London Fashion Week Men’s has opened the door to some big questions this season. Specifically, what is menswear? Is it modern to be showing design intended for the male body in a separate schedule to the women, particularly when so many designers are showing womenswear simultaneously? In an ironic shrug of the shoulders, MAN, Fashion East’s male counterpart, flipped the seriousness of this debate upside down and responded with a show that defied definition. The trio selected by Lulu Kennedy this season - Art School, Rottingdean Bazaar and Stefan Cooke - presented a joyful exploration of queerness, Britishness and a revitalisation of the old and the fusty, to generate a new, modern approach to the term 'man'.
The mission behind Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt of Art School is to redefine the limitations of gendered clothing. Operating for their second season with MAN, the duo are a definitive example of menswear designers throwing conformity out of the window in celebration of contemporary queerness. Citing the likes of Donatella Versace, Pete Burns and Kylie Jenner as their references, the pair injects their designs with glamour and glitz. Tight, sheer, diamante-decked dresses were paired with black kitten heel boots. HRH Princess Julia strode down the runway in a simple white shirt.
Art School played with the idea of uniform in a selection of looks; there was a unisex culotte and jacket combination in pinstripe satin, whilst black and azure suits were cut to suit curvy or narrow silhouette. The details on the garments were key; warped diamante shapes were repeated and belt buckles were strung across the torso. The latter was somewhat reminiscent of Jodie Marsh’s iconic camouflage belts top - a worthy comparison since this piece later sold on eBay, raising over £150,000 for charity. The show notes read of softness and there was indeed a delicacy to the collection. In both the fabrics and the cuts, the looks reflected the gentle strength inherent in Art School’s approach.
As the final spangled look from Art School exited the runway, the air was thick with excitement. A bird caller, complete with binoculars, emerged from backstage and took a lap of the room, whistling as he walked. The show notes for Rottingdean Bazaar came inside various leaflets about Rottingdean, East Sussex, complete with adverts for dog grooming and tombolas. What continued represented Britishness, but a Britishness that’s a far cry from bullish nationalism appropriated by the far-right.
A series of shrivelled inflatables emerged, similar to the microwaved crisp packets I used to make as a child. These garments were boiled for their texture, fancy dress costumes reimagined using Japanese shibori. They were, in turn, followed by artist Julie Verhoeven, decked out in dart boards. Harry Freegard aka @harrie.bradshaw closed the show in a satin slip with a sign proclaiming ‘FIN’ taped to his back, all the while carrying a cardboard cutout of Naomi Campbell. The pair took the apparently banal to the extreme, pioneering originality and eccentricity with their eclectic cast of friends and family along for the ride.
Newcomer Stefan Cooke’s trompe l’oeil tricks came last in the triumvirate. It was perhaps a shame that Cooke showed after these two bombastic designers as the nuances of his designs were lost when compared with the costumery that came before. Subtle subversion was evident in the Cooke’s technique of photographing and printing imagery onto elastic fabrics. The textures of second-hand jeans, leathers and trenchcoats bought on eBay created illusory items that will surely shine in a showroom. Cricket jumpers cut into diamonds, a collaboration with knitwear designer Kate Brittain, showed a hint of a nipple and were paired with tight, tight trousers masquerading as jeans. Cooke took tropes of menswear and queried them. At a time when gender politics are so explosive, the celebrations and affirmations MAN are presenting could not be more relevant. Furthermore, they are fun.