Tracksuits and Trojan Horses: all hail Christopher Shannon’s GQ Fashion Fund win

Alexander Fury
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A tracksuit from Christopher Shannon's winter 2014 show

Last night, Christopher Shannon won the inaugural BFC/GQ Designer Fashion Fund – an injection of £150,000 cash with £50,000 in mentoring, the biggest prize in menswear supported by luxury mobile phone company Vertu. It’s the bloke’s counterpart to the Vogue Fashion Fund, a stamp of establishment prestige.

In layman’s terms, Christopher Shannon’s receipt of this award is the equivalent of Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision victory, or England winning the World Cup. Namely, the people’s choice. Lest that sound overtly populist, he’s also the critic’s choice. He’s liked and his collections are lauded.

The first is all well and good – it means a roar went up when he received the prize, and that twitter was abuzz with genuine enthusiasm and congratulations from fellow designers and press. There were even a few tears. Shannon himself looked overwhelmed – he confessed that he’d never won anything before. Which I found most surprising of all.

I found it surprising because Shannon’s show is, without a doubt, a highlight of London Collections: Men (which begins on Sunday, when Shannon will also present his spring 2015 collection). In my opinion, he is the most talented menswear designer in London today (this excellent profile by Rebecca Gonsalves, which we featured in January, lays out exactly why).

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Christopher Shannon autumn/winter 2014

Often, his work gets woefully overlooked, because Shannon packages his complex, inventive, innovative ideas in easy-to-read sportwear. He doesn’t pretend to be all conceptual and arty-farty – his clothing is so clever, it doesn’t have to show it. Instead, it’s approachable and relatable. It draws on the kind of garments you could see on any street corner, on bri-nylon trackies and Adidas trainers, on hefty-soled Kicker and Caterpillar boots, on sweatshirts, and t-shirts, and elasticated bermudas like oversized boxer shorts.

The fact Shannon can actually design – or rather redesign – those kind of clothes and make them feel new is arresting. Take his winter collection, where Shannon re-introduced tracksuits (contrary to popular belief, he said, he actually hadn’t done them for four seasons). But he cross-bred tops and bottoms, integrating a wrapped flap across the flank that resembled a tracksuit jacket knotted around the waist. It was almost brainlessly simple – so why had no-one done it before? Because, as with so many “simple” ideas, the technical reality was fiendishly complicated.

There’s also a hefty dose of sex. The sexiness in Shannon’s clothes is slightly seedy and subversive, a bit fetishy. Sweaty bodies inside synthetic fabrics – Shannon likes slithery nylon and slimy polyester and heavy latex in patently artificial colours like highlighter green, hazmat orange and a virulent cerise. The models in his last two collections had their hair plastered down, as if bathed in perspiration.

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Christopher Shannon autumn/winter 2014

The masculinity he depicts is aggressive and transgressive, the kind of blokes who intimidate you on council estates in the north of England. It’s Scallies. Shannon is from Liverpool, I grew up in Bolton – I know precisely the men he’s referencing. Shannon’s is a working-class vision of hyper-masculinity elevated to high-fashion. It’s interesting that it still has the power to shock and to divide.

Shannon’s clothes are a twisted kind of normalcy. He said he saw his clothing as a modern kind of “British” menswear. Presumably, that’s one where the tracksuit replaces the three-piece suit, not only as everyday wear, but as a relatable canvas for pushing fashion forward. The tracksuit is Shannon’s Trojan Horse to advance some of the most interesting ideas in menswear today.

He was a brave, bold and inspired choice to receive this award. Most important of all, his work absolutely warrants it.

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