Sportswear? Sports where? Astrid Andersen, MAN and Christopher Shannon, at London Collections: Men

Alexander Fury
astrid andersen ss15 006 650px 199x300 Sportswear? Sports where? Astrid Andersen, MAN and Christopher Shannon, at London Collections: Men

A look from Astrid Andersen's spring 2015 show

The media’s current favourite portmanteau is “Spornosexual.” Its current favourite garment is the c-string manikini, a cutaway one-sided posing pouch that barely adheres to the pelvis. Modern masculinity, it seems, is in a period of flux and upheaval, where societal norms are shifting and suddenly what men are willing to put on their backs (or, perhaps, around their crotches) seems more malleable than ever before. Ideologically, if not physically.

Step into the ring, then, Astrid Andersen, a Danish designer who established a clear identity immediately upon her graduation from the Royal College of Art: luxury sportswear. It sounds a cliche, but over her brief career Andersen has been redefining the meaning of that trite phrase, namely by exaggerating its composite parts. Forget cashmere casual, and think more lace and velvet sweatsuits, fur basketball vests, chiffon spliced into billowing baseball shirts with a hint of ball gown.

There’s something about the inherent masculinity of Andersen’s references that allows her to get away with that sort of girly stuff. This season, as well as pushing her materials, she played with proportion, cropping nylon high on the torso and suctioning shapes tight to the muscled bodies of her models, as well as elongating lines to floor-length. She added kimono style wraps in hare krishna shades of orange and cerise, and sumo-inspired obi belted skirts.

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A cropped nylon comber and close-fitting shorts, by Astrid Andersen

The Far East is a major market for Andersen, as well as the Middle East (she wrapped branded scarves around her heads like keffiyeh in a subtle nod to that). But really, it all felt more West Side. It’s taken Andersen a few seasons to establish herself, both creatively and commercially. She now seems in a comfortable place which allows her to push herself, and her customers, out of their comfort zone.

The tension between selling a dream and actually shifting stock is always evident in London. Mostly, because the designers aren’t big enough to expend time, energy and money on a flashy show purely for window-dressing. Most designers show what they sell.

Sometimes, that works – as with Andersen. Sometimes, it falls a bit flat. Richard Nicoll’s offering was saleable, but unremittingly unremarkable; Jonathan Saunders shows his menswear collections on rails – just like a shop – and a clutch of static models posed like mildly embarrassed showroom dummies. At both presentations, you ended up abstracting the collective collection into singular garments, pinpointing pieces you wouldn’t mind owning (Nicoll’s gingham overalls, a neat caramel Harrington jacket chez Saunders), and immediately forgetting the rest. Ultimately, neither made a lasting impression.

MAN is going after exactly the opposite reaction. It’s a showcase of unadulterated talent, first and foremost. It’s bankrolled by Topman, and while the designers are still expected to make some kind of commercial sense, MAN viewed as a sort of bridge between conceptual collegiate capers and the big, bad, branded world of retail. In short, it’s a designer’s last chance to legitimately do exactly as they please and express ideas at their purest and most undiluted.

look 20 199x300 Sportswear? Sports where? Astrid Andersen, MAN and Christopher Shannon, at London Collections: Men

A look from Jonathan Saunders' presentation

It would be difficult to further dilute what Bobby Abley pumps out season after season. His clothes are easy to understand; in fact, they’re dumb. His shtick is Disney: the first season it was a novelty, the second season it had begun to cloy.

This time round, as Abley’s clothes exited bearing machine-embroidered and transfer-printed grinning visages of various characters from The Little Mermaid, the only reasonable response was: is this it? Abley’s clothes are well-made, but their simple sportswear shapes mean they veer to the point of bland mass-manufacture. Admittedly, they probably have mass-appeal. Plenty of men would exit the house bearing cartoon crabs and mermaids across their chest, oddly enough. Nevertheless, it’s unsure whether even that clientele would will be willing to pay a luxury price point for clothes which, by and large, look as if they should be dispensed free with purchase of a Happy Meal. This was Abley’s final outing under the MAN scheme, and while his shlocky sportswear undoubtedly caters to a certain simple-minded customer base, I’m not sure it warrants any further examination.

Abley showed in MAN’s final slot: the duo of designers who preceded him roused more interest. If their aesthetics are yet to fully-form, there’s certainly promise. Nicomede Talavera is a Central Saint Martins graduate who showed tablecloth checks, tabards of leather and elongated knitted tunics. There were pleated sleeves, pillowcase bags and plenty of kilty skirty stuff, a few riffs on Raf Simons and JW Anderson’s gender questioning. That kind of thing is par for the course with London menswear, but it was so adroitly done it bodes well. You hope next time it will be done with more originality.

More interesting was Liam Hodges, an RCA graduate whose collection had an odd, unsettling air of Wicker Man meeting Elmer Fudd. That sounds slightly unhinged, and maybe Hodges is. His sweatshirts and capes plastered with Boy Scout badges ended top looking like crypto-religious ceremonial robes, and there was an undeniable energy behind his garments, even those which didn’t quite work (cork chaps with twine braces? A nice idea, but not a great look).

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A Disney character embroidered onto a Bobby Abley sweatshirt at MAN

Christopher Shannon was awarded the inaugural British Fashion Council/GQ Designer Fashion Fund on Monday. Obviously, that had no impact on his collection – which was by and large finished, and certainly well off the drawing board, but this collection nevertheless felt well timed.

Rather than pushing forward with a radically new proposition, Shannon back-pedalled a little, using this collection to reestablish exactly what his label stands for in a crowded menswear market. In doing so, it highlighted themes running through London’s menswear which can be traced to his influence: that luxury sports thing and, more important than luxury, the idea of conceptual sportswear, sportswear that’s actually expressing some very complicated ideas. There’s always an element of sly sexuality to Shannon’s work: here, holes were scissored open onto the body, flashing odd bands of skin across the upper thigh or torso. The silhouette was brief, oversized; fabrics were synthetic; surfaces were slick with graphic, two-dimensional decoration.

Shannon’s sportswear wasn’t especially luxurious, but they were rich in ideas – original ones, no less. In fashion, that’s a precious commodity. And rare.

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