Archive for Comme des Garcons

Blacking-up: The 1980s Japanese revival (The Guardian)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2011 by markcoflaherty

While a nineties fashion revival can only be a few blogs away, there’s one last eighties one about to take place – and it might actually be worth having. Buried within a decade of fluoro-new wave and shoulder pads is the on-trend-again Japanese minimalist movement that radicalised, as well as democratised, high fashion. It dispensed with all status symbols, throwing reams of black cloth over the glitz of Studio 54 and the colourful frills of new romanticism. Early adopters, from Basquiat to the students at St Martins, ‘blacked-up’ like a witchy post-apocalyptic communist cult at a time when nausea-inducing candy-colours and grey were the norm. It quickly trickled down and soon everything had to be matt black.


When Yohji Yamamoto (pictured) and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons joined Paris-veteran Issey Miyake at the prêt a porter at the start of the 1980s, their relentlessly monochrome, unstructured, asymmetric, intellectual assault on the catwalk was a revelation. In 2011, with an ongoing overview of their archives on display at the Barbican, a definitive retrospective of Yamamoto’s work scheduled to open at the V&A in March, and even M&S citing their seminal collections thirty years ago as an influence for spring, their 80s output is going to be reshaping wardrobes once again.

For many, the look forged by the Japanese in the 1980s has never lost its allure. A whole generation of modernist architects and artists, attracted by its raw, unbranded, anti-fashion status, wear little else. It is a chic alternative to ‘suit or sportswear?’, and it destroyed dress codes to create a violently expensive but logo and regulation-free democracy of style. ‘I will never ever wear a tie,’ says Yohji Yamamoto. ‘Not even if I am invited to see my emperor! I made that decision long ago.’

There are also appealing practicalities: before Karl Lagerfeld’s Diet Coke epiphany and 90lb of weight loss, he was perpetually swathed in billowing black Yamamoto rayon. As Professor Wendy Dagworthy, head of fashion as the Royal College of Art says: ‘It wasn’t until the 80s, and the Japanese, that people really wore black. Before that it just had beatnik connotations. Now it makes you feel safe, and of course look thinner.’

For every trippy piece of frilled lycra Bodymap on the 80s guest list there was an ankle length black duster coat, whether it was from Comme or Kensington Market. While much of twenty-something east London continues to dress up in retro Wag-club era polka-dots and Breton stripes, the flowing, monastic, oriental garb that ran in tandem with it back in the day is reappearing. Crotches have dropped and trouser hems have raised and widened. ‘The high street has been a blaze of colour,’ says Neil Hendy, creative director at M&S. ‘But the Japanese look is very versatile. You can wear an oversized black jacket with opaque tights and Dr Martens or in a more sophisticated way, over a tube dress. What we’ve been doing at M&S is look at the fluidity of form.’

The designer Maria Cornejo, who began her career in the 1980s in London as one half of feted – but commercially doomed – duo Richmond Cornejo, now has a slavish following for her beautiful, architectural, frequently subversively-volumed dresses in tune with the Japanese revival. She also employs a sympathetically stark approach to styling. ‘If you don’t put bells and whistles on the clothes,’ she says, ‘they don’t have a lifespan.’ This isn’t a look for vertiginous high heels and fake tan. As Cornejo says: ‘I make clothes for real working women.’

A simple version of the Japanese 80s redux look is also appealingly easy to pull off at a lower price point. It’s where the no-frills aesthetic of Muji came from (Yamamoto has designed for Muji in Japan). And it’s why the Alexander Wang T line of T-shirts is becoming such a cult phenomenon. Take one high quality, loose, black jersey T with a raw seam, mix with wide legged black trousers, and you’re done: soft; loose; layered… 100% noir.

While V&A curator Ligaya Salagazar has been careful to incorporate colour and print within the 90 outfits in the forthcoming Yamamoto exhibition, it’s not the florals worn by Elton John – perhaps surprisingly a close friend of Yohji – or the psychedelics languishing on sale rails that we know the Japanese for. It’s the black stuff. ‘Yamamoto believes that black is the only genuine colour,’ says Salagazar. ‘It’s what everything else plays off; it’s his essence.’

When the Tokyo dark wave first crashed across Paris in the 1980s, it was a formative phenomenon for many of today’s western designers. The stripped down aesthetic, the layering, the drained colour, black and asymmetry are significant elements in the work of Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens and countless others. Demeulemeester believes that the Japanese revolution was a turning point for fashion. ‘It was disappointing that fashion then went backwards in the 90s,’ she says. Owens – whose work is consistently watered down for the suburbs by the omni-awful All Saints and other pretenders – celebrated their outsider status. ‘For a 19 year-old art student goth, it was illuminating to see that the uptight fashion world could accommodate a weirdo,’ he says.

The Japanese triumvirate threw fashion off balance, literally. ‘Symmetry – the symbol of perfection – is not sufficiently human,’ said Yamamoto at the time. Asymmetry, arguably born of the kimono, will be ever more visible in 2011, from a simple white silk Autograph blouse at M&S with asymmetric buttoning, to the leather jackets on the high street originally catwalked in purer forms by the likes of Owens and Todd Lynn. ‘I love how it throws things off-balance, or can throw attention to something,’ says Philip Stephens of Unconditional, another label which acts as unwilling consultant to the high street. ‘I like things that wrap, which finish in an asymmetric way, which is often seen as Japanese.’

The great 80s Japanese designers don’t subscribe to being ‘Japanese designers’, or even see many similarities in their fellows’ work, but Yamamoto is passionate about his traditional culture, and abhors its westernisation. ‘The kimono could never compete with western clothes because they are convenient and allow you to be active,’ he says. ‘But from the early 80s all of the strong looking women around my store in Omotesando in Tokyo became more Americanised and I hated it. Sometimes I’m flying and I’m sat next to a fat American guy in shorts and a T-shirt and I just can’t believe it.’

Fashion is, of course, a great cultural signifier, whether at 30,000 feet or on the ground, east or west. And these are hard times, in tune with the uncompromising and dour looks of Japanese fashion in the 80s. ‘I think that these emerging trends will take us beyond minimalism,’ says Bradley Quinn, author of the forthcoming book Design Futures. ‘There’ll be an aesthetic of primitivism. Rei Kawakubo’s early collections of shapeless knitwear crafted with gaping holes will be influential, as will Junya Watanabe’s later “unconstructed” garments bound to the body with string and wire rather than stitched or sewn.’ Certainly there’s an identifiable art school ‘hobo’ tendency there that lends itself to charity shop DIY, which is what many fashion students opted for in the 80s when they couldn’t afford four figure Yamamoto, even with full grants and (gasp!) housing benefit.

Even if things don’t get so extreme, 2011 is bound to be a year of lower, rougher, hemlines in fashion. ‘The current recession is pivotal to this revival,’ says Andrew Groves, course director of BA Fashion at the University of Westminster. ‘It’s a fundamental realignment of fashion’s core values and a reaction to wearing short sexy and symmetrical clothing. In times of recession skirt lengths lengthen – women don’t want to appear sexually available and end up conceiving at a time of economic uncertainty.’

Dark times ahead perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be aesthetically exciting. And anything that gets rid of striped tops, bow ties and coloured-rimmed Wayfarers once and for all has to be a good thing.


Cool as folk (House)

Posted in Art, Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2010 by markcoflaherty

One of the more unusual sights at one of London’s most well attended fashion parties last year was that of Rei Kawakubo, the notoriously glacial Comme des Garçons designer, being instructed on the finer points of Morris Dancing. The Folklore Fete, a fundraiser for the Museum of British Folklore was, as the fashion world says without any sense of its own ridiculousness, ‘a moment’. It was also affirmation that folk culture – both in the UK and abroad – is enjoying a very 21st century kind of renaissance in popularity and credibility. For a whole bandwagon-load of hipsters (essentially the bearded Urban Outfitter-clad redux of Beat-loving folkie troubadours of old), the Jack in the Green is the new black and it’s all wicker, man. And yet, there’s a lot more substance to it all than a bunch of pissed-up bank holidays on the Kent coast and gentle guitar refrains from Portland Oregon.

The Folklore Fete’s host, Simon Costin, is one of fashion’s most influential figures. More than that, he’s a fine artist in his own right: Costin’s formative career saw him working on film projects with Derek Jarman and later creating shamanistic jewellery from bones and semen. Since then he has designed theatrical, seemingly impossible sets for Nick Knight and Steven Klein, made rain fall on Alexander McQueen’s catwalk and recently helped recreate the centre of Paris at one-third scale inside the Grand Palais in the French capital for Sonia Rykiel and H&M. Last year’s Fete marked the launch of his Museum of British Folklore, scheduled to open in the south east of England in three years’ time. He subsequently went on a nationwide tour with a capsule collection of folk artefacts, including a corn dolly, a dessicated cat from the 15th century and a phallic wand from a coven in Sussex – all housed in a converted 70s Carry On-style caravan painted in Laduree macaroon colours and faded fairground swirls. This year the caravan appears again at a variety of fairs, while Simon curates a show at the Queens Gallery Hexham, as well as a string of summer-long exhibitions at a variety of venues, including the Gatehouse in Port Eliot.

Close friends Gareth Pugh and Stephen Jones contributed costume pieces for Costin to wear on tour – making Simon an integral part of the Museum experience. For milliner Jones the project struck an immediate chord: ‘I’d always thought I knew Britain and that it wasn’t exciting,’ he says. ‘Then I went to a village fair with my parents and we had our photograph taken with some prize turnips… when I looked at the picture afterwards it just looked so typically, eccentrically, English that it inspired me to put together a collection which I called Handmade in England. Then I bumped into Simon at JFK and he told me about his Museum.’

Folklore has been reworked in fashion more times than the shoulder pad. Vivienne Westwood showed several collections at the end of the 80s under the banner ‘Britain must go Pagan!’, and she’s never lost interest in Brit-folk imagery; last season she showed men’s rag rug knits in May Pole colours. Carmen Haid, of the online vintage fashion boutique Atelier Mayer, says a lot of the most sought-after pieces she handles have heavy folk influences: ‘Particularly the YSL 70s Ballets Russes collections; Ossie Clark’s Celia Birtwell prints and almost every collection by John Galliano.’ Galliano’s last collection riffed on the look again, with heavy folk-embroidery, lucky charms, and male models catwalking as platinum-blond horned satyrs.

As well as helping create fantasy worlds for the world’s most directional designers and documenting and curating the vernacular arts, Simon Costin has a passionate and personal relationship with folk culture. This spring he’ll appear, as in previous years, painted emerald and moving with the procession of other ‘bogeys’, black-faced Hunters Moon Morris men and ivy-headdressed locals through the old town of Hastings for the Jack in the Green festival. It’s but one of hundreds of events in the annual folk calendar; a schedule that’s growing apace. Certainly it’s no coincidence that there’s been a resurgence of all things folk at the same time as a global economic meltdown and the disappearance of (jobs aside) so much of what was really rubbish to begin with. ‘There’s been an estimated 25% increase in attendance at folk events around the country,’ says Simon Costin. ‘This might well be to do with a need to feel a part of something in a time of crisis, a part of a real community.’  Costin’s Museum will be made up of the past, present and future, acting as a catalyst for new craft as much as a space for document. ‘Britain is a tiny collection of islands and we have a wonderfully rich folkloric history, but we don’t celebrate it,’ he says. ‘This is a living tradition. Each generation reinvents things and makes it relevant to the modern day.’ Alongside his Museum projects, Costin is working on a book, to be published next year, of portraits of British folk festival participants, photographed by Henry Bourne.

Folk style, while very ‘of the moment’ is timeless. Roddy Woomble, the frontman of Scottish guitar band Idlewild, released his solo folk album My Secret is My Silence in 2006 and then went on to form a folk supergroup with Kris Drever and John McCusker. The band spent last year touring their album Before the Ruin, to slavish audience adoration. Both records are achingly beautiful and a paradigm of a whole backwards-to-go-forwards movement in music. While many cultural commentators are waiting for an equivalent of punk to come and wash away the creative void of light entertainment synonymous with Saturday night talent shows and Lady Ga Ga, the revolution might already be here, wearing a beard and waxing lyrical about Celtic legend. For Woomble, folk is perpetually modern because, he says, ‘it can’t get any older. People have always had stories and sung them into songs. Folk songs are elemental, like the wind. They can never go out of fashion because they pre-date it.’

Folk is very much the soundtrack to now: from Grizzly Bear and Shearwater in the States to the UK’s Blue Roses, Malcolm Middleton and Mumford & Sons, the accent is on all things candid, acoustic and which invite you to gather round and listen. For all the pretence that Britney’s recent stadium renaissance is ironic kitsch gold rather than the ghoulish showbiz equivalent of a dog eating its own sick, one can scarcely imagine the genuine excitement that would be generated by a live tour by Joni Mitchell or perhaps Kate Bush.

Folkie north London club night The Local started out life as a monthly event at a pub in Crouch End and has now expanded into tours, a festival and a record label – it’s a total phenomenon. The ceilidhs at Cecil Sharp House, where Costin’s Fete took place, are amongst the best-loved club nights in London with kilted queues snaking around the block. Rather like the Mighty Boosh truism that it’s impossible to be unhappy in a poncho, you can’t have a bad time at a ceilidh, if only because you’re compelled to dance with strangers. The ceilidh is the diametric opposite of all those dour, louche, bottle-service clubs in Mayfair and Midtown that now feel so mid-noughties. Like all things folk, it’s about getting back in touch with human nature and stripping things back to what’s important, as well as genuinely beguiling. It’s a human touch and it’s getting your hands dirty. You can see it in the handicraft that sells by the truckload on the DIY craft site and in the flamboyant toys, handbags and even wedding dresses that are coming out of the year-old Harris Tweed Cooperative in the Outer Hebrides. It’s even in the salted artisanal dark chocolate made in small exquisitely packaged batches in Williamsburg by the Mast Brothers, Rick and Michael, two chaps who look like an Amish duo on a shopping spree at Dover Street Market and who epitomise the slow food movement and integrity of craft in produce.

There is, of course, a potential disconnect between ‘fashion’ and ‘folk’, and some irony in the former embracing the latter (and yes, Dean & Deluca are selling that Mast Brothers chocolate for $10 a bar). Fashion is, by its very nature, ephemeral and disposable. It’s also, potentially, a shallow and fragile crafting of identity. Folk, on the other hand, comes with centuries worth of roots. It connects us all to something fundamental that makes a mockery of, and could potentially disassemble, a culture of idiocy and rubbish that can’t just be excused as post-modern frivolity any more. It’s the search for something a bit more real and a bit more rewarding; a pursuit which must be timeless.

Into the black (Financial Times Weekend)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2009 by markcoflaherty

When Rei Kawakubo shows the spring/summer 2010 Comme des Garçons womenswear collection in Paris today it will mark 40 years in the fashion business. Next year, Issey Miyake follows suit and in spring 2011 the V&A in London will unveil a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto’s work, commemorating 30 years since his first show in Paris. The middle-ageing of the triumvirate of revolutionary Japanese design is as shocking as any of their more confrontational collections; to many of their modernist followers they still seem like box-fresh radical upstarts, while for the high street they have only recently come into existence through diffusion projects with the likes of H&M and Adidas. So, four decades on, have they really revolutionised the world of fashion?

Issey Miyake from West East Men

Although they were all active in Japan in the 70s (Yamamoto founded his company in 1972), it wasn’t until they all came to the prêt a porter in Paris in the 80s that they made their mark on international fashion. ‘Western fashion at the time was surprisingly conventional,’ says Claire Wilcox, one of the V&A’s key fashion curators. ‘They had a huge impact, creating a disruption of construction.’ It was the shock of the new: unstructured, deconstructed and skewed garments, the antithesis of an era defined by body hugging Alaïa and the shoulder pad. ‘Their work is about opposition to body shape,’ says Wilcox. ‘A Miyake Pleats Please dress moves in opposition to the natural form, and Kawakubo’s Bumps collection was a total distortion of the human body.’ Similarly confrontational was their absence of colour palette – everything in black.

Their arrival coincided with the formative years of some of today’s most celebrated designers. ‘I was just finishing my studies,’ recalls Ann Demeulemeester, ‘and it was a brave new step in fashion – the beginning of a new freedom for me as a designer and as a woman.’ Demeulemeester’s aesthetic has continued to work in parallel with the promise of the Japanese revolution, shunning trend, embracing the avant garde, and focusing on monochrome; ‘because like an architect, new structures are clearer in black and white.’

John Richmond and Maria Cornejo were Thatcher-era London clubland prodigies with 14 short-lived shops worldwide selling their 3D Richmond Cornejo label. Richmond continued, solo, with immense success and Cornejo recently celebrated 10 years of her New York-based Zero label, renowned for strength and purity of cut. ‘When I was growing up you couldn’t find black clothes,’ says Richmond. ‘It was only with the Japanese that black really started. I love using black because I grew up in Manchester where the light always makes colour look grim.’ For Cornejo, it was about shape and attitude: ‘They were so innovative with their cutting and they also found a way of working within the fashion system that broke new ground.’ Rick Owens, whose artful deconstruction and haute murk shares the Japanese spirit, found their outsider status as much an inspiration as their cuts: ‘For a 19 year old art student goth, it was illuminating to see that the uptight fashion world could accommodate a weirdo. If Halston gave the world the white butterfly orchid, Comme gave us black leggings.’

If they weren’t quite minimalist, their focus on volume, cut and head-to-toe black was reductionist, Zen perhaps. And there was practicality too: shove a boiled wool Comme jacket in an overhead locker for an 11 hour flight and it’ll look the same on arrival as it did on the catwalk. When Joan Burstein of Browns opened the Comme des Garçons shop in London, it attracted a loyal following of tastemakers who wanted to dress as if they were above the vulgar whimsy of fashion, and were willing to pay four figures for it. ‘It was a hard sell,’ Burstein recalls, ‘but it’s a cult.’

The Japanese sense of ‘otherness’ was accentuated by the style of their presentation – bleak catwalk shows akin to performance art. Miyake presented his ‘body sculpture’ as high art; his static Bodyworks show toured the world, and he collaborated with Irving Penn on coffee table photography books. The style world in the 80s was fascinated by the avant garde chic of all things Japanese – this was a time when David Bowie would wax lyrical about his love of sushi as if it were food from outer space – and there were clear identifiably traditional Japanese elements to Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto.

‘The influence of the kimono was definitely apparent,’ says Professor Wendy Dagworthy of the RCA. ‘They took traditional dress and did it in a very modern way.’ Dagworthy believes that there has been as strong a Japanese attraction to the west as there has been a western attraction to the insider-cool of the Japanese: ‘They have a clear love of western fashion and culture. One of my favourite Yamamoto collections was in the 80s and shown as an homage to 60s Cardin; very molded with lots of holes cut out of it – the shapes were very beautiful.’ Conversely, designer Hussein Chalayan believes that the Japanese ‘at times caricature the west’.

While they have all taken cues from western arts (Kawakubo has produced collections in recent years inspired by the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols), there’s perhaps a darker dynamic between west and east that gives their work its edge. When I interviewed Yohji Yamamoto in Tokyo for the Financial Times two years ago, he spoke of his hatred for the westernised youth of Japan, the mega-malls in Roppongi (‘they all look like Disneyland’) and the destruction of traditional Japanese culture at the hands of the west: ‘Until the end of the 70s there were strong looking women on the streets of Omotesando, but after the early 80s they became more Americanised. To be frank, I hate it. Sometimes I’m flying to another city and I’m sitting next to a fat American guy in shorts and a T-shirt and I just… I can’t believe it.’

Japanese designers’ often aggressive sense of detachment from the west has fuelled the west’s fascination. ‘Their work has an integrity that western fashion lacks,’ says fashion author and curator Bradley Quinn. ‘Their work is more about nature than artifice.’ Hussein Chalayan agrees: ‘The most important influence on their work is the philosophy of wabi-sabi, a thesis about the beauty of the moment and the actuality of being. It is the magic of being Japanese that could never be understood by anyone but the Japanese themselves.’ Certainly austerity and asymmetry is as integral to wabi-sabi philosophy as Japanese fashion; and there’s also a recurrent sense of the rough and the organic (particularly in Miyake’s work); the glorious imperfections of nature. It’s this ‘look’ that has, perhaps, been mistaken as nihilist.

The various forays into more typically western commercial fashion territory have sometimes been uncomfortable. When Miyake launched a fragrance in 1994, it chimed as uncharacteristic and strange, as if the Miyake customer might be above something as frivolous as a perfume, but it spawned a full line of Duty Free favourites (including the latest, a scent by issey miyake, which launched in August), while Comme’s fragrance range is ever growing. When Yamamoto showed a range of Adidas trainers in 2001, it seemed shocking – two incompatible worlds colliding, like wearing Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit to an Essex nightclub. Then a year later he launched Y-3, an immense commercial success, and sportswear and the high street didn’t seem like such distant universes anymore. ‘It makes perfect sense,’ says Claire Wilcox. ‘The sports shoe in particular is a perfect match – the very idea of high heels with Japanese fashion is ridiculous.’

The Japanese fashion revolution, from the 80s black-on-black tsunami that rocked Paris to the artful selling out into luggage and bathroom products in recent years has paved the way for a whole new generation of eastern designers, from Jun Takashi of Undercover and Junya Watanabe to Yamamoto’s daughter Limi Feu, who now sells through her father’s London shop. Meanwhile, Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto continue to embrace their ‘otherness’ in Paris, far away from gauche ‘trend’. For this autumn Miyake catwalked bold geometrically patterned and pleated womenswear on four karate players, while Comme des Garcon’s Homme Plus collection riffed on dandy tailoring, bringing together pin stripe and leopard print. Yamamoto, meanwhile, presented his men as Hasidic Jews and 19th century wild west pioneers… in pyjamas. His women’s collection was classic Yamamoto: all sleek elongated silhouettes and all black. If there’s one thing that 40 years of Japanese design has brought to the west it’s the understanding that when it comes to what shifts and what never ends up on the sale rail at the end of the season, black is always the new black.

A brief history of black (Fashion Inc)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

There’s a wonderful scene in the sitcom Father Ted where the eponymous Ted is telling half-witted Dougal that to be assured of genuine 100% black priests socks, you can’t buy from the high street. ‘You see,’ he warns, ‘ordinary shops sell what look like black socks, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue’. Actually, he’s not far wrong. Sometimes black is just navy without a sense of humour. There are blue-blacks, red-blacks… all kinds of blacks. There’s no such thing as a true black, just a close approximation of a total absence of colour, which is what black is: Black is, technically speaking, no colour at all. Oh, it’s all so confusing. But we love it. Which is why for the last twenty years anything black never makes it to the sale rail. It’s hard to make black clash with anything, it’s slimming and it comes with an attitude: ‘I wear black, don’t fuck with me’.

Hard to imagine now, but before the 80s no one really wore black. It was reserved for funerals, or biker’s leather, or beatniks and the Velvet Underground. Both the rockers of the 50s and – in their more extreme way – the beat generation adopted black for its strangeness; to wear black looked weird and they liked it like that. Then the Japanese invaded Paris.

Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto brought their radical tandem noir visions to the French capital in 1981 and fashion has never looked back. ‘People wear my clothes to make a statement’, said Yamamoto. At the same time Rei Kawakubo, Comme des Garçons’ designer, pre-empted Father Ted’s socks by telling the world’s press that she was working with no less than eight different shades of black.

Fashionistas, architects and intellectuals embraced the look, and within a few years it was no longer weird, it was just an easy way to dress. Why worry about what goes with what when you can throw on a bunch of black clothes and get on with your life. It’s instantly coordinated and professional. There was, as Yamamoto said, a kind of ‘democracy’ about black clothing, although only the very privileged indeed could afford that kind of democracy. Issey Miyake, Japanese fashion’s other grand master, also filled his collections with black and many pointed to darker reasons for this stark, modern new look: Miyake was from Hiroshima and was riding his bicycle to school as a boy when the bomb dropped.

Architects and thinkers aside, wearing all-black was also seized upon by the dreaded Goths who were nothing if not the miserablist children of the beatniks before them. Menswear designers from McQueen to Cloak have consistently borrowed from Goths ever since the 80s, but did Goths ever, we wonder, ever really look any good? Probably not.

Throughout the 90s black (invariably in shapeless and distressed forms) remained a perfectly credible option for anyone wanting to look modern. Prada minimalism and techno fabrics worked well with it while the Belgian brigade, including Martin Margiela, all managed to bring a deconstructed freshness to it. Though we’ve all taken the plunge with colour and print this side of the millennium, black has never gone away. When you look at what Hedi Slimane’s doing, with his monochrome menswear and shiny black shop interiors, it couldn’t look more contemporary, urban and smart, which is the whole point. For many, it’s worth the risk of being mistaken for a boutique hotel doorman or waiter – anything, as long as you don’t look like you drink WKD and live in the ‘burbs.


The perfect jacket (Annabel’s)

Posted in Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

I once flirted with anarchy in New York’s 21 Club, one of those increasingly rare and historical institutions that, despite its bistro tablecloths and burgers, calls for a certain level of sartorial decorum amongst its clientele: Jackets for lunch and jackets and ties for dinner. Halfway through my Cold Senegalese Soup I slipped off my Comme des Garçons blazer and folded it on the banquette beside me. It was an out of character move, a moment of madness perhaps. I’d been taken over by a mischievous whim, spurred on by a second lunchtime martini. ‘Will the room take offence? Will the sky fall?’ I wondered. Action followed thought, with a waiter swiftly behind: ‘Can I help you with that sir?’ he offered, smoothly opening the jacket out and inviting my right arm back into its sleeve. ‘We wouldn’t want you to catch cold’.  That told me. As, indeed, it should.

the perfect jacket 1

In a world where the most casual of eateries have to put signs up at the door to insist on footwear and clothing on their customers upper bodies, what price a civilised lunch? And what price the perfect jacket to wear to that lunch?

There are those who would argue that when it comes to shopping for a jacket, ‘off the peg’ is as reprehensible a concept as fast food. If you’re making do with whatever single breasted homage to Prada that Zara is selling this season, they will argue, then you may as well kick off your shoes, tear up your shirt and live on Chicken McNuggets. There are plenty of reasons why off the peg doesn’t cut it. Fit is everything with menswear. There must be no puckering, bagging or unflattering tightness anywhere. The perfect jacket is smooth to the point of invisibility and empowers the wearer. Our physical shapes are all as individual as a fingerprint, so when it comes to anything tailored and fitted, adjustments must be made to achieve balance.

With made to measure no sleeve is created equally because no two wearers are cut from the same cloth. ‘There are extremes,’ explains Mark Mahon of Savile Row’s English Cut, ‘such as a military man who’s always standing to attention. He will need the sleeves to be pitched low. Conversely an older gentleman with a stoop for instance will need to have his sleeves pitched high.’

The perfect jacket should transform a man in a way that nothing else short of six months with a personal trainer could. ‘The perfect jacket should make the wearer look fitter, taller, slimmer and perfectly proportioned’, believes fashion designer, historian and lecturer Andrew Groves. It sounds like fashion hyperbole to those unaccustomed to the alchemy of tailoring, but it’s entirely possible. This alone should be more than enough reason to never risk the horror of the ‘loan jacket’ when visiting premises that have a reasonable minimal dress code that you’ve failed to meet. The only thing worse than no jacket is an ill fitting one. There is, I’m sure, a certain kind of crime and punishment angle to the concept of the ‘loan jacket’, one which management take rightful glee in.

There might well be no such thing as ‘the perfect jacket’, merely the perfect one for you. As Richard Walker, author of Savile Row: An Illustrated History so famously puts it, ‘like the perfect wine, it does not exist, except in terms of individual taste’. There are as many variations in tailors as there are in jackets, and not all suit all. Within tailoring there are hard and soft styles and a myriad of variations in between. When someone finds the right tailor, they usually stick with them for life and many tailors, by the nature of the size of their output, simply cannot accept any more clients.

The world renowned interior designer and architect John Stefanidis is, along with the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, faithful to Ferdinando Caraceni in Milan. ‘A Caraceni jacket is like wearing a jumper’, says Stefanidis. ‘Any other jacket is never as comfortable’. The Caraceni surname looms Medici-like in modern day tailoring in Italy. It is a tailoring dynasty. Three brothers, Domenico, Augusto and Galliano all set up their own tailoring operations, the first dating back to the 1920s. These are all family businesses that have survived and still prosper and foster legend today, with Nicoletta Caraceni taking over Ferdinando’s business after her father’s death last year. This is, like most of the best tailoring operations in the world, a small scale set up. Nicoletta, like her father before her, has a hand in every single garment that leaves the workshop. Garments typically take two months to produce, from the pattern stages to the meticulous hand ironing of the finished product. When perfection is your goal, you simply can’t rush a detail.

Italy and England still dominate the world of men’s tailoring, with Savile Row and it’s surrounding thoroughfares blending the tradition of Henry Poole’s (established 1806) with the likes of Ozwald Boateng and Richard James, bringing a respectful but vividly coloured breath of fresh air to the area. Within these few square hundred metres of central London you can find Your Perfect Jacket.

Once you’ve got Your Perfect Jacket, you have to know how to wear it. A good stylist will invariably direct a model on a menswear shoot to leave the bottom button on their jacket unfastened, anything else just looks nerdish and doesn’t hang well. Etiquette, as much as form, dictates the appropriate procedure: ‘What really grates is men who insist on buttoning up all three buttons on a three button jacket’, says Andrew Groves. ‘Middle button only, please!’ With two buttons, fasten only the top one. When sitting down at a table, you can unbutton the lot, but refasten when you rise.

Annalisa Barbieri, fashion correspondent to the New Statesmen and author of the forthcoming book Menswear, has undertaken a deeper analysis of the semiotics of the button: ‘To do the top two buttons up hints at a certain flirtatiousness, which is no bad thing in the right circles,’ she says. ‘Not buttoning-up on standing up hints at two things: laziness and arrogance.’ This particular phenomenon is ‘going “politico”’, seen most frequently on politicians who rise to make their point without buttoning up. ‘Always be wary of such a man’, she says. ‘He will interrupt frequently and not listen properly to your point of view.’

When we’re dealing with formal dinner jackets – acceptably white in summer and invariably sported with a bow tie – then single breasted remains the most modern silhouette and anything with more than two buttons looks affected. It can be black, but only if we’re talking a serious tuxedo jacket here as black can, as Annalisa Barbieri says, ‘look cheap, unless it’s extremely expensive.’ Black is also, as she says, ‘very boring’. ‘A very dark navy or very sooty grey is a far better choice and shows greater imagination and confidence’.

When it comes to fabric choice, wool and cashmere for winter, and cotton or linen for summer, or a mix of all and any aforementioned natural fibres, all make the grade. Shun anything with synthetic coloured ‘shots’. Velvet, in a restrained colour, walks a chic line that remains both dandy and suave. One thing to remember is that an unseasonably heavy choice will make you sweat and your look will unravel in a club ambience.

Then, of course, there is the tricky business of what you wear with Your Perfect Jacket. Invariably a collar and tie looks best, but many men have coerced the jacket into casual or quirky territory. Tom Ford created an iconic look by wearing his with jeans and a shirt unbuttoned to below the chest but unless you’re Tom Ford (or at a push Jude Law), adopting this particular look is as bandwagon jumping and ridiculous as carrying around a lace fan to emulate Karl Lagerfeld.

Stark white shirts work best with a black or white tux, but for anything more subtle, blend off-shades of shirt and tie. Matching shades of jacket, shirt and tie can look modern, but you risk resembling staff, whilst a classic yet dramatic Missoni print on a tie brings to life the most conservative of colourways.

In the States, turtlenecks remain a popular alternative to collar and tie, and the look is slowly gaining acceptance even in the most rarified environments. On being asked what he would do if a party of four arrived at the 21 Club, three wearing jacket and tie and the fourth wearing a turtleneck, restaurant manager Brian McGuire says ‘chances are, we would seat that gentleman’.

The times they are, of course, always a-changing. Colin McDowell, in his book ‘The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen’ recalls history’s first sighting of the dinner jacket, around the 1880s, when the discussion went something along the lines of “It can certainly not be worn in the Stalls, but is it permissible in the Dress Circle?”

And what of off the peg? Is there any hope? The best designers invariably offset the inherent flaws of prêt a porter with other qualities. My Comme des Garçons blazer has, as it typical of Japanese fashion, a loose construction to allow for the wearer’s body to dictate the final shape and immaculate finishing, with hand-sewn buttons and laboratory flawless stitching. The likes of John Galliano over compensate for the logistical impossibility of perfect fit with an almost exaggerated sharpness, something that isn’t to all tastes. As Andrew Groves says, ‘with the perfect jacket, quality and style should be subliminal. It must, on no account, make a statement’. But then directional fashion is, so often, about statement and the perfect jacket is something that you wear rather than having it wear you. A better compromise is to buy off the peg and have a tailor alter accordingly. I have friends who have spent more on alterations to something from Hugo Boss and Jil Sander than the original items cost themselves. But then, what price perfection?