Fresh off the plane from Tokyo – where he has a cult-like following – and back at his desk in the studio that sits at the end of his back garden in Newcastle, Nigel Cabourn is at work on his new collection. Sketches and fabric swatches are shuffled amidst racks and racks of vintage clothing finds – and antique globes. Gradually a story about Scott of the Antarctic is taking shape. “Next year is the 100th anniversary of his death, so I’m basing a whole collection on him,” he says. “I went to the Scott Polar Museum and studied the detail on the clothes from the last expedition. They’re made out of Burberry gabardine, with a woven windowpane check on it. You’ll never see that on a photograph.”
While Cabourn crafts the detail into next season’s clothes, the spring line makes its way on to the racks of department stores around the world. The new collection features a camouflage that he’s had adapted and printed from a pair of British Army trousers he spotted being worn by a customer in his shop in Japan. On seeing them walk through the door, he promptly bartered some of his own stock to add them to his collection of vintage inspirations. Much of the current collection (£395–£1000) is based on the uniforms of Field Marshal Montgomery, with stiff khaki drill and linens, inspired by jackets and trousers bleached by the desert sun.
Cabourn is the master of an ongoing and ever refining trend in casual menswear for faithful recreations of archive and historical garments. Sometimes they are based on vintage finds, sometimes on photographs. There’s a romance and integrity to this necessarily high-end pursuit of perfection (uniqueness in textiles doesn’t come cheap), and many customers love the romance and the backstory as much as the attention to construction and detail. Maison Martin Margiela has had a “replica line” in its 14 range since autumn 1994 – many of the items based on vintage store discoveries. “The Maison collectively sources special pieces from around the world during research trips,” explains a spokesperson. Each piece has a label identifying its style, the provenance of the original item and period of production. For spring there are sunglasses, (£335-£360) wing-tipped shirts from the 1920s and wide collared ones from the 1970s (£270-£280).
Some fashion recreations might be seen as postmodern art pieces. Last year Salvatore Ferragamo recreated a limited edition of the only man’s shoe that the eponymous company’s founder ever designed, using the pair that Andy Warhol used to wear in his studio. Each fleck of paint and imperfection on the pair, sourced at auction, was recreated. At the more prosaic end of the spectrum, US performance footwear brand Wolverine recently released a limited edition of its Wolverine 721 boot (£721), based on the very first footwear that the company made, pulled from archives that date back to the early 1900s. Recreated faithfully out of shell cordovan equine leather, it’s a standout, special piece for spring.
“Heritage, vintage and archive are all massive buzzwords in men’s fashion right now,” says Craig Ford, of the influential London-based contemporary menswear trade show Jacket Required. “Many of the brands who show with us have a part in it, from Carhartt reproducing their original workwear from 1889 to Chevignon remaking their brightly coloured iconic Togs down jackets that were popular in the late 1980s.” It’s not a case of “nothing new” happening in fashion – it’s just that in terms of casual off-duty and functional clothing, the market is dominated by either elegance-free sportswear or disposable rubbish. This is the reaction against these. Private White V.C is a Manchester-based casualwear label based on the wardrobe of WWI Victoria Cross recipient Jack White. After the war, White took an apprenticeship at, and subsequently went on to own, what has ultimately become the Private White V.C factory, Cooper and Stollbrand. Designer Nick Ashley – son of Laura, and previously on the team at Kenzo, Tod’s and Dunhill – has access to 5,000 vintage garments in the Private White V.C archive, and focuses on their heavy-duty detailing to create contemporary, muscular, menswear classics.Designers such as Ashley and Cabourn look back to heavy-duty garments that were often developed for military or expedition use and can afford to recreate or rework them with a modern and lighter fit for the most discerning of consumers. The original articles predate the idea of ready to wear and seasonality in men’s fashion, and were built at the very least to last – at best to keep the wearer alive.
“I was buying a lot of Second World War jackets and they were all in the same kind of cotton,” says Cabourn. “I asked an elderly gentleman who I’d been buying the garments off what it was, and he told me it was something he’d actually helped invent. It’s called Ventile, developed by the Shirley Institute in the late 30s for aircraftmen flying across the North Sea. If they were shot down, it kept them afloat and warm.” None of which is a concern over at Top Man or All Saints, whose garments are intended to wear out and be replaced as quickly as possible, but hip men’s style blogs like Selectism obsess about this kind of thing, along with the sizing of belt loops and the perfect length of trouser. At the highest end of casualwear, the attention to detail and fabrication is as luxurious as the most perfect bespoke suit.
Functionality aside, there’s a strong ongoing movement in men’s style away from “youth”. Men in their twenties are wearing the same Barbour jackets as their fathers. It’s about a kind of seriousness and masculinity that day-glo trainers and T-shirt patterns eroded for the longest time. Men are drawn to heritage brands for the same reason they have started to listen to folk music rather than coffee table pop; they want something with longevity and depth and an emotional attachment to it. And they want to be men, not boys. One of the most revered items in heritage circles is the Guernsey sweater. It’s a frequently lead-heavy boat-necked fisherman’s jumper, with a plain knit but a highly detailed chest panel. Private White V.C have a most excellent lambswool version (£170).
Sunspel recently reworked a pair of long johns (£95) previously owned by Peter Hill, whose great grandfather founded the company. Long johns seem like an inherently fogey item, but they’re functional right through a Scandic or Highland spring, and for a brand that trades on classics, the backstory is seductive. “It’s a nod to our heritage,” says CEO Nicholas Brooke. “The faithful recreation even includes Peter Hill’s initials, sewn into the back. We kept the loops at the waist – originally used to hold braces – and the combination of knitted and wove fabric, but updated the fit which gives the garment a more contemporary feel.”
Sometimes the garment that catches a designer’s eye isn’t physically available to study. Often there are documentary photographs, or perhaps film stills, that capture the essence of an item that has long since disintegrated or been lost. Last February, Charles Finch launched the “dive and mountain” label Chucs, and at the heart of the range is the Holden jacket (£685), which comes in spring and winter weights and is based on a photograph that Finch saw of the actor William Holden wearing it in Africa – offscreen – with his father Peter Finch. This might well be the perfect safari jacket, with its dark brown elbow patches, matching buttons and bold, functional multi-pockets. It’s the second version Finch has had made of the original – the first was made for his personal wardrobe by tailor John Pearse. For Finch, Holden represents the contemporary Chucs man. “I’m very inspired by him,” he says. “He was the quiet, strong type of artist – no frills, good work, a class act. The crew and actors in films in the 1950s were explorers, making their films in far off places. Look at Bogart, Bacall, John Huston and African Queen. Even the director’s chairs fitted the image and were used on safari and movie sets. Holden embodied this look when he was in Africa.”
The Private White V.C factory, Manchester
For many labels with a long history, it’s a matter of merely opening up the archives. When Aquascutum was asked to provide some of the wardrobe for Gary Oldman’s character in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, they recreated the 1950s Sheerwater raincoat, now a part of the spring collection (£550). “It’s a timeless style staple,” says design director Joanna Sykes. “It has a long, lean silhouette, emphasised by side-slant welt pockets and detailed with contrasting horn buttons. It’s iconic and quintessentially British.” Belstaff, founded in 1924 has, in recent years, gained attention by recreating archive pieces right down to every scuff and repair mark on the rediscovered original. The current range includes their classic three-quarter length biker’s coat, the Trialmaster (£456), reproduced in pristine condition and in a new, “deluxe” version (£540) for spring. “The original Trialmaster is seen as a trophy by collectors and enthusiasts,” says Belstaff CEO Harry Slatkin. “Now it’s a must-have for the most demanding modern motorcyclist who wants a product to be highly protective and breathable at the same time.” It looks excellent on a pedestrian too. The hugely functional waxed cotton used has been reversed, so the surface appears matt, and there are extra waterproofing and quilting details. Another heritage brand, Gloverall, widely regarded as the company that wrangled the trad duffle coat into being a fashion item, celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. They have created three different men’s coats (two car coats, £280 and £295, and a duffle, £500) that they’ve recreated from archive originals. Fabric has been rewoven to match the pieces in their archives; the checked Harold model, with leather pocket detailing, is the most appealing and graphic of the bunch.
While recreating classics is a newly fashionable pursuit, its origins are in the early 1980s. “It was me, the late Massimo Osti and Katharine Hamnett,” says Nigel Cabourn, recalling the heady days of Hamnett as the London catwalk’s most visible fashion force, with her chic take on army surplus. “Osti built a very big collection.” With his CP Company label, Osti created the most premium technical outerwear label on the planet. He was a fashion scientist, pushing the boundaries of wear-resistant and performance fabrics, threading steel through wool and reworking vintage into something high tech. Now the Massimo Osti Archive – which includes 60,000 fabric samples from over 30 years – has inspired the MA.STRUM project by designer Donrad Duncan. For spring, there are three outerwear pieces (£210–£250) using nylon rip-stop material originally produced for parachutes. “Osti used rip-stop parachute fabric, and we’ve advanced it with applications and techniques so that it’s soft to the touch and highly breathable. Men love the idea of the backstory in fashion, but fundamentally they love something that is well built and that works.”
Denim has had connotations of nostalgia ever since Nick Kamen strolled into a laundrette and removed his Levi’s 501s in 1985. There’s also a trainspotter-driven industry that continues to grow around faithful recreations of the earliest pieces. Aero Leathers – who work on collections for Nigel Cabourn – are the go-to people for perfect replicas of early 20th century leathers and have been “busier than ever… and getting busier still over the last five years,” reports co-founder Will Lauder. Aficionados love them for their detailing, which includes the offer of original WWII dead-stock zips to put into new jackets. Their website also offers rare denim pieces sourced from Japan, like the recreated 1930s Lee Single Pocket Cinch Back Jacket (£180). Such is the obsession people have with rare denim that originals of this particular jacket have sold for $40,000. The Levi’s 501 may have had its big renaissance in the 1980s, but it pre-dates the costly Lee jacket by forty years. It was christened in 1890, and Levi’s make perfect replicas of what was on sale that year (£210), in a 9oz plain selvedge with cinch and suspender buttons and crotch rivet, as part of their premium Levi’s Vintage Clothing range. As design director for the label, Miles Johnson, says: “This is part of a global vintage trend. There’s a romance to wearing authentic styles and seeing the fading changes to the denim over time. Men are interested in original styles as opposed to overdesigned fashion, which just doesn’t last.”
Aero Leathers (01896 755353; www.aeroleatherclothing.com).
Aquascutum, 160 Sloane Street (0800 282 922; www.aquascutum.com) and stockists/branches.
Belstaff, 13 Conduit Street, London W1 (020-7495 5897, http://www.belstaff.net)
Nigel Cabourn, www.cabourn.com and see Liberty and LN-CC.com.
Chucs Dive & Mountain Shop (www.chucsdiveshop.com).
Dover Street Market, 17-18 Dover Street, London W1 (020-7518 0680, www.doverstreetmarket.com).
Gloverall (www.gloverall.com) and stockists.
Levi’s Vintage Clothing, 5 Newburgh Street, London W1 (020-7287 4941, http://www.levisvintageclothing.com).
Liberty, 208-222 Regent Street, London W1 (020-7734 1234; www.liberty.co.uk).
LN-CC.Com, 18 Shacklewell Lane, Dalston London E8 (www.ln-cc.com).
Maison Martin Margiela, 22 Bruton Street, London W1 (020-7629 2682; http://www.maisonmartinmargiela.com) and branches/stockists.
MA.STRUM (www.mastrum.com) and stockists.
Private White V.C, 55 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC1 (020-7831 3344; http://www.privatewhitevc.com).
Sunspel, 7 Redchurch Street, London E2 (020-7739 9729; www.sunspel.com).
Wolverine (www.wolverine.com) and see Dover Street Market.