There was a time when the chunky, patterned jumper was something men retired into after their concern for cutting a dash had long given way to the desire for comfort and warmth. Those who did still cherish their style credibility opted for the sleek, smooth fine-gauge variety – largely featureless but cool in a minimalistic might-be-an-architect way. But this season, the chunky jumper has undergone a renaissance, with luxury brands employing intarsia – the knitting technique used to produce patterns and pictures in multiple colours – to create the kind of sweaters that make a sartorial statement without tipping over into the gaudy.
“We’re certainly seeing more interest in knitwear with more texture, density and colour now, though there’s room, too, for something more creative and fun – adventurous without being in bad taste,” says Mats Klingberg, the managing director of London menswear shop Trunk Clothiers. “Really, that’s down to the personality of the wearer, though I think most men would like to pick a style that isn’t too shouty.”
There is definitely a fine line in intarsia knitwear between interesting and novelty, the latter suitable for a Christmas jumper perhaps, good for a couple of days a year, but otherwise questionable on a grown man. It’s an issue compounded by the fact that some machine-made intarsia can look cheap.
“It’s really easy to make intarsia look naff,” says Patrick Grant, who offers a simple, handknitted, appealingly sloppy black and slate-grey striped sweater (£390) under his E Tautz label. “It’s all about subtlety – in the yarn choice, range of colours or choice of image. I do have a vintage American cardigan with stags’ heads on it, which I only wear occasionally. I prefer something more abstract. If the designer has worked really hard – and they have to – then that can look beautiful.”
This season, Prada has brought a painterly quality to its knitwear with washed-out scenes of harbours or coastal towns (£595) in Shetland wool and a Picasso-esque still-life of a wine glass and open book (£765) in an angora‑mix. Meanwhile, Valentino has embraced a more counterculture-T-shirt aesthetic in its knits, using the cut-up newspaper ransom note graphic style, popularised by punk typographer Jamie Reid in the 1970s, to state across its wool/cashmere jumper (£625): “Beauty is a birthright – reclaim your heritage”. Dolce & Gabbana prefers to let cryptic imagery do the talking: a lion’s head with crown roars from the chest of one of its sweaters (£875), while another (£925) features a rabbit, albeit dressed in full ceremonial military garb.
Elsewhere, more gentle twists have been put on classic patterns. Dries Van Noten may play with elongated proportions, but the decoration is familiar: one is a spin (£625) on the classic Norwegian sweater style, while another (£450) uses seams and tucks to distort the usual run of a Fair Isle pattern. Raf Simons plays on a similar idea: its most distinctive handknit jumper (£555) breaks up simple stripes, playing with width and positioning, then adds an outsized pocket. Emporio Armani offers navy or olive blousons with an art deco-style repeated motif (£570). Hermès has a turtleneck (£998) in string cashmere with an exploded houndstooth pattern. “It’s no surprise that knitwear like this has a ready audience,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear buying at Matchesfashion.com. “The kind of graphics that have made sweatshirts big sellers over recent seasons have now moved into knitwear.”
Still, getting the balance right between the classic and the interesting, wearable and distinctive is not easy, says designer Christopher Raeburn, whose standout knitwear piece (£695) for the autumn/winter season adds blocks of bright yellow to its traditional fisherman’s style and grey palette. “It’s that blend of the traditional with the neon that appeals to me,” says Raeburn. “The recent proliferation of merino and mercerised [chemically treated] wools – in luxury sportswear as much as in fashion – is understandable, because it’s given us really easy knitted pieces, both to wear and to care for. But if you want a story, or to make some kind of statement, then handknits are even more interesting. OK, we don’t have such severe winters any more, not of the kind these sweaters were originally intended for. But there’s still something fantastic about putting on a really cocooning piece of clothing like this.”
“There’s also something very masculine about a big sweater that appeals now,” says E Tautz’s Grant. “After all, jumpers were originally made to be worn outdoors in all conditions and during hard, physical work. Today, men want the chunky look but knitted – using bigger needles and fluffier yarns – in such a way as to make sweaters lighter than they at first seem.” The aesthetic stays, the heft goes – an effect perfectly captured in a piece (£1,100) by Sarah-Linh Tran, designer for Lemaire.“It’s made of mohair wool with an open gauge that drapes very softly,” she says.
And how should we be wearing these statement pieces? According to Klingberg, with neither shirt nor jacket, but loud and proud – centre-stage with nothing more than a T-shirt underneath. Cosseting without being suffocating, original without being oddball, mannish without being old-mannish – the new knitwear is, indeed, stating its case with aplomb.