The workwear revolution (Financial Times Weekend)

When Fergus Henderson (pictured) and Trevor Gulliver of the ‘nose to tail’ Michelin-starred St John restaurant in London travelled to Manhattan for a food festival recently, it wasn’t just the foodies who were excited by their arrival. ‘Trevor is compelling’, wrote fashion blogger Max Wastler on allplaidout.com, detailing Gulliver’s ’round metal Cutler & Gross frames, French work jacket and jean-cut trousers the color of a HoneyBaked Ham at a Christmas lunch.’ Indeed. ‘The New York fashion bloggers were much taken with my navy artisan’s jacket from Le Laboureur in France,’ says Gulliver. Henderson’s recent conversion to the similarly terroir-tinged British brand, Old Town, was similarly newsworthy.

The impossibly cool middle-aged pair have long been proponents of the sartorial power of “workwear”: masculine, utilitarian garments, smarter than jeans and T-shirts, but more relaxed than structured tailoring, and often fairly literal interpretations of skilled worker’s uniforms. Think, for example, of the single-breasted uniform worn by a Bauhaus tutor or an architect; clothes to break-in and improve with age.

‘Workwear is on the high street and on the racks at Top Man, so the designers we stock are doing it in a more refined way,’ says Stephen Ayres, men’s wear buyer at Liberty. For this spring he’s introducing the rough-and-tumble German label, Acronym, to the store, as well as Ralph Lauren’s ‘authentic Americana’ RRL brand, while M Tokyo Japan returns for a second season. ‘The Japanese brands do the look particularly well,’ says Stephen. ‘Junya Watanabe has produced a wonderful waxed jacket with a corduroy collar.’

The Japanese have frequently echoed European workwear – one of Yohji Yamamoto’s most recurrent inspirations is the social documentary work of August Sander in the 20th century and his subject’s attire.  And international high fashion “workwear” remains a Western, early 20th century aesthetic. In Britain it harks back romantically to the old uniforms of the working classes, from the baker to the dustman and the railway worker, and in the US, it continues to reference western pioneers, the military and the production line.

Engineered Garments, for example, based in New York, is so named because the labels first pattern cutter claimed the items ‘weren’t designed but engineered’ due to the heft of the functional detailing, while Dickies, a functional USA tradesman’s favourite, recently produced a $200 replica of its 1922 cuffed pant that may well be the ultimate chino of all time: the stitching and fabric used is military-grade and the cut is as chic as the fit is wide.

‘Workwear is about clothes made for a purpose,’ says Margaret Howell, the British designer most linked with haute workwear, whose navy and ecru “worker’ striped shirt, indigo twill jacket, and blue cotton linen trouser for spring exemplify her words. ‘These clothes express authenticity, truth and strength. They aren’t age or trend related.’

‘It’s a reaction against the teenage ‘indie’ uniform,’ says Fraser Moss, designer of the London-based oft workwear-tinged label YMC. “The skinny jeans and willowy silhouette that washed down from Dior to the high street was a look which only suited men of a certain age and build. Workwear suits a slightly more mature man more than a younger one. It’s a more relaxed and wearable look for the sophisticated end of the market. It has an air of intrigue.’

Ironically, the shop that embodies the new workwear style best isn’t, in fact, a clothes store; rather, Labour and Wait is essentially a hardware store that sells “good old days” items for the home, from airforce-blue enamel pots for the stove to toilet brushes, couched in Festival of Britain imagery and 1920s Gill Sans typography — not to mention work gloves and gauntlets. To understand how influential the aesthetic has been, simply consider that Labour and Wait now has a branch on the top floor of Comme des Garçons’ tremd-setting Dover Street Market, a recently opened store in London’s Shoreditch, and nine outlets in Japan. Tellingly, co-owner Rachel Wythe-Moran and her partner used to work in men’s wear but changed direction because, she says, ‘we got fed up having to reinvent everything every season. We had a passion for timeless products that were classic and well made.’ Her’s is, essentially, the modern workwear ethos.

‘Fashion is usually obsessed with eternal youth, but has given way to a sort of permanence and consistency,’ says long-established menswear designer Joe Casely-Hayford, who creates the directional Casely-Hayford line with his son Charlie and whose collarless shirts and crushed jersey coats point to what Casely-Hayford calls ‘the crossing point between sartorial style and workwear. Our romantic heroes are more likely to be explorers than foppish aesthetes, and our followers appreciate a good back-story.’

Indeed, the back-stories at Old Town, a menswear label based in Nottingham that specialises in utility-inspired garments in British cottons, tweeds and corduroy, are shamelessly fictitious, but charismatic. “Our single breasted rever collar jacket is an unfaithful copy of one found in a tool locker during the demolition of Stratford locomotive works,” promises their website.

‘Fictitious provenance is an aid to the imagination,’ says Old Town’s William Brown. And again, a certain of maturity of style is central to the 50 garments a week that come out of their workshop. ‘It’s a picturesque look that allows a middle aged man to pose as an old man,” says Brown. “Dressing older is way more attractive than dressing younger.’

‘My life story is in these past blue jackets,’ says St John’s Henderson, explaining his affinity for what has become his working uniform. Meanwhile, for Gulliver, the versatility of the look is as important as its heritage. “I still wear my bleu de travail with matching high waist trousers,’ he says. ‘Believe it or not, it’s an acceptable suit under the RAC Club’s gentlemen’s dress code.’

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