Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Old peculiars: how British men’s brands are harking back to the days of Empire

Originally in FHM

Britain is back in fashion.

But the country that provides the inspiration for the best of the new season’s menswear is not one of comedy-postcard punks, Union Jack electric guitars and Austin Powers faux-‘grooviness’. No, the Britain – and British-ness – that permeates the clothes you’ll want to wear this winter predates the swinging ’60s by a good 30 years or more. A time when the sun never set on the Empire and thoroughly decent chaps with names like Sandy and Roger would navigate the Zambezi river in the morning before ascending Kilimanjaro after afternoon tea – usually armed only with a penknife and a pouch of Golden Virginia.

The clothes these men wore – and by God they were men – were built to protect them on these adventures. Overcoats made from rubberised cotton, lightweight jackets with countless hidden pockets and hunting outfits slathered in waterproof wax all kept the chaps safe as they headed into confront Johnny Foreigner and his ghastly ecosystem.

Today, while the Empire is limited to the Isle of Man and some helpfully mineral-rich outposts of the south Atlantic, homegrown designers are harking back to this golden age of British manhood. From Dunhill to Nigel Cabourn and Oliver Spencer, coats, jackets, luggage and footwear are all imbibed with the Boy’s Own spirit. Even on the high street the look is gaining ground, with Marks & Spencer doing what it does best and producing classic British staples, while Topshop is aiming for the more discerning customer with its new range of grown-up classics. That’s not to say these clothes are stuffy though: seemingly every collection drips, not just with tradition, but also 21st Century cuts and tweaks designed to flatter the wearer. Here there is no compromise between style and practicality.

At Dunhill, a brand forever associated with the pleasures of both the road and the smoking room, designer Kim Jones has been drafted in to create a series of clothes that fuse the label’s august traditions with the silhouettes of now.

“There’s a storm system coat in the new collection,” he says, “which looks distinctly modern but is actually lifted from the company archives. Look hard and you’ll also see echoes of a butcher’s jacket, a sailor’s jacket, things made for a reason. Each and every piece has a story and a purpose.”

Dunhill isn’t the only brand to get in an innovative designer to accentuate its heritage. At Barbour, a company whose waxed jackets are a staple in many a man’s wardrobe, Japanese designer To Ki To has created a range of coats expertly engineered to bear the brunt of whatever the weather can throw at the wearer. His slim-line horse-riding coat, with its waxed cotton shell, tartan interior and range of pockets is ideal for braving a winter weekend in the country, while the ‘Rustic’ driving jacket boasts a brilliantly designed hood and button-up front sure to frighten off the most unfriendly of elements – and traffic cops.

The apex of this spirit can be found in the works of veteran designer Nigel Cabourn. His new collection, which features robust tweed jackets and a stunning parka with its own inbuilt rucksack, is inspired by the clothing that mountaineers Mallory and Irvine wore on their doomed expedition to Everest in 1924. Like Stone Island founder Massimo Osti, Cabourn has a vast collection of vintage military and industrial clothing that he draws upon for inspiration.

“The clothes I make are always inspired by real people or events – they always have a heritage,” he explains. “I use real fabrics from the past and even real zips – and it’s expensive. But if you cut these clothes in a contemporary way men love it.”

These clothes are far more than mere fashion items. They are not garments to be slung out when style editors declare that the colour is no longer in vogue or the cut is not right for whatever season we’re in. The coats, trousers and jumpers here are meant to be treasured and brought out when the occasion demands, year on year. London designer Oliver Spencer, whose new season collection is an exercise in restrained British menswear, sums this philosophy up.

“It’s about making utilitarian luxury. The buyer of our clothes is a ‘new casual’ who appreciates the finest details. He wants clothes that are made with the purest of fabrics. And importantly, he wants them to be made in Britain.”

Just, it seems, like the men who wear it. Now, where’s that canoe…

Sunday, September 27, 2009

In defence of Mick Hucknall

I’m going to say something that would see me cast out of every post-work media boozer in London. That would get me laughed at by people whose sole existence seems to consist of looking at Chuck Norris videos on YouTube and saying ‘amazing’ a lot.

I quite like Mick Hucknall.

In fact, the more I see of him, the more I like him. Granted, Simply Red’s earlier output is worthy of praise anyway (and yes, it is), but it’s what Hucknall stands for that endears him to me.

Specifically, it’s an appearance he made in a Piers Morgan programme about the lizard-like rich folk of Monte Carlo last year. With his reputation for good living and, let’s face it, boss shagging, you might expect Mick to spend his days in a Monte Carlo mansion, enjoying the benefits of tax-free living and wearing sunglasses in dimly lit restaurants. But you’d be wrong, because, as he proudly admitted on the show, he is a UK taxpayer. No dodgy offshore accounts, no snidey 70 days at home to escape the Revenue – just a very rich man putting 40 per cent of what he earns back into the pot.

It doesn’t sound much, but when mingebag celebrities take pride in fucking out of the gaff the moment they get upgraded to a ‘gold’ account at the Halifax, then it’s refreshing to find someone who’s willing to take a hit so your nan can have a hip replacement on the NHS. OK, he might come across as a bit of wanker, but if me or any of my mates were famous, the News of the World would have my neighbours torching my house over one of my post-fifth pint gags.

Hucknall is a real Labour man, a working class feller who’s done well in music, but hasn’t gone down the route of adopting one of those weird mid-Atlantic Lancastrian accents so beloved of the middle-aged northern rock star/DJ and moving to the Isle of Man. He didn’t disown Labour or Blair the moment the gastropub mafia got sick of the party, he stuck with them, because he knows that those with less will always do be better off under a Labour government. Even one that’s led by Gordon Brown.

The tiresome anti-northern, anti-ginger prejudice he faces is just another example of those with talent for fuck all, except smirking and pontificating about ’80s youth movements they were never cool enough to be a part of, having too much of a platform in the media. Not that Mick Hucknall cares, he’s waking up in a nice house somewhere with a gorgeous wife and a beautiful young daughter to bring up.

And without a Chuck Norris video in sight.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ballpoint drawings of the Soviet/Afghan war

The work of a Russian soldier who fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of the that country in 1979, these pictures were drawn using only a ballpoint pen. According to English Russia, the soldier not only lost comrades in Afghanistan, but in Tajikistan and Chechnya too. His pictures were his way of coping with what he endured on the battlefields of the most remote parts of Asia.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Quadrant Park and the madness of 1990

Liverpool didn’t embrace acid house early on like Manchester did. House was dismissed as a fad in 1987 and the acid variety of a year later was seen viewed with suspicion by most Scousers. In Liverpool, apart from the odd club like the Mardi Gras and the Underground, house was strictly for Mancs and Cockneys. Who needed to jack their body when you could mong out to Floyd on your sofa?

Then Quadrant Park happened.

Located in Bootle, the Quad looked like a shoe warehouse from the outside and a Magaluf fun pub from the in. Four or five miles from the city centre, it was the sort of place that drew in its custom by sending out mass 18th birthday party invites with pictures of champagne bottles on the front. I once went to one such do there, where I was pursued by girl with bright red hair and a mad hat. It being pre-acid house, she'd been attracted by my Rick Astley-influenced outfit of spotted tie, blazer and chinos.

Then in 1990, rumours surfaced about the new nights at Quadrant Park, that this most townie of Merseyside nightclubs had betrayed its ‘cop off and get smacked’ traditions by ‘going house’. I went back on a Monday night to see LFO and sure enough, house it most certainly had gone, as you could tell by the fact the owners were selling Lucozade behind the bar for rather more than it cost in the shops. They even shut off the cold water in the toilets to give it that authentic acid vibe, the scamps.

Despite the fact that LFO didn’t show on that night, the place was properly mental. The music was a mix of British ‘bleep’ techno and Italian piano tracks, danced to by frighteningly skinny local scals and out-of-towners, some of whom wore kaftans just to prove they’d been to the acid house Harrod’s, Affleck’s Palace. Drug-takers or not, we were all swept up in its euphoric Scouse house wave.

As the club became bigger and bigger, the profits that could be had brought in the gangsters, and ultimately, the people who’d made the Quad what it was went somewhere else, specifically the new night that was starting on Slater Street near the legendary Conti club. Nice people, Balearic vibe, no wonder they called it Cream. Liverpool had got acid house at last.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Have Adidas got no shame?

Adi, if you’re up there, please avert your eyes. A pair of trainers have been made in your name with three tongues. God forgive them.