Essay: Cottweiler's subtle queering

by Joe Bobowicz .

As designers with international visibility, Cottweiler play a key role in what is the most democratic and inclusive age of Queer, where one can find their crew no matter where they are. The underground tribe of A/W 18 stood strong, garnished in goo, fully immersed in the Cottweiler cave, their tunnel system a safe-space for today’s more modest queers to navigate.

This season’s A/W 18 collections saw a marked influx of queer fashion. Ranging from the commercially successful Burberry show to the out and proud Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY collection, the season donned the rainbow flag in many forms. In my opinion, a particular brand that has consistently stuck out as a queer vanguard is Cottweiler; Matthew Dainty and Ben Cottrell’s luxuriously conceptual brand.

Cottweiler’s approach is a delicate queering, in apposition to an overt flipping of the proverbial bird to gender norms and heteronormativity - see non-binary designers ART SCHOOL. Their resultant collections resound with the quieter queer, those who want to make it across their local high-street unscathed, living in the less liberal London boroughs. It’s a falsity to assume that the Rozalla-esque Everybody’s Free vibe permeates the whole city, Croydon being a far cry from Soho. The Cottweiler boy has pioneered the hyper-technical tracksuit from the very beginning, an item that combines comfort and craftsmanship, the latter being a vital component in Ben and Matt’s formula for luxury.

The nuanced details of the garments are both a nod to working-class countercultures such as the Casuals and a simultaneously recurrent undertone that can easily be missed by those not in the know. Their work features transparent synthetic yarn, cropped sweaters and vests, offering tender glimpses at the male body, portraying it in a way that subverts traditional concepts of masculinity. Sportswear has long been seen to conceal the male body with heavy cotton and nylons, sweat holes offering a covert and conservative ventilation facility. Alternatively, Cottweiler liberate the form with delicate cuts and exposed torsos, drawing focus to less burly parts of the body such as the neck, v-lines, elbows and ankles. As indicated in their S/S 18 collection, diamante-embellished chokers and bedazzled chests celebrate the male form in a way that embraces effeminacy.

Cottweiler A/W 18 marked another milestone in their unrelenting queer legacy. Their tracksuit - now immortalised in fashion - took on new shifts. Through crotches and torsos bound with climbing harnesses, a percolating homoeroticism was present. Held in the Natural History Museum, the walls read 'rock-hard', a double-entendre conveniently fitting with the show’s geological theme. Bags were bedecked with stalagmites and stalactites. The collection’s inspiration from a climbing trip was no gimmick. A collaboration with heritage luxury brand Mulberry seems atypical of a brand such as Cottweiler, but with impeccable execution the results were pieces to behold. Spray-painted in lurid green and blue, the bags took on a camp attitude. Not only was the collection peppered with kitsch delights, it was a staunch reconfiguration of masculinity; for many men, clutches and handbags are still taboo pieces. This show was a continuation of their considered aesthetic revitalised in new forms, still maintaining the partially inconspicuous tropes of queerness. A 21st century substitution for Polari and Hanky codes, the Cottweiler world adopts the discretion of these antiquated systems and amends them accordingly.

A look to their Instagram indicates the approach of Cottweiler’s marketing is light, offering surface glimpses into the brand’s polished world. This is not to say there is an absence of content, rather it inhabits a space discoverable only to those who seek it. Their Tumblr relays a glistening collection of futuristic imagery and acutely refined depictions of the male form, juxtaposed against the artifice of the modern world. Throughout this curated collection lies a sexual charge: images inspired by gay tribes such as scally lads, shell-suited males groping their respective crotches, stained sports socks and references to the fetish site muddboyuk.com -  a page dedicated to the fetishisation of men dirtying their clothes. A standout post is the A/W 14 collection preview video in which a Cottweiler-clad guy showers. This blatantly references the ‘watersports’ fetish within the gay scene. Equally, this can be viewed from a non-sexualised perspective indicating Cottweiler’s fascination with the relation of nature and man-made objects. Thus we see the genius behind Ben and Matt and their multifaceted brand identity.

Unlike other street-ready brands, Cottweiler avoids heavy graphics and branding: the identity of the garment is left totally up to the wearer. Famously, Skepta wore a look from the S/S 15 collection in his Shutdown music video, administering a hetero-masculine stereotype to the garments, differing heavily from the aforementioned queer tenderness Cottweiler’s Tumblr and fashion shows display. With one designer identifying as straight and the other as gay, this semantic duality is furthered. As developed by Foucault in his seminal interview Friendship as a Way of Life, homosexuality is not a type of desire, rather it is something desirable. Foucault comments on the way that socialization forces a concept of homosexuality to its most base form: two blokes meeting and then fucking. This reductive portrayal ignores the motifs of affection homosexuality encapsulates. Homosexual men allow themselves to be naked around other men, touch other men and make their care for one another explicit. For heterosexual males this is condemned, demarcated by a distinctive unease to interact with other men in such a way. However, in the eyes of society, heterosexual females can play with one another’s hair, share feelings and display a reciprocal tactility. Foucault holds that individuals of all sexuality should take precedent from the tropes of homosexual relations, being able to share intimacy regardless of a companion’s gender. Cottweiler’s ethos aligns with this ideal as seen in their captivating illustration of male-on-male benevolence. Their collaborative collection with Reebok for A/W 17 was based on sports after-care. The lookbook captured models massaging one another, subverting the taboo heteronormativity so explicitly prohibits. The sensuality Cottweiler shows exude is a testament to this.

To assume that the cultural ideals Cottweiler pushes have always been a reality would be ignorant. In the past, the community they celebrate coalesced as a tangible set of spaces, clubs and organisations that inhabited metropolitan areas - often leaving small-town queers lonely and suppressed. Nonetheless, in light of furious technological advancements, the internet has offered a wider community space, this in itself leading to tight-knit internet communities, as reflected in the peculiarly niche pockets of the web such as Cottweiler’s Tumblr. Their focus on post-internet art, Grindr tribes and the sheen of all things digital is a key indicator of how modern queers communicate. This brand makes up only one globule of the many coagulated tribes that inhabit the 21st century’s digital queerdom.

As designers with international visibility, Cottweiler play a key role in what is the most democratic and inclusive age of Queer, where one can find their crew no matter where they are. The underground tribe of A/W 18 stood strong, garnished in goo, fully immersed in the Cottweiler cave, their tunnel system a safe-space for today’s more modest queers to navigate. Cottweiler’s dainty and dazzling deployment of liberated male bodies offer us a queered concept of the male form and masculinity, optional gay fetishisations, chinks of camp, a transgression of gender-enforced codes of conduct, and an enchanting insight into the forefront of online-based queer communities. Cottweiler occupy a platform that speaks to a young queer generation in a way that is neither crass nor commercial, building a real rapport and furthering important questions, in its own signature whisper.