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Menswear is definitely having a moment. New talent gushes forth like a stylishly attired Biblical deluge, and heritage brands as old as the hills are doing bigger business than ever before. While this is true across the globe, one could argue that the U.K. crucible burns the brightest.
The British menswear industry has one of the richest heritages in the world, from bespectacled tailors stitching suits on Savile Row to rosy-cheeked harridans weaving heirloom tweed on the weather-beaten islands of the Outer Hebrides. Britain has been at the forefront of both textiles and tailoring for hundreds of years, and British subcultures—from Teddy Boys and Mods to Goths and Punks—have subverted global trends again and again.
But the heritage, the Yorkshire mills and Scottish textiles, has often become more theoretical than practical. The long-established U.K. brands have, like the rest of the world, moved much of their manufacturing off-shore to capitalize on lower labor costs and wider margins. “Because of the construction of traditional Scottish yarns and the build of the traditional cloths woven in Scottish mills, they were, by nature, quite heavy, as much as 18 to 19 ounces per yard,” explains Lynn Elliot of The Yorkshire Weaving Company. “Centrally heated homes, motor cars with heaters and a general trend towards a less fettered approach to clothing made these beautiful works of art unnecessary and unwanted by the 1980s.”
But there are rumblings across the British countryside. Brands like Topman, Burberry and Ben Sherman have all increased domestic manufacturing. “We use fabrics from Fox Brothers,” says Ben Sherman CEO Mark Maidment. “You go to those mills and they’re right in the middle of the British countryside, flint stone buildings, all of that romance. The owner was telling me he has people from Ralph Lauren, from Japan, coming to see him out in Somerset, and he picks them up in his Land Rover, and he’s got his tweed cap, and he drives through the countryside, over the hills, and they find that as exciting as when they get to the mill and see the fabric being made. There’s a whole experience that goes with it, and we’re seeing a renewed appreciation for that.”
Mr Porter will be launching Kingsman, a menswear collection, at this month’s LC:M made from British cloth, with British craftsmanship. “Kingsman’s inspiration is Savile Row and bespoke tailoring, and we wanted to stay entirely true to that,” says fashion director Toby Bateman. “We’ve made the suits in the U.K., all of the fabrics have been made in the U.K., the shirts, ties, shoes, umbrellas. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap, but the satisfaction of owning a product that was made domestically to the highest standards of quality in the world, and which supports the British manufacturing industry—we think that’s worth it.”
With LC:M adding a fourth day and the diminutive isles churning out world-class designers like clotted cream at teatime, U.K. menswear has never been so exciting . “The reason menswear is so interesting at the moment is because it is in the ascendancy,” explains Dylan Jones, chairman of London Collections: Men, and editor in chief of British GQ. “There is so much more menswear on offer at every price point because the demand is there. You have a generation of consumers that has no qualms about buying menswear, and men between the ages of 15 and 25 are far more sophisticated as shoppers than they used to be: they shop more like women. Couple that with an influx of younger British designers that have significantly more commercial sensibilities than their equivalent counterparts 10, 20, 30 years ago, and you get the moment we’re having now.”
Like a perfect storm, current trends have also played a part in the international focus on British menswear. “Menswear trends took a swing to the more classic: tweed, Donegal, herringbone, and tailoring,” explains Bateman. “All these things that really conjure images of British menswear and that traditional kind of dressing—wearing a tailored jacket or a full sartorial suit with a tie and a pocket square, and carrying a smart briefcase—these trends are inextricable from British heritage.” But it isn’t just British tradition. “The contemporary end is equally important,” Bateman continues. “London has always been the breeding ground for the best designers in the world. The names you can list of the world’s greatest designers that have come through Britain’s fashion colleges go and on and on. In the recent past they were leaving college and being employed by French or Italian fashion houses, so the names would essentially disappear. But now London Collections: Men offers the younger roster of designers coming through the opportunity for another option: ‘Am I going to sell myself to a big fashion house, or am I going to follow my own creative dreams and try and get some funding from the British Fashion Council and put on a show and try and do my own thing?’”
And more than ever that is exactly what a new wave of young British designers are doing. Names like Jonathan Saunders, James Long, JW Anderson and Katie Eary have all enjoyed the global attention that LC:M has enabled them to receive. Fashion East’s partnership with Topman on the MAN initiative and the British Fashion Council’s NewGen program have given new designers a global platform.
“Lulu [Kennedy] (see page 96) really started it all, so all credit to her,” explains Topman creative director Gordon Richardson. “She came to us and said, ‘Look guys, I think it’s all going to be about menswear. We need to start approaching men’s the same way Topshop approaches women’s,’ and we said ‘Of course, fabulous, let’s do something.’ And that’s how MAN started, which, with the support of the British Fashion Council, has grown into LC:M, which has become a real driving force for British menswear.”
“LC:M has had a huge impact for British designers globally, because visitors from around the world, particularly U.S. department store buyers, are now flying into London and attending the shows in advance of Florence or Milan,” agrees Bateman. “That makes a huge difference to these young designers.”
So while Britain has its deeply seated sartorial heritage, it’s ironic that a program for young—and in many cases edgy—designers would draw the spotlight back to Britain, and in turn back to brands like Richards James and Gieves & Hawkes, who also show at LC:M.
“International buyers in particular are so keen on the heritage aspect of what we do,” says Dylan Jones. “One of the most important aspects of what we set out to achieve when we started LC:M was to create a platform for the heritage brands, for all the fantastic design houses on Savile Row, as well as the new brands that were a part of MAN or NewGen. We corralled them all together, and they’ve had some fantastic presentations at historic places like The Cabinet War Rooms, Lord’s Cricket Ground, Spencer House—all these very British places. The fact that international merchants are able to come to London and go to a Savile Row cutting room, or to Downing Street, or to Spencer House and some of these fantastic old buildings, particularly around Westminster and St. James, really helps bring the heritage to life.”