Suit versus (track)suit; ever since it started in 2012, that opposition has become the default shorthand to summarise London’s menswear event. Every season, the schedule is neatly split down the centre - old-school elegance on the one side, avant-garde rebellion on the other. Of late, however, it’s felt as though streetwear’s been gaining the upper hand. The rise of labels like Cottweiler, KTZ and Nasir Mazhar, in parallel with the international success of Yeezy and HBA, seems to reflect an inevitable shift, towards a future dominated by casualness and ease.
Nasir Mazhar Spring/Summer 2017 menswear show, London, by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION
But this season - a strange, transitional season by any standards - it seems as though tradition is making a comeback. That’s due, in part, to the fact that some of the newer names have crashed and burned. It also reflects a greater reality, though; that tailoring remains the mainstay, sales-wise, of London’s menswear industry. And, more and more, the commercial power of the more classic labels is gaining the upper hand. That’s not to say menswear’s growing staid again (though there’s an argument which says that it’s rarely ever NOT been so). Many of the schedule stalwarts, from Hardy Amies onwards, were innovators in their time - just as names like Timothy Everest or Richard James were in the Nineties when they stormed Savile Row, ditching dark timber for sleek glass and old-school detailing for a crisply modern new approach.
Neil Barrett Spring/Summer 2016 menswear show, Milan, by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION
One man who’s been at the heart of the tussle for many years is Plymouth-born Neil Barrett, the man who (both as the original designer for Prada menswear, and subsequently as the creative force behind his own-name label) became one of the pioneers of the new tailoring. A retrospective capsule collection of his work, shown the day before LC:M began at Harvey Nichols, featured all his signatures - tech fabrics, hybrid outerwear, graphic sweatshirts, luxe joggers mixed with sharp tailoring - and neatly summarised Barrett’s long-term interest in the marriage between formality and freedom. “Athleisure” has always been at the core of my design.” the designer reflected. “It may seem like a ‘thing’ or a trend - but I think it simply reflects the reality of the menswear consumer. Men typically buy clothes that can relate to their lifestyle, clothes they can wear and feel confident in.”
Casely-Hayford Spring/Summer 2017 menswear show, London, by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION
And where men feel most confident, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in between. The middle ground is, in many ways, menswear’s taboo topic - a vast chunk of the marketplace where customers look for comfort over adventure, and trusty style over risk. And LC:M’s real sweet spot may be in the territory occupied by designers like E. Tautz, Oliver Spencer, Casely-Hayford and YMC - the names who occupy the centre of the schedule, offering clothes that are inventive yet reassuringly recognisable. That doesn’t by any means lead to collections which are predictable or dull; Casely-Hayford’s dappled prints and complex layering, E. Tautz’s relaxed, roomy cuts and Oliver Spencer’s soft, cleverly-textured shapes provide ample evidence to the contrary. But they are clothes that men walking past the menswear show venues at Aldwych and Marylebone could - and do - wear; simple, easy knits and t-shirts, sober separates, and suits just formal enough to meet our ever-less-stringent dress codes.
Christopher Shannon Spring/Summer 2017 menswear show, London, by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION
The younger names are acclimatising to this reality too; in seasons past, collaborations like Sibling with tailoring maverick Edward Sexton, or Katie Eary with Savile Row stalwart Richard Anderson, have allowed new labels to round out their offer and back it up with hard-won industry expertise. Christopher Shannon, a designer who’s championed and subverted the whole notion of streetwear in equal parts, reinvigorated his familiar tracksuits in tautly cut, indigo denim this season. And Matthew Miller, whose collections often see boldface messaging dominating his clean-cut clothes, switched focus to the garments themselves this time out.
So where next? One answer could lie in the work of young designer Sebastiaan Pieter, whose clothes blend formality with pointed sexuality, and whose simplified shapes combine the sophistication of tradition with the thrill of the new. His Speedo-flashing separates and long, sinuous viscose knits manage the tightrope of familiarity and forward-thinking with ease. They’re not for the faint-hearted - but, like the best of British menswear, they’re real clothes.