Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even in the most fickle of industries. Burberry‘s return to London after a decade on the Milan menswear catwalks was always going to be a blockbuster show – but in the event, it was also an emotional homecoming. Designer Christopher Bailey created a subtle, nuanced collection which moved beyond the obvious pole stars of British menswear (Savile Row, punk, Bond, country gent) to celebrate instead the more eccentric, colourful, offbeat style of David Hockney and Alan Bennett.
“I once saw David Hockney on Jermyn Street, wearing a cream linen suit with a perfect green paint smudge on it,” explained Bailey backstage after the show. “I love the way Hockney wears colour, so that you’re never completely sure how deliberately the look is put together.” The role of Alan Bennett as played by Alex Jennings in the National Theatre’s production of Hymn led Bailey to rediscover the joys of brightly coloured ties contrasted with knitwear. The result was a collection entitled “Writers and Painters”, which Bailey described as “a celebration of artistic and intellectual spirit.” The return to London felt, said Bailey, like “such a treat.”
The first model onto the catwalk wore a blue shirt with a tomato red tie under a green sweater; another wore a streamlined update of the blue linen jackets in which Hockney has frequently been photographed, hands thrust into pockets, over an emerald green shirt. Colman’s mustard yellow, a shade Hockney has often chosen for trousers, appeared in leather duffel bags and soft lace-up shoes. But while the colours flirted with eccentricity, the silhouette was streamlined, elegant and wearable. With jackets ending at the hipbone and trousers cropped smartly at the ankle bone, the lines were crisp and clean rather than crumpled and bohemian. At catwalk prices, these clothes are destined for an elite customer, but the fashion message – colour, an abbreviated trouser length, a very British look which is neither dandy nor punk — is strong, simple and wearable enough to reach the huge audience of Burberry, who have 2.1 million Twitter followers.
The male psyche being what it is, conflict and bluster has always been a part of the history of menswear, but a key story of these London menswear shows has been a reframing of the debate around British men and fashion. The story is moving on from opposition between the camps of loopy, fashion-college creativity and of Savile Row tradition, to a sense of healthy creative tension. As the London menswear shows grow in stature, so does the sense of British menswear as a broad church which can support more than one set of values. After all, it was a Savile Row apprenticeship for a rebellious Central Saint Martins trained East End boy, Alexander McQueen, which unleashed one of the great geniuses of modern fashion. Mayor Boris Johnson yesterday launched a menswear map of London which shows the birthplace of key British inventions from the suit, to the Wellington boot, to the Bondage trouser. Johnson, wearing Church’s brogues, an MS tie and a suit by a Savile Row tailor (“can’t actually remember his name, jolly nice chap though”) extolled the virtues of British tailoring, which in the Johnson rendering “was developed as a direct response to the flimflammery of French fashions.”
Two centuries ago, Beau Brummell’s ‘dandy’ look was immediately pounced upon with satire by contemporaries — and yet it is Brummell’s vanity which British men have to thank for the move from knee breeches to full length trousers, a hemline development which even the least dandyish would recognise, with the benefit of hindsight, as progress. The London menswear catwalks have proved that mens’ hemlines are, somewhat surprisingly, still in flux. Catwalk stunts aside – cycling shorts and culottes, anyone? — the abbreviated trouser, cut to finish shy of the top of the shoe, has been a staple of the front row and of the catwalk. Tom Ford, showcasing his new collection in Mayfair – a sumptuous show in perfect harmony with Burberry’s hymn to colour – pointed out how the trouser legs were cut shorter, so that the pin-sharp trousers weren’t spoilt by puddling over the shoe. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum from Ford’s luxury label, the showcase for Marks Spencer’s collection of British-made menswear — which includes pastel cashmere sweaters sure to please those seeking the Burberry or Tom Ford look without the pricetag – the trousers had been shortened this season, by “an inch to an inch and a half,” said menswear head Tony O’Connor, “which is just enough to give that clean line above the shoe, but not so much that a man is going to feel like he’s at half mast.”