On a still and freezing Sunday evening in January, when London’s financial district is usually deserted, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was packed. Fleet Street’s most atmospheric tavern, rebuilt just after the Great Fire of London and frequented by Dickens and Twain, was the venue for British menswear designer John Alexander Skelton’s annual show – his sixth collection since graduating from Central St Martins. Guests ate oysters and drank stout while the models – made up of Skelton’s characterful friends from the arts world – roamed each room banging tankards and jumping on tables, creating a dramatisation of the debt collectors who used to terrorise patrons in the pub in centuries past.
The event was typical of Skelton’s strategy of eschewing many aspects of the conventional fashion industry, such as marketing, e-tailing and discounting. He scours Ireland and Scotland for mills to create unique textiles according to his weaving specifications, constructs much of the work in his own studio and sells to only a handful of stores worldwide. He is part of a growing list of menswear designers who inhabit the hinterland of the industry; unlike international brands that create hype through highly publicised and regular limited edition drops, their work is, by the nature of its production and the channels in which it sells, truly exclusive.
Clothing store Hostem, which reopened last year within Blue Mountain School in Shoreditch, sells John Alexander Skelton as well as other brands that share the same values. “We really wanted to get away from the idea of fast fashion,” explains founder James Brown. “We aren’t about what’s new, new, new – we want our clients to focus on the artistry and dedication that goes into the making of the garments.” Just as Skelton shows once rather than twice a year, Hostem doesn’t follow traditional seasonal patterns of replacing stock every six months or less. “We have pieces by Geoffrey B Small going back nearly 10 years that are available to purchase. They are as beautiful and covetable today as they were then.” The store has a cashmere duffel coat (£3,125) by Small, one of four made exclusively for Hostem, with hand-stitched rope loops and buttonholes in silk. The garment was dyed by hand in Small’s studio in Italy in a process that took over eight hours.
Hostem also has mud-dyed balmacaan overcoats (£3,725) from the Andrew Driftwood label, as well as bontan trousers (£1,850) made from silk from a rare Japanese silkworm called kurimayu that can only be harvested in small quantities. There’s also a bamboo coat by Amy Revier (£3,125) woven from hand-spun threads made in Kyoto and lined in silk.
Another priority for these designers is working with fabrics that have very limited availability. For spring, Skelton used antique fabrics for a tea-coloured double-breasted jacket and several other pieces of tailoring (such as a 19th-century-linen waistcoat, £1,150). “It’s all made with French and Belgian linen that would have originally been given to someone as a dowry,” he says. Because the fabric is finite in supply, there will only ever be around 30 of those jackets (£880) and matching tailored shorts (£588) made. By Walid, the London-based label of former Joseph creative director Walid al Damirji, specialises in pieces made from repurposed antique fabrics. This season, he has created the subtly embroidered black 1920s-murat-linen jacket (£855, from Browns) and an embroidered cotton T-shirt (£545).
Designer Karim Fares began collecting vintage fabrics 11 years ago, which he has used to create pieces for his label Archivio JM Ribot for the past seven seasons. “I knew I would do something with the fabric eventually,” he says. “I was charmed by the idea of it changing over time.” This season he has created a relaxed white suit from handwoven linen found in Rome (jacket, €1,200, waistcoat, €680, trousers, €756) and a double-breasted waistcoat (€864) and matching trousers (€870) from a blue checked English wool and antique buttons sourced from flea markets. He happened upon a small amount of the checked cloth and approached a mill to reproduce it. “Because of the way we work, we create no more than five or six pieces of a design,” he explains. “We don’t use any overlocking; instead, we use traditional sewing methods, with handmade buttonholes and hand-stitched inside pockets. The garments are made to last a lifetime.” One particularly beautiful trench coat (€1,350), produced in both vintage silk and vintage rayon, has striking oversized mother‑of-pearl buttons, and looks like the kind of thing Baudelaire would have worn gadding around 19th-century Paris.
Fares works with no more than 20 retailers worldwide. One key store is IF in New York, known for its rarefied men’s labels. “We are in love with Karim’s creativity and craftsmanship,” says Jeannette Bird, who co-founded the SoHo store in 1978. IF is one of the few places in the US where you can find work by British designers Elena Dawson and Paul Harnden, who also shun fast-fashion methods. Dawson co-founded Harnden’s label in 2000 and went solo in 2006, but their work still shares a rough‑hewn aesthetic with an overt level of handwork. Harnden’s can only be bought in store, not online. “The texture, hand-finished details and tailoring are best experienced first hand,” says Bird. This season IF is stocking a black Elena Dawson blazer ($2,170) in 100 per cent cambric cotton, with purposely raw hems, and a Norfolk jacket ($3,015) by Harnden in crumpled wool, bearing his distinctive piqué collar. A new designer who Bird is currently excited by is New York-based Jiang Ni of ’T Ensemble. “The entire collection is executed by him,” she explains, “including pattern-cutting, sewing and sales. It comes from the soul.” For spring, Ni has created an appliquéd elongated linen jacket ($1,165), a soft-canvas jacket ($1,140) and a grey round-neck tunic shirt ($360).
Harnden – who has been stocked at IF for 16 years and can be also found at Dover Street Market in London and Leclaireur in Paris – never gives interviews. Stories abound of buyers going to visit his studio in Brighton and leaving notes through the door after ringing the bell and being ignored. Milan-based Austrian designer Carol Christian Poell is similarly reclusive, only producing work when it suits him, not to a seasonal directive, but always with meticulous workmanship. In London, the only place to find his white hand-knitted jumpers (£715) with artfully skewed necklines and a grey wool version (£1,950) of the fencing jacket he has been making for over 10 years is The Library on Brompton Road (one of the first places to stock Alexander McQueen’s menswear, including his remarkable Dante collection in 1996). Poell also has a long-standing relationship with Darklands in Berlin, which this season has his single‑breasted jacket (€2,212) with a nipped-in waist and roped shoulders, and a black wool coat (€3,052) with a high-buttoning funnelneck.
Every aspect of these artisanal designers differs dramatically from much of the fashion industry, from the way they create their work to how they present it. “I don’t ever want to compromise,” says Skelton. “I don’t want to conform or be told what to do.”