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Men’s Fashion Month: The Names to Know

An exodus of major fashion houses from the official calendar means the next month of menswear shows will provide an opportunity for lesser-known designers to shine. BoF spotlights the season’s can’t-ignore talents.
Top left to right: Kiko Kostadinov, Glenn Martens, Xander Zhou, Charles Jeffrey. Bottom left to right: Grace Wales Bonner, Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik, Feng Cheng Wang, Samuel Ross. | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — As an increasing number of fashion houses combine their womenswear and menswear shows, choosing to present during the livelier womenswear season instead, the official menswear schedules have a sudden dearth of megawatt brands. London is now without Burberry and J.W. Anderson, Paris without Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, Milan without Gucci, and New York without Calvin Klein and Coach.

But while the superstar power might be lacking this season, a new generation of menswear design talent is poised to benefit. The absence of much larger brands — as well as the column inches and social media feeds they dominate — leaves more time, space and attention for the lesser-knowns. From GmbH in Berlin to Grace Wales Bonner and Charles Jeffrey in London, Feng Chen Wang and Xander Zhou in China, and Avoc and Y/Project in Paris, the new guard is diverse, international and reluctant to be defined by labels. (Every one of them has introduced womenswear, or female models, to their shows.)

Who else is up next? With an eye for cutting through a sea of unfamiliar names, BoF has selected the designers and brands to know, previewing their collections and offering insights into the thinking behind their upcoming shows and presentations.

A preview of Charles Jeffrey's Rothko-inspired makeup | Photo: Osman Ahmed

Charles Jeffrey, fresh from his success at The Fashion Awards, will stage his second standalone show tomorrow at London Fashion Week Men’s. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Jeffrey is also a stylist for Love magazine and produces printed zines to accompany his collections.

All eyes are on Charles Jeffrey. Fresh from his glittering success at last month's Fashion Awards — where he was awarded Emerging Menswear Designer of the Year by none other than John Galliano, his childhood hero — the Scottish designer is gearing up to present his latest coup de théâtre, part Claes Oldenburg-inspired performance art (courtesy of long-time collaborator Theo Adams) and part unbridled creativity. "Anger is an energy," he says, referring to Johnny Rotten's famous adage, which he shouted over and over in the 1986 single, Rise.

"When I get angry, I get more Scottish," says Jeffrey, referring to his heightened Celtic accent and stubbornness in times of rage. The designer's next collection will be a veritable celebration of his Caledonian heritage, with plenty of tartan, apotropaic Pictish iconography, Teddy Boy tailoring and neatly military regalia.

Jeffrey’s Loverboy label notoriously began as a club night in Dalston, East London, as a stage for the city’s latter-day club kids to paint their faces and rustle up something colourfully queer to wear out for a night of pure hedonism. Part of his upcoming show’s narrative centres on the myth of gay pride, with all its camp peacocking and aggressive flamboyance, inspired by a book he recently discovered — “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World” by Alan Downs — which was published in 2005. The title is a touchstone of gay culture and addresses the sense of invalidation of heteronormative societal pressures on gay men, which, after three decades of post-AIDS concentration on gay men’s physical health, turns inward to their mental wellbeing. With everything else going on in the world, such as “Trexit” (Trump and Brexit), it all leads back to the red mist of anger. “It’s an important emotion to explore, and you can’t just bottle it up,” says Jeffrey, who follows in the stomping footsteps of London’s subcultural rebels.

An glimpse into GmbH's studio | Photo: Davit Giorgadze

GmbH was launched in 2016, but within months, the Berlin-based label was already shortlisted for the LVMH Prize. Showing in Paris for the second time on 16 January, the label released its first advertising campaign this week, exclusively casted with second-generation German immigrants.

GmbH has been referred to as Berlin’s answer to Vetements, but the label is much more rooted in the collision of immigrant culture and German severity than the irony of elevating ordinary clothes. The name is the German equivalent of “Ltd” or “Llc” and used by businesses across Germany, however GmbH’s outlook is distinctively Berlin. Launched in 2016 by Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik, the label was born out of Berlin’s harder-faster-louder techno clubs. Post-LVMH Prize, the duo went from producing every item in the studio by hand to working with six specialised factories.

Between them, Alexander Huseby and Isik have Turkish, Pakistani, Norwegian and German heritage, and they draw on their diverse backgrounds and circle of friends to inform their design point of view. They are known for their reconstructed leather jackets with a low carbon footprint, made from upcycled leather and Helly Hansen biker styles. Last year, the duo staged their first show during Paris Fashion Week, with fellow Berliner Stefano Pilati modelling a variation of their high-waist inky trousers and voluminous, panelled fleece bomber jackets. For their next show in Paris, which they're calling "My Beauty Offends You" — borrowed from their friend, Kuwaiti artist Fatima Al Qadiri's song — Alexander Huseby and Isik have turned their focus to the collision between eastern immigrants and the western world. What ignited it all, they say, was a BBC article about the discovery of a Viking burial site with shrouds embroidered with the Arabic for "Allah."

“Right now, there is this discussion about the Muslim world versus the western world and the conflicts between them, but it beautifully shows that there has always been this cultural exchange,” says Alexander Huseby. What the designers found so appealing was that the story showed just how far back that exchange goes, and how absurd it renders the current hostility towards Muslims in the West. “We were also thinking about our Spring/Summer 2018 collection, which was a utopian positive vision of multicultural Europe — we felt this collection needs to be more aggressive, in a way,” he adds. “It feels like a point in time where you can’t just be neutral or positive.” The clothes therefore will be much more armour-like, preparing the wearer for war with chainmail and their signature protective biker gear — this time, in collaboration with Italian biker brand Spidi.

Wales Bonner intimate SS'18 show, where guests stood | Photo: Jamie Stoker

Grace Wales Bonner has brought ideas and issues surrounding black masculinity to the forefront of her LVMH Prize-winning label. The South London-born designer continues to accelerate her womenswear offering, staging intimate shows in London that collaborate with musicians, writers and artists. Her next collection is scheduled to debut tomorrow in London.

Softly spoken and gamine, Grace Wales Bonner is reticent when it comes to talking about her work, which is deeply layered in research into — and collaboration with — artists, writers, photographers and musicians. At her shows, she prefers to offer literature than interviews. Last season, for example, excerpts from a moving essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als on iconic black author James Baldwin and his queer “children” provided the philosophical context, and prior to that, there was a poem by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the British-Ghanaian painter and writer. In the past, she has offered academic terms such as post-colonial theory, formalism and polyrhythmic frequencies as references. One can almost go as far to say that she’s building a research facility or a conceptual gallery space instead of another run-of-the-mill luxury brand.

Yet, the south London-born designer has done just that, winning the LVMH Prize in 2016 and joining a class of thinking designers, staging shows that are artworks in themselves, with specially commissioned music from the likes of Kelsey Lu and Sampha. Womenswear has also entered the Wales Bonner language, largely due to the fact that her earlier menswear collections were picked up by womenswear stockists. Back then, she would adjust the narrow Giacometti silhouettes to accommodate a woman’s body, but now there is dedicated womenswear shown on girls in the show.

“Kindness” is a key part of it, and even then, she describes it as “more psychological” as a concept. She begins by fitting and toiling on a man, before adapting the translating the fit to a woman. “I think luxury is about comfort really for me,” she says. “Sometimes I see fashion that looks quite aggressive towards women and it’s quite assaulting almost. You can tell the intention towards the wearer and there's a kindness and a sensitivity to the way that I'm thinking about these things.”

What is also clear is that Wales Bonner is reluctant to be a first-person designer. Although her work is personal, she is careful to stress that it is about "multiple perspectives." "It shouldn't really be about me," she says. "I want it to be beyond that." The films she makes with British photographer Harley Weir are testament. The last one, "Practice," is a powerful 11-minute documentary-style exploration of movement and sound, following the story of South African dancer Leroy Mokgatle with a soundtrack scored by Dev Hynes from Blood Orange.

Gloves from Avoc's upcoming show | Photo: Osman Ahmed

Recent winner of the ANDAM Award’s Creative Brand Prize, Avoc is a Paris-based label by Bastien Laurent and Laura Do. The gender-neutral label will show during the Paris menswear week on 20 January, and partner with Nike later this year on community projects in Greater Paris.

Avoc, the gender-neutral Paris-based label, is the brainchild of designers Bastien Laurent and Laura Do. Their mission is to provide casually dressed Millennials with a corporate-appropriate wardrobe that offers a subliminal sense of subversion. Last year was a major turning point for the duo, when their fledgling label won the prestigious Creative Brand Prize at the ANDAM Award, which afforded them €100,000 (about $119,000) as well as a year of mentorship from Matchesfashion.com co-founder Ruth Chapman. Until this point, Avoc had been entirely self-funded by Do and Laurent. “What we’ve been doing for the last five to six months since then was coming up with the new basics of the brand,” says Laurent. “What I wanted to do with this collection was properly establish the aesthetics of Avoc.”

There’s also an upcoming partnership with Nike, and a show during Paris Fashion Week Men’s, which Laurent says will explore the culture of Paris’ often-overlooked suburban communities. “We are the only design duo who can actually sum up the idea of that area,” he explains, adding that they have collaborated with the studio that produced “La Ville Poreuse,” a book that maps neighbourhoods in greater Paris, creating motifs for the upcoming collection. “Laura grew up in the centre and I grew up in the suburbs. We are mixing those identities and those cultures to create something that is new and speaks to a wider audience.”

Based between Beijing and Amsterdam, Xander Zhou has been a part of the London menswear schedule since the week emerged from a single day added to the end of the womenswear shows. He will show in London today.

Although self-described “Techno-Orientalist” Xander Zhou is based in Beijing, his shows at London Fashion Week Men’s have been a part of the schedule since its inception. “As a Chinese designer abroad, you have to work extra hard to earn the same degree of respect,” he told BoF last year. The designer is also menswear director at T Magazine China. When Zhou started, the fashion scene in China was still uncharted territory for globally minded Chinese designers. But this worked in his favour as he could achieve many “firsts”, including being the first menswear Chinese designer to present on an international schedule when he showed in London in 2012 as the guest of GQ China.

Zhou mines his Chinese identity to produce research-heavy designs and sharp silhouettes, which has resulted in a self-financed business with more than 30 stockists. For his upcoming show, he says "uniforms and workwear will reappear in similar silhouettes but be remade with fabrics and details of traditional Chinese Kung Fu suits." He adds that there will be a strong sci-fi element. "The idea of the real and the ideal of the imaginary are intertwined to propel the evolution towards more diverse species: human beings, human androids and human aliens," he says. "It is the new 'diversity.' It is about facing the world of the unknown, about integrating as an alien — the dimensions are stretching far beyond the horizons of planet Earth." His resolution for 2018? Working with people outside of his fashion circle, such as scientists. "[I might apply for a] trip to Mars. Why not?"

Kiko Kostadinov's crochet bags, old issues of 'Twen' and Bulgarian pottery | Photo: Osman Ahmed

With a creative directorship of Mackintosh under his belt, Bulgaria-born designer Kiko Kostadinov has been busy since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2016. His obsession with uniforms takes an unexpected turn in his upcoming collection, which will be shown in London tomorrow evening.

It’s fair to say that Kiko Kostadinov is an over-achiever, especially considering the namesake label he started straight out of Central Saint Martins is only in its fourth season. Yet, the prodigious menswear designer has taken the helm of heritage brand Mackintosh, developing a new luxe line for the British brand simultaneously to his own. Whereas Mackintosh is centred on traditional craft and commercial product and presented in Paris, Kostadinov’s own line allows him to indulge in narrative-led collections that focus on a central character. Perhaps the designer’s own busy schedule is what led him to romanticise the great outdoors this season, drawing on summery imagery and outdoor sports for his upcoming collection, which is aptly titled “Obscured by Clouds,” a name borrowed from Barbet Schroeder’s 1972 film La Vallée.

The louche, bohemian spirit of the late '60s and early '70s, seen through the lens of West German magazine Twen, published from 1959 to 1971, is an elusive influence felt within the new, more relaxed proportions and colours inspired by his native Bulgaria’s traditional pottery. Sporting garments, such as kayaking suits and cycling pants, are approached with technical flair and pockets are concealed within seams that twist around the garment and inform the garments, many of which are reversible.

Kostadinov has also designed womenswear for the first time, blending sports fabrics and couture silhouettes, and the show will mark the second collaboration between Kostadinov and Asics, the Japanese performance-wear brand (he was the first designer Asics have actively collaborated with). The “dad shoes” mirror the colour palette of the clothes and tap into the collectible market for fashionable performance pieces.

A glimpse into the Y/Project's studio in Paris | Photo: Osman Ahmed

Y/Project, the Parisian label headed up by Glenn Martens that will show in Paris on 17 January, has gone from 30 to 150 stockists in just over three years. Its meteoric rise is in tandem with a new wave of labels in the French capitals, known for its establishment — not emerging — talent.

Martens was tasked with revitalising the Parisian label — along with the brand's co-founder, business partner and principal backer Gilles Elalouf — after the 2013 death of co-founder and former creative director, Yohan Serfaty. Veering it away from the gothic aesthetic that ruled under Serfaty, Martens subsequently garnered the ANDAM Award in 2017 and has attracted 150 stockists (up from 12 in 2013) rising in tandem with fellow Paris-based labels such as Vetements, Jacquemus, Aalto, Koché and Marine Serre. All this was achieved in a city known for its monolithic fashion houses — not emerging talent.

Martens is partly informed by his upbringing in Bruges, considered to be the Belgian equivalent to Venice, where the city’s impressive gothic architecture and rich history is juxtaposed with its kitschy food stalls, souvenir shops and neon lighting. “Ugly things do trigger me,” he told BoF last year. “Sometimes it just takes a new perspective to see that hidden beauty in things. It’s a state of mind. I’m obsessed with dissecting the reason why I feel things are ugly. Once I grasp the identity of ugliness I try to change the focus.”

His sense of theatrics can be felt in his sweepingly dramatic proportions and a tension between grandiose opulence and the codes of the street, like the viral soccer scarves he designed, with the faces and names of medieval monarchs instead of sporting clubs. “We take garments that are imprinted into our memory as standard basics and we boost them into something wild and opulent and baroque,” he says. “The starting point is very normcore, which is then elevated into luxury and made to look wealthy.”

One of the few designers in this list to show during both the menswear and womenswear fashion weeks in Paris, Martens shrugs off the prospect of pre-collections. “We’re not going to make pre-collections but at the moment around 40 percent of the collection is overlapping, meaning that you’ll see the exact same piece on a man as on a woman, just styled differently,” he explains. “We introduced shoes [for women] last season. Now I want to push our accessories like bags and jewellery, as well as footwear for men.”

A piece from A-Cold-Wall's upcoming AW'18 show | Photo: Osman Ahmed

A-Cold-Wall is the London-based label of Samuel Ross, whose deep knowledge of streetwear is a result of assisting Virgil Abloh for three years. In the last season alone, its stockists doubled, following his last show in London, where he will show once again next week.

Samuel Ross, who launched A-Cold-Wall in 2015, is well placed to become a fashion phenomenon, having started his career as an assistant to man-of-the-hour Virgil Abloh. His London-based label’s approach to streetwear employs tropes such as graphic branding and sporty basics, but his eye for industrial design and unexpected textiles imbue his streetwear aesthetic with a layer of refinement and runway-worthy sheen. It’s little wonder that his wholesale retailers, which include Ssense and Barneys, jumped from 23 to 52 in the last season alone.

“It’s about presenting conceptual ideas at a digestible level,” says Ross, who has been inspired by the work of British artists Rachel Whiteread and Anthony Caro, who has often used scaffolding in his sculptures. “It’s for the younger consumer who is new to the fashion world and is just becoming interested in what’s happening, as well as the slightly older consumer who is much more interested in our application and dye process, for example.” One of his core design values is the cross-pollination of tribes within the British class system and their sartorial totems.

Caro’s scaffolding, for example, repurposes the material within a gallery context. “Outside of the gallery, these materials are completely of no value. It’s much more a working-class tool kit in how they’re treated and viewed, and often perceived to be invisible. It’s using that [juxtaposition] as a high-low bridge, which is parallel to a different aspect of the brand that talks about economic highs and lows.”

Rather than reinventing the wheel each season, Ross is planning to continue to build upon the foundations of his label, inspired by designers such as Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Rick Owens, who are each unwavering in their ethos and aesthetic. What's more interesting is that Ross is part of a generation whose taste and love of streetwear is evolving and maturing into a more sophisticated palette. "My pace of work and lifestyle have started to dictate how I dress and my taste," he explains. "I can't always wear a cotton t-shirt, even though I love to wear a crazy graphic at all times, it's not appropriate for me to go into a certain place and get done what I need to form the right perception. We're definitely in a regression where I feel that people are going to move away from extreme branding, and we're starting to steer away from loud graphics to something more softy spoken."

Feng Cheng Wang's SS'18 homage to 'Made in China' | Source: Courtesy

Feng Chen Wang’s studio is in London, but she chose the New York menswear shows as her platform this season, joining a line-up of similarly emerging talent. Her show on 6 February will explore the concept of home and the peripatetic journey Wang has made to where she is today.

Feng Chen Wang studied at London’s Royal College of Art and is based in the British capital, with a second studio and production base in Shanghai. Her intricately manipulated menswear incorporates words and logos — most recently the phrase “Made in China” was cheekily emblazoned on sweatshirts on the runway at New York Fashion Week: Men’s.

“The last collection was about making China luxe and redefining the term ‘Made in China,'” she explains. “The next show will be all about home.” Wang is well placed to make social observations about the concept, especially considering she is dividing her time between China, London and New York. “The economic growth in China has allowed people more freedom to express themselves and that has driven interest for my brand, because people are becoming more open and interested in new styles and techniques of production,” she adds.

"In Shanghai, they accept everything, they are open to new things. It's the future!" Julie Gilhart, who has been a supporter of Wang since her earliest show puts her success down to a vital combination: "She has a cool, vibrant aesthetic, and her personality seems like a really good combination of Chinese grounded in a western culture."

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