Menswear’s new cult labels

A clutch of cooly understated labels is gaining a cult following among a sophisticated crowd looking for classic casualwear with subtle edge. Mark C O’Flaherty reports

The Gigi linen/cotton Degas jacket, £565
The Gigi linen/cotton Degas jacket, £565

Like many men, I buy clothes from just four or five labels regularly. I know which brands’ clothes fit my body better than others, and which have a consistent style that feels like it second guesses my own. For men like me who don’t wear T-shirts with words on them and who roll their eyes at the notion of being “on trend”, it’s important to know that there will always be the perfect shirt, relaxed jacket and an elegant pair of trousers – items that add to and complement a wardrobe rather than turn it on its head. If you ask well-dressed guys where they buy their casual apparel, the same names often come up repeatedly: Margaret Howell, APC, Oliver Spencer… But there are newer, lesser-known names in the same vein that are attracting a cult following. Like Howell et al, they don’t reinvent the wheel of fashion for the sake of novelty every season. They are quiet, chic, but still have an edge and an inherent sense of modernity. Once discovered, they foster loyalty.

From left: Solid Homme cotton/polyester bomber jacket, £300, and acetate/cotton shirt, £225
From left: Solid Homme cotton/polyester bomber jacket, £300, and acetate/cotton shirt, £225

“The giving of ‘cult’ status to designers can take a while in today’s highly populated menswear market, but many contemporary brands are rising to this rank,” says Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter. “Our customer is looking for pieces that are timeless and built to last, which is why brands like NN07 and Our Legacy are seeing a new level of traction, alongside more well-known names such as Officine Générale and Ami Paris. Men are keen to invest in well-thought-out garments in high-end fabrics that can be relied upon season after season, such as a Ben Shell bomber jacket [£315] by Officine Générale and the Eske grandad-collar Oxford shirt [£100] by NN07.” 

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There are some common threads binding together the labels that Firth is talking about. Firstly, they often explore streetwear tropes, but add sophisticated twists with a playful approach to proportions. Although Y/ Project has become a label name-dropped in fashion circles, its heart is in an approachable casual style, elevated with quirky cuts. Of all the labels in this new breed, it’s the most overtly experimental, but you could still put together a conservative edit from any of its recent collections. This season’s sand-coloured denim jacket (£585) has a double-layered shoulder that is innovative, but subtly so. Y/Project’s creative director Glenn Martens might belong to the Vetements school of streetwear subversion, but he has a lighter, more mature, commercial hand.

Man 1924 linen Kennedy jacket, £505
Man 1924 linen Kennedy jacket, £505

One of the better-known brands of this “quiet storm” in menswear is Ami, founded by Alexandre Mattiussi. “Casual for me means comfortable but with a certain degree of elegance,” he says. “That’s what I think of as the Parisian definition. I cut relatively close to the body and not too large, but with that little extra length on the shoulder or room in the leg that creates a silhouette somewhere between tailored and sportswear.” Mattiussi’s “carrot‑fit” trousers have become a core product – this season there is a pair of jeans (£190) in that cut with matching blouson jacket (£235). As double denim goes, it looks surprisingly fresh. There’s also a sense of joie de vivre to the Ami Paris colour palette – a short-sleeved shirt (£170) has a touch of the Californian 1950s bowling alley to it, in a strong green with a set of broad, vertical bicolour stripes. It’s bold and summery without being too attention-grabbing.

From left: Ami polyester shirt, £170, and denim jacket, £235
From left: Ami polyester shirt, £170, and denim jacket, £235

Another common denominator of the new cult labels is that the designer’s name is not part of the brand identity. Their customer is above the notion of wanting a designer’s lifestyle – they just want quality and style that fits with their own look. “We work as a creative team,” explains Aurélien Arbet, one of the co-founders behind Etudes. “Together we take care of the art direction, clothing design and the visual identity, photography and publishing around the various projects of Etudes. Teamwork brings balance and energy.” It also leads to a lack of overt ego in the final collections, with the team pulling together a consistent silhouette each season. “We like the balance of baggy shorts with a classic striped shirt and an oversized trench coat, or baggy pants made with formal suit fabric, paired with a graphic T-shirt and sports cap,” says Arbet. For spring, the camel trench (€900) is quintessential Etudes. “We took inspiration from a classic men’s wardrobe piece and exaggerated the proportions,” explains the designer. “It’s like the streetwear approach of the ’90s – clothes are simply worn three sizes bigger than your regular size.”

Officine Générale Italian silk jacket, £1,222, matching trousers, £863, and cotton shirt, £140
Officine Générale Italian silk jacket, £1,222, matching trousers, £863, and cotton shirt, £140

For a fleeting moment in fashion a few years back, the term “normcore” was bandied around the industry, the suggestion being that looking “square” and embracing basics was a radical reaction to the more outlandish elements of menswear. But the increasingly popular menswear brands of this current movement aren’t offering irony for fashion insiders – they are building brands with an eye to longevity. This season’s largely monochrome collection by OAMC includes a white cotton shirt (£500) with simple, stark-rather-than-fancy floral embroidery, and black cropped twill trousers (£325) that won’t date. They have some of the continental chic of classic Agnès B, but with a looser, sportier style.

From left: OAMC polyester/wool/elastane trousers, £325, and embroidered cotton shirt, £500
From left: OAMC polyester/wool/elastane trousers, £325, and embroidered cotton shirt, £500

Sales figures for these burgeoning brands suggest there is a global market hungry for them. Solid Homme was launched in Korea by designer Woo Youngmi 20 years ago, but only appeared in London in 2016. Defined by a low-key but edgy casual vibe that appeals to both the off-duty, all-black rayon Yohji man and the grey-marl and blue jeans Sunspel chap, it was one of the best-performing contemporary brands at Harrods in its launch season. The new steely-blue bomber (£300) for spring blends shirting detail with the classic jacket shape, while the notch-collared, boldly striped short-sleeved shirt (£225) mixes some of the 1950s Americana that inspired Alexandre Mattiussi for this season with graphic, pyjama-game sensibilities.

Jijibaba wool tweed jacket, £570, and cotton shirt, £293
Jijibaba wool tweed jacket, £570, and cotton shirt, £293

Paris-based Officine Générale is beginning to make an impact too. Launched in 2012, Pierre Mahéo’s label already has a solid customer base in the UK – its second biggest market after the US – and last year opened a standalone store in London. The brand had a 47 per cent increase in turnover in 2017, of £5.5m. “We have extremely loyal customers,” says Mahéo. “There is nothing conceptual; we just show the right product at the right moment. This season that includes our navy seersucker Lightest jacket [£346], which has no lining or canvas and is so light that it could be a shirt, and the 375 jacket [£1,222], which has no lining at the back, a soft shoulder with no padding and covered buttons that kind of disappear, which I love.” Mahéo’s fashion magic is in his subtle styling, including French pleats on pants and asymmetric pockets on shirts. “It’s about that little bit of plus,” he explains. “That small thing that makes your partner look at you and say, ‘You look good’.”

Jijibaba cotton jacket, £527
Jijibaba cotton jacket, £527

New brands are also filtering through. “I like labels that have a cult following on a local level,” says Mats Klingberg, founder of Trunk Clothiers in Marylebone. “They don’t have budgets for big global advertising campaigns, so the product must speak for itself – including where and how it’s been made. Brands that come to mind are: The Gigi from Italy, responsible for this season’s Degas checked mesh jacket [£565]; A Kind of Guise from Germany, behind the Mount Charleston jacket [£410] for spring; and Man 1924 from Spain, which made the linen herringbone Kennedy jacket [£505] that we also have in store right now.”

Etudes cotton Denis trench coat, €900
Etudes cotton Denis trench coat, €900

One of the most interesting new brands to appear of late is Jijibaba, which launched last season at Dover Street Market. It’s a collaboration between furniture designers Jaime Hayón and Jasper Morrison, the latter renowned for his “super normal” aesthetic. “I figure that if I can satisfy my own needs, then there’s a good chance the things I design will please others,” says Morrison. Looking at what the pair have created with Jijibaba, it’s no surprise that Morrison is a fan of Margaret Howell’s long-standing modernist approach to fashion. “She was a pioneer,” he says. “There is probably a fairly thin slice of the market that is interested in fashion but doesn’t want unnecessary detailing or narrow-cut trousers.” 

Y/Project cotton denim jacket, £585
Y/Project cotton denim jacket, £585

Morrison underestimates how wide that market actually is – Howell generates over £100m a year with annual growth in excess of 10 per cent – which suggests there’s also a market that will embrace Jijibaba. The labels share a similar aesthetic – from his white cotton shirt with darker circles (£293) and wool tweed jacket (£570) to his prosaic black canvas jacket (£527). “With the shirt, I was looking for an extremely subtle form of decoration,” he explains. “With the jean jacket, I was looking at an early staple in the evolution of men’s fashion. It’s nicely balanced between informal and formal, practical and smart, with a hint of workwear. I believe that what one wears should feel balanced and practical – there’s way too much branding going on right now, and not enough attention to product.” 

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An increasing number of men share Morrison’s point of view and want to buy into it. It may be easier to splash huge type across an XXL sweatshirt than to elevate a white shirt or a beautiful pair of trousers into something fresh and interesting that you don’t already own, but these labels are making it their mission to do precisely that.

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