mid-calf tweed kilts or ankle-length overcoats in lurex-flecked tweed with six-inch wide lapels, as we were to see them.
Bobby Abley’s collection, although better (which is saying a lot, considering it comprised of cartoon brain-prints and flesh-pink mohair), was mired in the same breed of catwalk cunning stunts. In Abley’s case, silver mouth-braces held the models lips open in a perpetual snarl, or scream. They were just unpleasant, especially to those, like me, who remembered their antecedents on the catwalks of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan fifteen years ago,. Although back then, they had a depth beyond the immediate aesthetic impact. Plus something Abley sorely lacks: originality. He does a fine line in comedy Disney-print sportswear. Nothing more. So, why these hifalutin hijinks? Just do what you’re good at.
What Craig Green is good at is marching boldly, and bravely, down the fine line that separates fashion and clothing. I heard a few naysayers bleat that they found his show quiet this time, without his already-signature wooden and cardboard constructions (the ones we shot him sporting for the cover of the last men’s fashion special of The Independent magazine). That, however, was the brave part of this offering. Green took himself and his audience out of their respective comfort-zones. He talked about ceremony and opulence: both of which his clothes evoked, in subtle and new ways. There were references to Amish and Muslim dress in the layered tunics, always hanging past the hip, often elongated to the ankles. The prints were rich, evocative of stained-glass windows and Moorish tiles, but also a link to the rich tie-dye he offered for spring. Fabrics were humble, wool and cotton twill, like denim or canvas, cut into workman’s shapes. Colours were jewel-tones of amethyst, sapphire and jasper-green, contrasted with black. They felt like something new, from both the designer, and from fashion in general. Green’s clothes had maturity, and remarkable strength. They stood out. You remembered them. You will remember them. Which, ultimately, is what really counts.
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