Men's fashion is booming in the UK

While the UK womenswear sector has reached maturity, the male market is booming, with quintessentially British brands starting to premier collections in London.

by Dylan Jones, GQ editor-in-chief
Last Updated: 02 Oct 2015

In a couple of weeks, on Saturday 14 June, the latest iteration of Swinging London will sway into life. This time it's in the form of London Collections: Men (LC:M), the official title of Britain's men's fashion week.

Savile Row tailor Richard James will celebrate his 20th anniversary with a star-studded dinner, while Dolce & Gabbana will kick off the fifth season of London Collections: Men with a huge fashion show in its Bond Street store.

The following day, designer Lou Dalton will mark the beginning of three days of fashion shows and presentations, with events hosted by Burberry, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith, Jimmy Choo, Hackett, Pringle, Nicole Farhi and more than 130 other designers. There will also be dozens of dinners hosted by everyone from Claridge's to actor Samuel L Jackson. It's going to be one hell of a week.

For years, the menswear element of London Fashion Week was tacked on to the end of the women's shows. But there had increasingly been interest from designers wanting a showcase and from the press and consumers alike, so three years ago the British Fashion Council decided to create its own men's fashion week.

The council asked me to chair the initiative, so along with the BFC's chief executive, Caroline Rush, I spent six months trying to encourage those British designers who had decided to premiere their menswear collections abroad - Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood among them - to move back and take part. In 2012, the BFC premiered London Collections: Men.

Predictably, the other fashion capitals were not exactly thrilled. Some senior figures at rival organisations went public with their disdain for the idea; some made a great point of ignoring us, while others lobbied hard behind our backs, trying to convince their designers to stay put.

According to figures from Mintel, the UK menswear market has grown by 12% in the past five years and is now worth £10.4bn. Mintel believes the industry will maintain that growth, increasing in size by 11% between now and 2017. The total global media value generated by London Collections: Men last season exceeded £40m, which is no small beer, even for a week that is largely kept afloat by champagne.

Burberry showed just how important men's fashion is becoming earlier this year when it appointed creative director Christopher Bailey - who has twice been named menswear designer of the year at the British Fashion Awards - as its new chief executive. In February, industry magazine Drapers reported that New Look, one of the UK's largest fashion retailers, was considering converting some of its stores into menswear retailers.

At the beginning of May, Whistles, which has focused entirely on women since it was founded in the 1980s, launched its first men's collection. The 120 pieces include bags, sweaters and shoes, and will 'build towards Whistles' womenswear output'.

There are now more commercially minded, critically acclaimed young menswear designers than ever before, people such as Agi & Sam, Jonathan Saunders, Lou Dalton, JW Anderson, Craig Green and Matthew Miller.

And unlike the menswear designers I grew up with in the 1980s, and who filled the pages of style magazines such as i-D, The Face and Blitz, this new generation understands that in order to compete on a global stage, you need a properly commercial business, not just a bunch of press cuttings from trendy Japanese magazines.

London is at the centre of it all: the capital has been a centre of subcultural excellence since the early 1960s, when the likes of David Bailey, Michael Caine and Mary Quant redefined the city as a template for the future.

Since then, in every decade, usually around the mid-point, London has risen up again: punk, club culture, Britpop. You name it, London has been the centre of it.

And menswear has always been at the heart of this cultural rebellion. Not only do we have the greatest tailors in the world in Savile Row, not only do we have the best youth culture and street style in the world, we also have some of the world's most high-profile fashion designers in Paul Smith, Christopher Bailey and the Alexander McQueen brand.

'I am very pleased to be showing my menswear collection in London,' says Tom Ford, whom we encouraged to move to London from Milan. 'London has a vibrancy that is inspiring and much of what I create for men takes its inspiration from traditional British menswear. My clothes are designed with an international customer in mind and London is one of the most international cities on the planet.'

The future of menswear is exponential. There is a feeling, even among those who stand to lose the most by such an admission, that womenswear has almost reached a state of saturation, and that while the fashion industry continues to spread around the globe, it is in menswear where the real innovation is happening.

The men's market has traditionally been a lot smaller than the women's market, but as the women's business slows, so the men's business expands.

This, of course, has been due to one thing and one thing only: consumer demand. Men these days expect great clothes at every price level, be that high street, mid- market, designer, luxury or bespoke. They expect quality at whatever price, and so far the market appears to be delivering it.

The current generation of male consumers may be more sophisticated than previous generations, and they may shop more like women, but because of that they no longer have any qualms about buying into the idea of fashion.

Burberry chief executive Bailey says London's charm is about 'a sort of thrown-together elegance, coupled with a quiet confidence'. That quiet confidence can be found among many of the designers showing at London Collections: Men, a confidence that appears to be growing season by season.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and the chairman of London Collections: Men

THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE CHRISTOPHER BAILEY

Fashionistas had mixed reactions when Burberry announced Christopher Bailey would take over from Angela Ahrendts, who swapped macs for Macs by becoming Apple's senior VP of retail and online stores.

Bailey stepped into his new role as joint chief exec and chief creative officer at the beginning of May.

Critics say Bailey is a product man, more concerned with the weave of fabrics than with margins. But he is also the design talent credited with turning Burberry around. In 13 years, he has helped transform it from a label sported by D-list soap stars to one of the UK's most well-respected brands.

When she announced her departure, Ahrendts described Bailey as 'one of this generation's greatest visionaries'.

Bailey may be a Yorkshireman - he was born in Halifax - but he trained at Westminster University and, after eight years in New York with Donna Karan, he moved back to London, a city that he says inspires him. London is 'the creative heart of the Burberry brand and has a unique energy'.

No wonder, after a decade of shows in Milan, he jumped at the chance to move the Burberry Prorsum show back to the UK for London Collections: Men last year.

'(It is) steeped in the incredibly rich tradition of British menswear, but with outstanding, innovative young talent coming out of its design schools. I'm inspired by that mix of heritage and modernity, along with a few iconic Brits who I admire, who are references for the show. I think British style is much more a mindset than a "formula".

Its charm lies in its effortlessness - a sort of thrown-together elegance, coupled with a quiet confidence.'

THE OFF-SCHEDULER JOSHUA KANE

With his waxed moustache, guyliner and impeccably cut three-piece suits, there's no question that Joshua Kane takes his inspiration from London's dandies. Trained on Savile Row, Kane worked as a senior menswear designer at Burberry Prorsum and Paul Smith before he decided early this year to work full-time on his own label, Joshua Kane Bespoke.

With such a strong background in British tailoring, it figures that Kane emphasises the Britishness of his designs: the fabrics (many of which he designs) are woven at a factory in Bradford, his accessories (which include hats, scarves and tie pins) are made in England and his ready-to-wear collection will be manufactured in London.

LC:M has been criticised for overemphasising the Savile Row and the avant-garde ends of the spectrum: Kane places himself firmly in between. 'I've got real tradition and real high fashion, and there's no one marrying the two, which has given me a little foothold.'

Kane may not be one of the big brands, but he can still cash in on the hype surrounding men's fashion week. His presentation will be 'off-schedule' - ie, not part of the official LC:M calendar - but that doesn't mean he'll miss out.

'All the biggest fashion journalists will be in town,' he says. 'It's just a case of me calling them and saying: "Hey, I've got something going on, I would love you to come and take a look."'

THE VETERAN KIM WINSER

Kim Winser has been described as the 'most influential woman in fashion retailing you've never heard of'.

After nearly 20 years at Marks and Spencer, where she was head of menswear, then womenswear and eventually commercial director, she went on to become chief executive of Pringle and Aquascutum, before launching her own label, Winser London, at the beginning of 2013.

At M&S, womenswear was seen as the holy grail. 'Womenswear was worth twice the men's market, and women used to buy the majority of menswear, all the kidswear and most of the food. So if you got the women's division right and you were talking correctly to women, then not only would womenswear do well, but so would men's, children's and food.'

But she adds that menswear is becoming a more exciting market.

'It's fascinating to see the young men now. They are starting to experience what women have been experiencing in fashion for decades. It is definitely much more about what the gentlemen are wearing and how they're wearing it. If you look at sport or music, there's as much conversation about what they're wearing as what they're actually doing.'

Having run two labels known mainly for menswear (although one of her first acts as chief executive of Aquascutum was to hire Piers Brosnan), Winser made the decision to start a womenswear label because she 'wanted to crack ... the harder market first. In time I'll add men's,' she says.

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