Fresh off the plane from Tokyo – where he has a cult-like following – and back at his desk in the studio that sits at the end of his back garden in Newcastle, Nigel Cabourn is at work on his new collection. Sketches and fabric swatches are shuffled amid rack upon rack of vintage clothing finds – and antique globes. Gradually, a story about Scott of the Antarctic is taking shape. “This year is the 100th anniversary of his death, so I’m basing a whole collection on him,” he says. “I went to the Scott Polar Research Institute and studied the detail on the clothes from his last expedition. They’re made out of Burberry gabardine, with a woven windowpane check on it. You could never detect that in a photograph.”
Cabourn’s spring collection features a camouflage print adapted from a pair of British Army trousers that he spotted on a customer in his Tokyo shop. On seeing them walk through the door, he promptly bartered some of his own stock to add them to his collection of vintage inspirations. Much of the current collection (from £90 to £1,080) is based on the uniforms of Field Marshal Montgomery, in stiff khaki drill cottons and linens, inspired by jackets and trousers bleached by the desert sun.
Cabourn is at the forefront of an ongoing trend in casual menswear for faithful recreations of archival and historical garments. Sometimes they are based on vintage finds, sometimes on photographs. There’s an integrity to this high-end pursuit of perfection (uniqueness in textiles doesn’t come cheap), and many customers love the romance and back story as much as the attention to construction and detail.
Maison Martin Margiela has had a “replica range”, Line:14, since 1994, with many of the items based on vintage store discoveries. “The Maison collectively sources special pieces from around the world during research trips,” explains a spokesperson. Each piece, once replicated, has a label identifying its style, the provenance of the original item and period of production. For spring there are sunglasses (from £335), wing-tipped shirts from the 1920s and wide-collared ones from the 1970s (from £270).
Some fashion recreations might be seen as postmodern art pieces. In 2010, Salvatore Ferragamo reproduced the only men’s shoe that the company’s founder ever designed, using the pair that Andy Warhol wore in his studio. Each fleck of paint and imperfection of the shoes, sourced at auction, was captured. A little more prosaically, US performance footwear brand Wolverine recently released its 721 LTD boots (£721), a limited edition based on the company’s first ever design, pulled from archives that date back to the early 1900s. Recreated faithfully out of cordovan equine leather, it’s a standout design for spring.
“Heritage, vintage and archive are all massive buzzwords in men’s fashion right now,” says Craig Ford, a partner in the influential London-based menswear trade show Jacket Required. “Many of the brands that show with us play a part in this trend, from Carhartt reproducing its original workwear from 1889 to Chevignon remaking its iconic, brightly coloured Togs down jackets that were popular in the late 1980s.” It’s not a case of nothing new happening in fashion – it’s just that in terms of casual off-duty and functional clothing, the market is dominated by either sportswear or low-quality disposable items. This is the reaction against these.
Private White VC is a Manchester-based label inspired by the wardrobe of first-world-war Victoria Cross-recipient Jack White. After the war, White took an apprenticeship at, and subsequently went on to own, the Cooper & Stollbrand factory, where designer Nick Ashley – son of Laura, and previously at Kenzo, Tod’s and Dunhill – now produces the Private White VC line. He has access to 5,000 vintage garments and focuses on heavy-duty detailing to create contemporary classics (from £65).
Designers such as Ashley and Cabourn look back to hardwearing garments that were often developed for military or expedition use, and can afford to recreate or rework them with a modern, lighter fit for the most discerning of consumers. The original articles predate the idea of seasonality in men’s fashion and were built, at the very least, to last; at best, to keep the wearer alive.
“I was buying a lot of second-world-war jackets and they were all made of the same kind of cotton,” says Cabourn. “I asked the elderly gentleman I’d been buying the garments from what it was, and he told me it was something he’d actually helped to invent. It’s called Ventile, developed by the Shirley Institute in the late 1930s for aircraftmen flying across the North Sea. If they were shot down, it kept them afloat and warm.” Hip men’s style blogs such as Selectism obsess about this kind of thing, along with the sizing of belt loops and the perfect length of trouser. At the highest end of casualwear, the attention to detail and fabrication is as luxurious as with bespoke tailoring.
Functionality aside, men’s style is also moving away from “youth”. Men in their 20s, for example, are now wearing the same Barbour jackets as their fathers. This trend is about a kind of seriousness and masculinity that day-glo trainers and funky T-shirts have eroded over time. Men are drawn to heritage brands for the same reason they have started listening to folk music rather than pop; they want something with longevity, depth and an emotional attachment to it. And they want to be men, not boys.
One of the most revered items in heritage circles is the Guernsey sweater – a plain knit with a highly detailed chest panel; Private White VC has an excellent lambswool version (£170). Meanwhile, Sunspel has reworked a pair of long johns (£95) previously owned by Peter Hill, whose great-grandfather founded the company. Long johns seem like an inherently fogey item, but they’re functional right through a Scandinavian or Highland spring, and for a brand that trades on classics, the back story is seductive. “It’s a nod to our heritage,” says CEO Nicholas Brooke. “The faithful recreation even includes Peter Hill’s initials, sewn into the back. We kept the loops at the waist – originally used to hold braces – and the combination of knitted and woven fabric, but updated the fit to give them a more contemporary feel.”
Sometimes the garment that catches a designer’s eye isn’t physically available to study. Often they reference documentary photographs, or perhaps film stills, that capture the essence of an item. Last winter, Charles Finch launched the “dive and mountain” label Chucs, and at the heart of the range is the Holden jacket (£685), which is based on a photograph that Finch saw of the actor William Holden wearing such an item in Africa, offscreen with his father Peter Finch. This might well be the perfect safari jacket, with its dark-brown suede elbow patches, woven leather buttons and bold, functional pockets.
For Finch, Holden represents the quintessential Chucs man. “I’m very inspired by him,” he says. “He was the quiet, strong type of artist – no frills, good work, a class act. The crew and actors in 1950s films were explorers, making films in far-off places. Look at Bogart, Bacall, John Huston and The African Queen. Even the directors’ chairs fitted the image and were used on safari and movie sets. Holden embodied this look when he was in Africa.”
For many labels with a long history, it’s a matter of merely opening up the archives. When Aquascutum was asked to help with the wardrobe for Gary Oldman’s character in the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it recreated the 1950s Sheerwater raincoat, now part of the spring/summer collection (£550). “It’s a timeless style staple,” says design director Joanna Sykes. “It has a long, lean silhouette, emphasised by side-slant welt pockets and detailed with contrasting horn buttons. It’s iconic and quintessentially British.”
Belstaff, founded in 1924, has gained attention in recent years by recreating archive pieces right down to every scuff and repair mark on the rediscovered originals. The current range includes its classic three-quarter length biker’s coat, the Trialmaster (£456), reproduced in pristine condition and in a new “deluxe” version (£540) for spring. “The original Trialmaster is seen as a trophy by collectors and enthusiasts,” says Belstaff CEO Harry Slatkin. “Now reproductions are sought by the demanding modern motorcyclist, who wants a product to be highly protective and breathable at the same time.” They look excellent on pedestrians, too. The hugely functional waxed cotton has been reversed, so the surface appears matte, and there are waterproofing and quilting details.
Another heritage brand, Gloverall, celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. It used archive originals to create three different men’s coats (two car coats, from £280, and a duffle, £500). Fabric has been rewoven to match the pieces in its archives; the checked Harold model (£295), with leather pocket detailing, is the most appealing and graphic of the bunch.
While recreating classics is a newly fashionable pursuit, its origins are in the early 1980s. “It was me, the late Massimo Osti and Katharine Hamnett,” says Nigel Cabourn, recalling the heady days when Hamnett was the London catwalk’s most visible fashion force, with her chic take on army surplus. “Osti built a very big collection.” With his CP Company label, Osti pushed the boundaries of wear-resistant and performance fabrics, threading steel through wool and reworking vintage into something high tech.
Now the Massimo Osti Archive – which includes 60,000 fabric samples from over 30 years – has inspired the Ma.Strum project by designer Donrad Duncan. For spring, there are three outerwear pieces (from £210). “Osti used rip-stop parachute fabric, and we’ve applied advanced treatments including adding a membrane to the wearer side of the fabric that’s soft to the touch and breathable. Men love the idea of the back story in fashion, but fundamentally they love something that is well built and that works,” says Duncan.
Aero Leather Clothing – which manufactures pieces for Nigel Cabourn – is the go-to company for perfect replicas of early 20th-century leathers and has been “busier than ever over the past five years”, according to co-founder Will Lauder. Aficionados love its detailing, which includes original second-world-war zips in new jackets. Its website also offers rare denim pieces sourced from Japan, such as the recreated 1930s Lee Single Pocket Cinch Back Jacket (£180).
Denim has had connotations of nostalgia ever since Nick Kamen strolled into a laundrette and removed his Levi’s 501s in 1985. There’s also an industry that continues to grow around faithful recreations of the earliest pieces. Such is the obsession with rare denim that originals of that particular Lee jacket have sold for $40,000. Levi’s 501s may have had their big renaissance in the 1980s, but the design predates the Lee jacket by 40 years. It was christened in 1890, and Levi’s makes a perfect replica of it (£210) in 9oz plain selvedge with cinch, suspender buttons and crotch rivet, as part of its premium Vintage Clothing range.
As design director for the label, Miles Johnson, says: “This is part of a global vintage trend. There’s a romance to wearing authentic styles and seeing the fading changes to the denim over time. Over-designed fashion often has transitory appeal; men are interested in original styles.”