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Essay

Essay: London Menswear's a stage

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler on 20 July 2018

The show must go on! Lara Johnson-Wheeler discusses the London S/S 19 Menswear shows asking; What’s a fashion show without showmanship?

The show must go on! Lara Johnson-Wheeler discusses the London S/S 19 Menswear shows asking; What’s a fashion show without showmanship?

What’s a fashion show without showmanship? Fuelled by likes, fed by digital content, when it comes to consuming collections, we, the fashion press, have come to expect elaborate staging, a mind-blowing setup, the whole shebang. For many atmosphere is equally - if not more - important to the show as the clothes. To pique our attention and draw us in, it seems that designers feel the need to create a spectacle, a circus.

For S/S 19, there were worries about the state of London Fashion Week Men’s. Big players were missing from the schedule. The circus felt smaller. Ringmasters, the likes of J.W. Anderson, Grace Wales Bonner and Burberry were absent, as Craig Green, usually one of the hottest tickets in town, took his moment at Pitti. That being said, the season was informed by those in absentia, as designers who remained were allowed to shine through. Many stepped up their game, using their role as entertainers to push to the fore.

At the MAN show, non-binary collective ART SCHOOL dominated. Bias-cut slips and suits draped bodies of beautifully varied proportions appeared, as the personalities modelling the clothes strutted, dove, crawled and spun, theatricality and performance were mirrored in the garments. An anger pervaded the elegance of these clothes. Green foil and silver lame were sculpted into broad shaped coats and dresses. ART SCHOOL t-shirts were slashed most prominently and proudly on the body of controversial trans-activist Munroe Bergdorf. It was impossible to look away.

ART SCHOOL closed the show, following an elevated and distinguished collection from Stefan Cooke and a statement from Rottingdean Bazaar that questioned the nature of the fashion show entirely. Rottingdean Bazaar S/S 19 has been much dissected and discussed. In refusing to show designs of their own, the duo behind the name scoured the length and breadth of Britain to hire a series of fancy dress costumes they then sent down the runway. Crediting each store on unwieldy hand-held placards, the motley performance was funny, but - inadvertently or not - it opened a wider conversation into the nature of Fashion East, Lulu Kennedy’s non-profit initiative, as a platform. We saw a show, but where was the fashion? Furthermore, was it the right stage for this joke? A highly coveted position, which many young designers would give their left sleeve for, showed borrowed garments, not for sale. Backstage, James Theseus Buck and Luke Brook were challenged as to their choices, yet shrugged off questions from critics. The issue remains: was Rottingdean’s moment a comedy in error? In this instance, the desire for performance overtook the need for fashion.

Paria / FARZANEH S/S 19 Image by Crowns & Owls

A MAN alumnus, Charles Jeffrey has been hailed as one of London’s great showmen for a number of seasons now. For S/S 19, Jeffrey explored outer space and artificial intelligence, designing under newfound sobriety. Subsequently, his collection showed a taut consciousness. Piping and tailoring felt considered, whilst the usually erratic details on his clothes had been neatened, almost perfected, yet maintained both grandeur and drama. A surprisingly successful athleisure-inspired two-piece in alien green opened the show, however, the staging struck an unusually bum note. In an attempt to transform the space into an intergalactic arena, we saw writhing dancers hooked up to wires, a choir singing and bulbous tinfoil fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Whilst the garments explored futuristic silhouettes and shapes, the excess of budget theatrics felt a little backwards, discordantly stale.

In contrast, newcomer paria/FARZANEH’s sets were the talk of the town. Closing the week, her shuttered trucks on the South Bank showed tableaux of symbolic customs of Nowruz, the Iranian new year. Farzaneh allowed her audience to explore her world with intricate backdrops framing her clothes: intimate, homely scenes, a barbershop, sand dunes and overflowing fruit bowls. Similarly, Per Gotesson collaborated with Tony Hornecker to produce a set that saw his models emerging from a wooden, curtained area, somewhat of an evocation of hygge. A set can say a lot about a collection; in both Gotesson’s and Farzaneh’s shows, we could situate the boy that was being moulded via the clothes on show. Through the inclusion of the set, the audience was given an added character, habitat, a mood and time. These designers show that their focus is on the creation of a fictional world, here replicating their own realities.

Martine Rose gave us her world in a cul-de-sac in Camden. Neighbours and families sat on bins or stood around with wine glasses as the Sunday sun set on her S/S 19 show. As we watched Rose’s signature boxy shapes and clashing fabrics rotate the runway, paired with backless loafers and big old belts, this juxtaposition between the created and the familiar was underlined. In this residential area, the theatre was removed from Rose’s designs, in a deconstruction of anachronism often found in high fashion.

Theatre and theatricality are integral to fashion and inherent to what it means to be a London-based designer; it is clear that this season’s crop of designers is aware of the importance of this, but it is key that this should not occur to the detriment of the designs.

Theatre and theatricality are integral to fashion and inherent to what it means to be a London-based designer; it is clear that this season’s crop of designers is aware of the importance of this, but it is key that this should not occur to the detriment of the designs. Whilst we need showmanship, staging and performance, this can’t eclipse the designs on show. From a commercial standpoint, the magic of atmosphere fades from a garment once it’s on a rack in a showroom.

This season, London Fashion Week Men’s justified its presence through theatre. We saw scenes set and stories told. In the absence of big names who stole the spotlight in previous seasons, designers such as Martine Rose, ART SCHOOL, Per Gotesson and more, stepped up to the stage and gave us the spectacle we desired, all the while creating covetable clothing. Let the show go on!

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