Esquire's Big Black Book
There is something both sultry and impish about the fashion designer J.W. Anderson. He’s the hybrid of a young t-shirted Truman Capote and actor David Bennett as Oskar Matzerath, the boy who never grows up in The Tin Drum. With designs that blur the lines between male and female
he seems perfect to comment on the limited scope of menswear. He said in a recent interview: ‘It’s bizarre the ways in which society reacts: they find it difficult to comprehend seeing parts of the body on a man’. It was even harder to comprehend in the post-punk summer of 1977 when, at 16, I enlisted for a bespoke tailoring course at the London College of Fashion. Anderson studied there decades later. It was the springboard for the ‘unisex’ look - shift dresses and bustiers for boys - that gave him his signature style.
So much of what the likes of Anderson, the Korean designer Juun J, and most of all Thom Browne are designing in the 21st century is all I hoped menswear to be back then. Instead it stalled in a siding, despite the sartorial sparkle of the early 1970s and what followed in that high season of so-called street style. In that summer of bin liners and bondage pants, high street fashion was becoming increasingly tribal - although this wasn’t entirely reflected in what was widely available in the shops.
Despite rarely having threaded a needle or sat at a sewing machine, I decided the solution was to make the clothes that were either not available or affordable. So, after escaping the social engineering of a dystopian south London comprehensive. sans qualifications, I chose tailoring (and stayed with it as a career for four years). In short - I needed a job. The route to getting one according to my parents was via ‘a trade….an apprenticeship’. At the London College of Fashion the design course was the domain of the privileged, the pedigreed and the qualified; the tailoring course was for those that had escaped the factory floor and the ever-expanding dole queue. The classes were dominated by west London black boys in their late teens, hooked on lover’s rock, patois, Farah slacks and pith helmets in salt n’ pepper tweed. They were loyal to the 24-inch flare, the cross pocket and the trouser yoke. It was an approach suited to the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, during which a copy of L'Uomo Vogue was placed before us and we were encouraged to draw and adapt the detail on men’s suits. So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip, and on a dizzily radical impulse - an ambitious puff took a raglan sleeve towards the blouson.
Within these magazines I discovered voguish foreign names like Claude Montana and Gianni Versace who were staging something alternative the moment ready-to-wear found a clearing and sidelined haute couture.
But fashion fantasist that I was I had an altogether different vision in mind. Had it manifested itself as something as practical as a ‘mood board’ it would have been a cut and paste of Bowie as Thomas Newton, Kraftwerk, the Australian band Split Enz - vaudeville meets the ventriloquist doll - and Roddy McDowell as Batman villain ‘The Bookworm’.
‘Is the word “commercial” not in your vocabulary?’, the design teacher asked me, as I added panda eyes to a sketchy figure wearing cullottes, puttees, and carrying a Dick Whittington handkerchief bag on a stick.
Yet I was not alone in my reference points. There was clearly a fresh, smart sensibility in the air. One which Dries Van Noten paid tribute to in 2014 when curating his retrospective in Paris, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs . One wall was given over to graffiti listing all the influences that inspired him to train as a fashion designer back in Antwerp in 1976: David Bowie….Kraftwerk...
For me, the plan was to see both a greater change in the male silhouette, something that Anthony Price had succeeded in doing previously, and delve into the history of men’s style. Much of which appeared to have been lost. I think largely because it was seen in terms of occasion, etiquette and elitism by way of clothes for day wear and evening wear. This rich history could be found in The Blue Book Of Men’s Tailoring the bible for the pattern cutter. It took you through spats, plus fours, the backless-dress waistcoat, to the inverness cape favoured by Sherlock Holmes. I did for a short time at least get to make some of these items. Having been disqualified in the college exam for cheating, I was escorted off the premises and found work in what struck me as the most suitable outlet at the time, the theatrical costumiers Bermans & Nathans. There my iffy vision and iffy skills came together the week that I made the elongated, abnormal suit sleeve for John Hurt as The Elephant Man.
Having therefore grasped the importance of skill and craftsmanship of bespoke tailoring - although not entirely mastered it - I hoped fora moment when the technical standards oftraditional tailoring would collude rather than collide with radical menswear design. It would entail riffing on the rich past of men’s fashion at home and abroad, in both civvie street and the military. This is where Juun J would one day come in with his ‘street tailoring’ inspired by sport and uniforms. It would take fabrics, garments, accessories out of the comfort zone in which they had become familiar and put them in a different context. This is where J.W Anderson comes in: 'There will always be something a bit wrong, like a really nice paisley shirt but with a rubber collar. It’s not quite fetish, it’s just a little bit sick’. It would - and this is where Thom Browne comes in - stretch the confines of masculine apparel, but keep the concept of the suit at the core of the vision. Beyond the spectacle he creates when he shows his clothes during fashion week there are the twists he spins on the basic jacket and trousers, found on the rails of his store on Hudson Street in New York. Rifling through these designs in 2012 - above my price range; below my age range - it struck me that this was the store I wanted to find parked between Anthony Price’s Plaza and Seditionaries on King’s Road that summer in 1977.