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#LCM AW14: Something to Talk About

We asked one of our favourite fashion writers, the inimitable John-Michael O’Sullivan, to give us his thoughts on menswear today. How does the menswear revolution (in London especially) fit in contextually, socially and spiritually. Of course, we weren’t disappointed with his brilliantly-researched, lengthy response, and we reckon it makes a great primer before next week’s #LCM gets underway.

A few months ago, looking through the racks at a vintage shop in Notting Hill, I found a sweater labelled ‘JOHN MICHAEL’. Coincidence aside, it was lovely: a stiff, white, perforated cotton crewneck, that would have looked at home on a London runway today. It was only later, while researching this article, that I realised I’d been holding something fifty years old – something a boy would have bought for next-to-nothing from a John Michael store, at the height of the label’s’ brief Sixties fame. Inevitably, when I checked back it was gone: sold, or thrown away, or simply reshuffled back into the city’s endless sea of old clothes.

When Janey Ironside first came up with the idea of establishing a menswear degree at the RCA, the college board were unimpressed. It was 1964 – and the fashion department proper was still only sixteen years old; and there was a sense that approving Mrs. Ironside’s proposal might seem like a kind of giving in to the odd new tendencies that recently begun to emerge from shops in Chelsea and Soho. But this ambition had sound industry backing; from Hardy Amies himself, the nearest thing Britain had to a fashion institution, and from the weighty (and perhaps un-ignorable) purses of Hepworths – an eminently respectable Yorkshire tailoring firm, which would unexpectedly regenerate in the Eighties as a glossy high-street giant called Next.

After all the fuss had died down it was a dull enough beginning; five students, working in a hived-off corner of the fashion department, with begged and borrowed fabrics. But  whatever the RCA elders might have thought or hoped or feared, the revolution was inevitable. It had already ignited in Paris, where a clique of tailors called Le Groupe Des Cinq had been flouting tradition with lurid colours and flamboyant shapes, and where a man called Pierre Cardin had galvanised the entire industry with his blend of old-school fabrics and space-age cuts (a style he labelled – a little confusingly – le style anglais.) Menswear had started in London, too, over a decade before, with the obsessive, fetishistic dandyism of the Teddy Boys and the Mods – whole troops of suburban boys dressing up dangerously (just like the hippies and punks and New Romantics and Blitz Kids would in the years that followed), creating a volatile tribalism that constantly flickered between posturing and violence. Suddenly, instead of uniformity there was choice; and where there was choice there was startling, furious dispute. And when the revolution spread from the streets to Oxbridge, Men’s Wear magazine finally weighed in, organising a 1953 debate that pitted rebellious teenagers against establishment hardliners. That encounter famously disintegrated into a free-for-all – setting a template for the decades of menswear conversations that would follow.

And soon the revolution had a rallying ground. When John Stephen’s Soho workshop burned down in 1957, he was forced around the corner into a shabby backwater called Carnaby Street – a landlocked alley that would soon become the world’s most public runway. In a matter of years, it was notorious; a parade of exuberant shopfronts crammed with cheap, bright, provocative menswear, of a kind that had previously been sold in secret – coyly advertised in mail-order catalogues, or hidden behind the papered-up windows of ‘specialist’ shops. Crowds were drawn by the lure of shopping as a casual, youth-driven, thrillingly social experience, replacing the polite mannerisms of the department store assistant with a new breed of wildly cool Saturday shop-kids. And in the world’s telescoped imagination, Carnaby Street quite simply was London; a postcard whose lurid colours camouflaged the full complexity of what was actually happening. Beyond Carnaby Street, after all, there was the bohemian playground of Kings Road – a once-sleepy thoroughfare peppered with outrageous boutiques, where the line between boy and girl, and between menswear and womenswear was to become increasingly, irreversibly blurred: there was the louche, luxurious tailoring on offer at Blades, a playfully ‘establishment’ send-up that stood at the bottom of Savile Row, looking up the street at yesterday’s tailors with its’ windows crammed full of tomorrow; there was the mouldering, fairytale exoticism of Vern Lambert’s Chelsea Market stall, piled high with the British Empire’s eclectic debris; there were the increasingly visible presences of Asian, African and Caribbean communities, bringing strangeness and untranslated foreignness to the city’s youngest and oldest ghettos; there was the influx of American surplus and Italian sportswear, flooding the markets with cheap, instant glamour; and there was the energetic, continually evolving exuberance of the East End rag trade, always ready to jump at the slightest hint of a change in the market.

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That first generation of eager, wildly talented boys, who’d escaped to London from the provinces – Ossie Clark, Antony Price, Tom Gilbey, Edward Lloyd, Peter Golding, Jim O’Connor – soaked it all up; the daring, the divisions, the disagreements, the danger. They sat around in restaurants and diners and pubs, with tailor’s’ apprentices and bored aristo-schoolboys, ex-servicemen, and wannabe rock stars.  In the space of a few short years (and perhaps unintentionally) they triggered a new way of talking and thinking about menswear at precisely the same time that they were inventing a new way of creating it.

With those pub conversations came the advent of newspaper articles, and then regular columns, and with them fully-fledged, permanent menswear journalists and editors. And after newspaper columns came magazines – Sir, and Forum, and Man About Town, and Men in Vogue, not so much filling a gap in the market as creating one that hadn’t existed. And after magazines came books, from Rodney Bennett-England’s Dress Optional (1967) to Nik Cohn’s There Are No Gentlemen Anymore (1971) – bookends of a breathless race to record the speed and scale and baffling complexity of what was happening to both menswear and to men themselves. Read now, their convictions and concerns seem eerily close to those of today’s menswear voices: the tension between radical technology and tasteful safety; the permanent instability, and crushing lack of money; the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic lack of business-mindedness; and the complete absence of any sense of future. That first generation of designers (not tailors, not shopkeepers, not businessmen, not prophets) were caught up in the biggest, wildest party in the world – and the comedown, when it came, was devastating. They graduated from the safe freedom of Janey Ironside’s protection, and set off to conquer the world – all too often only to find their aspirations ground down by an industry which remained immovably Victorian at its’ core.

It didn’t matter. Because there were always new boys, in new groups, over and over again; a new explosion, every few years, each burst eclipsing the traces of the one before. David Mlinaric, Christopher Gibbs, Mark Palmer; Stephen Jones, George O’Dowd, Leigh Bowery; David Holah, Stevie Stewart, John Maybury; Judy Blame, Ray Petri, Nick Kamen; John Galliano, Jeremy Healy, Steven Robinson, Amanda Harlech; Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Shaun Leane; Katie Grand, Giles Deacon, Lulu Kennedy; James Long, Lou Dalton, Charlie Porter. Again, and again, and again. Different postcodes and street names; a tide always ebbing towards the east, with every group marked by a staging post along the way – the Markham Arms, the Adlib, Freedom, the General Electric Showrooms, the George and Dragon, Dalston Superstore.

But those groups weren’t just formed of homogeneous designers – they were a messy tangle of filmmakers, and models, and writers, and muses, and people who were just part of the gang. There would have been no London menswear explosion without Janey Ironside and her fierce determination to extract an aesthetic from the textile industry’s stolid pragmatism, and to impose a future on a universe that didn’t even know it was dying; but equally there would have been no explosion without Rupert Lycett-Green and Tara Browne to sponsor it, and without Eric Swayne and David Bailey to photograph it, and without Vanessa Denza and Michael Rainey and Alice Pollock to set up groundbreaking boutiques, filled with the work of new designers; without John Stephen and Tommy Roberts and Cecil Gee to flog it to the masses, and without Mick Jagger and Brian Gilmour and Rod Stewart to storm the nation’s living rooms with it; and without the backstage torrents of lovers and friends, enemies and supporters that alternately championed and abandoned each new rising and falling star.

As a narrative, it’s both seductive and exclusionary, this history of charmed circles; there are few things as poignant in the V&A’s archive as the sentences in which Bernard Nevill (one of Ironside’s colleagues at the RCA) recounts living through the Sixties outside that bubble of charmed youth, knowing that being forty was far, far too old to ever matter again. But perhaps London needs that to keep its’ momentum alive; an endless cycle of new boys, full of new ideas and indifference; constantly rediscovering what is already there, and constantly trampling the past into the dust in the race to get to whatever’s next.

And that – ultimately – is what has come to set London apart. Because where Paris survives on the myth of the lonely genius and his adoring atelier, and Milan and New York have evolved into genetically modified, spectacularly well-oiled industry machines, London quite simply IS chaos; like Vern Lambert’s stall, an old street barrow piled high with jumbled rags and riches. The menswear industry’s story isn’t just a straight-up timeline that originated with the tailors of Savile Row, but one that is tangled and snared and endlessly self-referring; a history full of blind endings, that undercut every spectacular leap into the future with a slow slide back towards the past.

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It’s January, 2014. Fifty years since those first, tentative steps at the RCA. And the debate has moved from the critical to the literal. That great explosion of postwar kids, brought up in a starved, practical universe, reacted by creating things for a moment’s glorious pleasure – the more ephemeral, the better. Designed, discarded, forgotten; next! But now, with that world a distant memory, menswear’s latest revolution has done what revolutions always ultimately do; turn full circle, raking over the embers of the past and weaving the old threads into the new. But newness has to be cheap; and nostalgia – disappearing, crafted, complicated, intrinsically and inexplicably luxurious – can’t be. We seem to want it all, now; the rush of the instant, the thrill of expensive luxury, and the satisfaction of the rare and the obscure. And so British menswear, at perhaps the moment of its’ greatest success, seems (at times literally) to be coming apart at the seams: look at Lou Dalton’s tussle between technology and tradition, Alan Taylor’s ghost-layered tailoring or Craig Green’s shifting, unstably-panelled knits – just a few instances of the way in which our continuing uncertainty about menswear is being exposed, in real-time, on the London catwalks.

Nik Cohn summed up pre-Sixties male fashion in the simplest, sparest of terms; ‘Nobody cared and nobody tried’.  But caring and trying are precisely the things that have defined British menswear ever since. The cut of a sleeve, the length of a protruding cuff, the positioning of a collar, and the tribal politics of visible and invisible signs continue to matter – and matter intensely. Sixty years after that first, shambolic Men’s Wear debate, there’s no sign of a let-up. Everyone still has an opinion. Everyone still disagrees. And everyone’s still talking about what – and why, and when, and how – they wear.

And there’s never, perhaps, been quite so much to talk about – thanks not just to the endless possibilities of London’s tomorrow, but also to all those other yesterdays: those fragments of has-beens and might-have-beens and never-even-made-its, piled up all around. What’ll remain, when the dust settles, of this latest generation’s vitality and promise? That’s one for the future – and for another group of boys, who’ve yet to start talking about clothes.

- John-Michael O’Sullivan

Visit John-Michael’s blog at 1972Projects for more wonderful sartorial stories
Follow him @1972projects



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