LONDON, United Kingdom — The day before this season's London Collections: Men, walking through Soho at about 9am, I found myself held up by a queue of at least 500 people, most of whom, judging by their blankets, sleeping bags and folding chairs, had spent the night there. They were not the usual crowd of shoppers who visit West End stores at sales time, looking for bargains. These were young guys in their twenties of broad ethnic and social backgrounds, united by style, music and skateboarding.
They were waiting for Supreme, the cult skate shop on Peter Street, to open, I was told by a nineteen-year-old. He said the queue had begun to form by mid-afternoon the day before and that, along with the rest, he had slept out on the pavement overnight. What was he planning to buy? “It’s only a t-shirt,” he said. Not any old t-shirt, of course, but a special edition being sold for 40 pounds as part of a Supreme collaboration with the Yankees baseball team and '47 Brand). “I could sell it for 200 pounds on EBay today if I wanted to but I am going to keep it and wear it,” he added. When I passed by the store a few hours later, a residue of fifty to sixty people was still waiting. This is not a one-off occurrence at Supreme, of course. The store is known for attracting a cult-like following. Indeed, I have often seen long queues outside the Peter Street shop before, but I have always been struck by the verve, confidence and wit of the improvised looks worn by the young men waiting.
The same day, I met a journalist friend and we talked briefly about London Collections: Men, the London menswear shows which open today. When I asked him which ones he planned to see he said, “Well, the only ones I really care about are Craig Green and JW Anderson,” adding, “but I'll go to some of the others as well.” As I walked on I wondered how many other fashion professionals felt the same on the eve of what has been hailed as a major event on the international fashion calendar.
But back to the guys in the queue. Many were wearing black, but some were colourfully dressed with the emphasis on the feet and the head. Nothing new there. The trainers and caps were a striking mixture of the world's top sports brands and younger labels, but they were reflective of the do-it-yourself casual looks you see on every street. None had been overtly inspired by a designer's runway or a stylist's fantasy editorial. These boys don't pay over £10 for a fashion magazine. I chatted to several in the queue about designer fashion for men and the same refrain kept coming up: “too expensive,” “skint” and “not cool.” Their ideas of fashion are led by the worlds of music and skateboarding — and constrained by real world budgets. And this is the rub for London designers. Even clothes ostensibly designed for young urbanites come with price tags that only well-heeled professionals can afford. There is no equivalent of the great days of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who wanted the working class — including poor students and the barely employed — to have their own dress codes and a uniqueness that could make London fashion an inspiration to the world.
The dismissal of London designer fashion from the guys in the Supreme queue made me wonder what, behind the hype and hysteria, is the point of organised men’s fashion events like London Collections: Men? Are these jamborees of any value to real consumers? Or are they no more exciting than warmed up fish and chips, there only to provide fodder for magazines that make money from advertising bought by big brands, which are able (and often willing) to pay sums way out of all proportion to the very small circulations of most menswear magazines? Certainly, when I go into my local newsagent, I see at least a dozen men's magazines with such minute circulations — 'niche' they are called, though many might also call them vanity publishing — that I wonder what on earth their purpose might be.
And, if we look more closely at many of the designers showing in London this week, we immediately see another anomaly. In the main, young men prefer loose casual clothing and there is certainly plenty of that at London Collections: Men. But why is Savile Row included in the official show schedule? To me, it is as illogical as women's couture and cruise being shown side by side. But, of course, that doesn't happen, because wise heads in Paris know that it would be like putting a shell suit next to a ballgown and expecting to find valid common ground. I believe that Savile Row tailoring should be given valid exposure and the Woolmark tableaux vivants of the last few seasons were exceptionally well done. But mixed into something like London Collections: Men, which is expected to illuminate future dress trends, what possible point is there in bringing in the past? For today’s young men, traditional tailoring simply does not fit their lives, unless their job demands it. And who could pay Savile Row prices for an everyday work suit?
The McLaren-Westwood revolution was inspired by radical politics and a rejection of society's values. It struck a chord, not just in London, but with the politically-involved across the world. Savile Row, like French couture, is about exclusivity and perfection. It must remain so, or else what value does it have?
But more broadly, perhaps the problem is that nobody appears to have really thought through the purposes of menswear fashion shows in London, which are different from those in other fashion capitals, where the runway is used to show traditional menswear looks as marketing for underwear, fragrances and toiletries. Of course, in London, only a very small number of brands — such as Burberry and Paul Smith — have such things to sell.
The views expressed in Opinion pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.