When the Duke of Windsor first stepped out in a traditional Fair Isle knit almost a century ago, the regal adoption of a dress-down patterned jumper from the Shetland island sparked something of a frenzy. This season, brightly coloured, pixelated and other fashion-forward evolutions of the style – as well as its Nordic cousin – promise to be no less sought after. True, these knits often have an annual festive appeal, but this year they have an injection of cool too.
“Fair Isle may epitomise traditional British menswear, but it can also be a vehicle for unconventional twists,” says creative director of Kent & Curwen Daniel Kearns. Indeed, it has past form with off-beat attitude: Paul McCartney made the unusual choice to wear a Fair Isle vest in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, while the “King of King’s Road”, fashion designer Ossie Clark, was immortalised in a 1970s David Hockney portrait, lounging in a Fair Isle sweater. Kearns looked to vintage style when creating his label’s new-season interpretations, but turned the concept inside out – quite literally. “I was rummaging through a vintage store and stopped at a Fair Isle sweater that was inside out. It struck me as more contemporary in the reverse.” The more subtle internal weave inspired the label’s bohemian virgin-wool and nylon-mix knitted sweater (£325) in earthy russet, with Nordic-influenced yoke and side panels in gold, ivory and blue, while a navy and yellow striped jacquard style (£345) is contemporised using a construction that was inspired by the idea of a hand-me-down that has been mended.
Swedish fashion house Acne Studios is clearly no stranger to a Nordic jumper, and this season co-founder and creative director Jonny Johansson also plays with pattern. A slim-fit yellow and blue jacquard sweater (£360) and knitted vest (£280) in striking blues and purples have a contemporary playfulness, with a pixellated pattern that injects a touch of computer-graphic cool. The effect is in part due to synthetics mixed with natural yarn, which creates textural tension and contrast. Japanese luxury brand Sacai has also worked with pixellation for the bold yellow band of flowers on its jacquard sweater (£460).
Nordic yokes are the focus for several designers, including, perhaps unsurprisingly, Copenhagen’s Norse Projects, which has a sumptuous, seamless tubular-knitted Scottish lambswool Birnir jumper (£180) in charcoal or grey with patterning around the shoulders and neck. Also yoked is the Aokas jumper (€139) from Belgian fashion house Bellerose, in striking cream with gold, red and blue.
Heavyweight European fashion houses are also applying their directional stamp – with an almost across-the-board logo-driven approach. Prada adds pops of orange to a Fair Isle-inspired collection of wool/cashmere short-sleeved jumpers (£620), V-necks (£675) and cardigans (£1,020) and cashmere crewnecks (£675) emblazoned with its bold and sporty logo. Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s “GG and reindeer” jacquard sweater (£700) in navy and red, or café au lait, takes the festive cliché and gives it his signature luxury-take-on-thrift-store chic. Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia’s oversized cool-blue jacquard turtleneck sweater (£775) has a 1970s vibe, with stripes and zigzag diamonds – and a name-tape-style logo on the breast, while zigzags are given a subtle monochrome Lurex sheen on a jumper (£650) by Saint Laurent’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello. And the logo-embellished style at JW Anderson sees the designer’s name running through a striped intarsia merino jumper (£750) with ragged lettering rather like that found inside a stick of Brighton rock.
American designers have also leapt upon this northern European jumper trend. Polo Ralph Lauren has adopted an American football theme, with a letterman-style logo and suede elbow patches on a Fair Isle-inspired wool-blend jumper (£299), lending it a preppy-meets-sporty spirit. And Thom Browne, the left-field king of the cropped-trouser suit, has a Fair Isle-influenced knit (£810) with a striking diagonal (almost sash-like) tricolore stripe, plus grosgrain cuffs, vents and neck tab. Another recurrent theme in Browne’s collections is the silhouette of Hector, the designer’s wire-haired dachshund, and this season’s mohair-tweed crewneck (£810) combines Nordic patterning with the image of Hector as a toy dog on wheels.
The subversion of Fair Isle and Nordic jumper designs seen this season would have, undoubtedly, amused the early-20th-century black sheep of the British monarchy.