Savage knit (Financial Times Weekend)

Spring’s super-bright florals may already be in full bloom in boutiques the world over, but many of us are stuck firmly in the grip of a Siberian winter. Such is seasonality. Some of the new collections from the more austere houses of fashion take a conveniently heavier approach to the promise of summer ahead. Many practitioners of the luxe urban warrior look – for both men and women – have embraced a tough and tribal approach to knitwear. Often loose and supersized, it riffs on the same monochrome motifs, asymmetry and edge as the rest of their aesthetic.

Todd Lynn, S/S 2012

On the second floor of Rick Owens’ bunker-like black, white and concrete atelier in Paris, there’s a room which houses a row of samples of knit and fur mixed pieces from his studio’s Hun range. “Hun” is Owens’ nickname for his wife and muse, Michele Lamy, as well as the legend on the label for the most rarefied line that the pair of them design, previously entitled Palais Royal. While DRKSHDW is Owens’ diffusion, Hun is the couple’s stab at couture. The elephant knit pieces are typically black and bold. “They seem to satisfy Hun’s savage and voodoo inclinations”, says Owens, giving full credit for the line to Lamy. “I see her patron saints as Gustave Moreau – all swirling perfumed smoke and jeweled emotion – and Attila, with a savage little snarl.” The knits are as sumptuous as they are wild, hand crafted in Marrakech in a small studio Owens operates there.

Todd Lynn has several knits for men and women this season that fit neatly with his otherwise tough tailoring and leather style. Adopting a skewed, visceral and quite otherworldly approach, there’s a touch of H.R Giger to them. “The ladders in the knits are the focal point of each garment,” says Lynn. “It’s about textures but also the feeling of aggression that comes with that distressed look.” Lynn collaborated with London-based knitwear expert Sid Bryan on the collection. Bryan’s career kicked off after he graduated in 1999 when he created pieces for Alexander McQueen’s “Overlook” collection, themed on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. “Lee (McQueen) simply requested ‘big stitches’”, says Bryan. “I think there’s an instinctive, spontaneous, accidental approach to my methods which is about reacting to the knit and the outcomes thrown up though experimentation.”

The pieces that Lynn showed for spring were strongly reminiscent of some of the work of Richard Torry, part of the celebrated Brit-pack – along with Galliano and Bodymap – in the 1980s. Torry all but gave up fashion in 1991 to work in music, going on to co-found the band Minty with Leigh Bowery, but his work has remained influential, and his name a key insider reference. This year he has been working with The Old Curiosity Shop in London, recreating some of his classic men’s knits, with an expanded range being planned for Japan in April. The pieces have an intense, dramatic, organic feeling to them, most notably the classic  “Herringbone Sweater” which he first designed in 1985, taking visual cues from fish bones. They also have their roots in punk – Torry worked with Westwood and McLaren at the end of the 1970s, and recalls “taking my knitting needles to punk clubs.” His 1980s designs, with their contrasting loose and tight weaves and stripes, are so fresh and vibrant that they could have been created yesterday.

Richard Torry

One of Torry’s biggest struggles in relaunching has been in sourcing production. Most of his work is currently hand knitted in the UK, which makes it – like Rick Owens’ Hun pieces from Morocco – inherently special but also time intensive, expensive and very limited. “There aren’t the knitting pools of little old ladies anymore, like there were in the 1980s,” he says. Dublin-based John Rocha – who frequently incorporates punk-tinged knitted elements in his work – showed a range of black Amazonian-tribal inspired knits for women for spring, with leather detailing. He also finds production difficult, purely because of the lack of artisans. “I insist on it all being done by hand, but few people are training in it. And I want it to look modern. I put sparkle in there. Knits can be very contemporary – you can boil it to make it denser, and knit it hard and tight.”

Much of the new style of knitwear treats an otherwise soft textile as unlikely, provocative, armour. Someone like Mark Fast creates body-conscious dresses that are as overtly sexual as vintage, figure-hugging Alaïa, while Swedish designer Sandra Backlund shapes her knits for women into strong and sculptural shapes, with immense shoulders and necklines. “Heavy knitwear has become my signature,” she says. “This season I’m focusing a lot on details, and how to create 3D effects close to the body.”

Many labels are pushing the boundaries of what actually constitutes knitwear. This season, along with a sleeveless cardigan for women in a super-chunky cotton-blend stitch worked into a rope-like motif, Maison Martin Margiela produced men’s pieces knitted using shredded men’s shirts. Again, the DNA of it harks back to punk. While the technique is different from Vivienne Westwood’s seminal, loosely woven Seditionaries mohair pieces from the 1970s, or indeed Kurt Cobain’s overlong, frayed sleeves of early 1990s grunge, it’s still all about attitude. It’s soft, but it’s hard – knitwear with a needle-sharp edge.


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