New aged (Financial Times Weekend)

Sometimes in fashion, wear and tear is the best accessory. Of all the items on display at Hermès’ Leather Forever exhibition, opening this week in London as part of the label’s 175th anniversary, it’s the vintage pieces that capture the attention most. Next to contemporary flights of fantasy, including a brightly coloured, winged horse’s saddle, there is luggage commissioned by the Duke of Windsor that has the handsome patina of decades of use. Many of the pieces, including belts, hats and a leather wheelbarrow used by Wallis Simpson to house her glove collection, tell a story beyond ‘royal appointment’ – there is depth, integrity and a little mystery. These are elements that no new chain store item could possibly emulate, but which some designers are now trying to weave into their work before it makes it to the point of first sale.

Paul Harndnen Shoemakers S/S 2012

For many niche brands, this is partly about distancing themselves from the mainstream – when everyone’s saying the same things with black jeans and a double breasted sports coat, you need to have your own voice. “These producers are the antithesis of big brand, big thinking,” says Mark Quinn of the Shoreditch menswear boutique Hostem, one of several stores that trades on the aesthetic. “They are driven by a dedication to craft.”

Not to be confused with fads for distressed-denim, faux aged leather and clumsy patchwork stitching that appear every few fashion cycles, the current move toward the “new aged” has more to do with the fact that spending over four figures on a jacket in a quality hide is an investment and for men, in particular, its gradual softening and scuffing suggests a life well lived and a certain insousiance. Many men don’t have a buttoned-down existence. They want to feel that they are the masters of their wardrobes, away from the tyranny of box-fresh, crease-free dressing. The architect and the art director have their own notions of what constitutes well dressed. The fashion designer too: “I will never, as long as I live wear a tie”, declares Yohji Yamamoto.

Indeed, the allure of the “old” is not limited to leather. A handful of contemporary designers have pioneered a similar approach to other textiles. Comme des Garçons Homme Plus suits, for example, are often made in boiled wool or polyester, with both options looking as good plucked from an overhead bin after a 12 hour flight as they do on boarding. Then there are the sneakers by Maison Martin Margiela that have been artfully whitewashed; for men who remember having box-fresh trainers stamped on by classmates at school to “christen them”, there’s something reassuringly “ready” about these shoes. And at Belstaff, “Antique Black” is the new black – certain boots are available in the former, but not the latter.

This is, of course, a matter of taste. Many men – particularly those who would never consider vintage – will not succumb to what they see as pretention in fashion. Mark Quinn of Hostem disagrees: “These labels are actually a refuge for the unpretentious. It’s not showy and it’s not the instant ageing of All Saints or Levis. What might be perceived as imperfections are highly desirable – the result of fabrication sourced from the few family run mills left in business.”

These clothes aren’t meant to look preworn or distressed, merely relaxed and luxurious, with subtle of evidence of their artisan craft. It less as about an attempt to age, and more to do with painstaking construction and extraordinary detail. “Brands like A1923 and Lost &Found produce clothing that has a story to tell,” says Michael Takkou of Mayfair boutique Layers. “We recently stocked a collaboration between LAYER-0 and Avantindietro where footwear was constructed with leather that had been buried for 10 years.” Such avant-garde techniques can only be employed by small design houses. “These designers don’t follow trends,” says Mark Quinn. “Geoffrey B. Small hand makes his buttons and Carol Christian Poell dyes his leather in ox blood. Customers buy their clothes for decades, not seasons.”

Some labels, like Casey Vidalenc – known for their boiled wools and what they call “tight and tough fabrics” – aren’t even produced via traditionally structured collections. “We just make things when we want to wear them ourselves,” says Gareth Casey. “If clients want to buy them, then fine.” Much of what’s currently on sale at Dover Street Market and Hostem features fabrics that have been dyed, shrunk, laundered and distressed; many one-off Casey Vidalenc garments are made from short runs of textiles that Casey and his design partner Philippe Vidalenc “wash, wash and wash” and then twist by hand. The result is surprisingly subtle, and appeals to an intellectual customer who sees himself as being above the pervading smart casual look. It’s also very well made – there’s no vast production line in China, most of it comes straight from the atelier, as it would have done before the advent of prêt a porter.

The shop assistants in Rick Owens’ stores wear their proprietor’s black and “dark dust” coloured T-shirts to work, often in tatters, and serve as an instruction manual for newcomers to the brand; Owens designs some of his raw-edged items, like his sheer cotton T-shirts to distress, artfully, over time, while others such as this season’s stonewashed, buttery soft leathers are sold with a subtle weathering to the texture or a pre-worn tone. “I see it as a restrained patina,” says Owens. “Think of British gentleman who used to give their new shoes to a valet to reduce the newness. It can appear affected very easily,” acknowledges the designer, however, so “It’s best to approach it as a gentle finishing and let the client create their own authenticity” through wear.

Across the Channel, meanwhile, Brighton-based designer Paul Harnden creates tailoring that has the warped heft and, often, the weirdness, of a Joseph Beuys installation. Described as “very Greta Garbo” by long-standing customer John Galliano, Harnden makes music and underground Super-8 movies but has never produced a catwalk show. He refuses party invitations, interviews and online retail, selling exclusively at a few stores (Dover Street Market in London; IF in New York; L’Eclaireur in Paris). Much of his work resembles wrinkled, rugged, American Civil War costume, with heavy cottons and twists of Victoriana. Nevertheless, he has a slavish following amongst fans, including Galliano and Brad Pitt, prepared to pay over £1,o00 for a coat. Much of each new collection sells out on arrival because of scarcity and growing demand. As Gareth Casey says, “Quality garments, like good wine, improve with the patina of age.”

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