The male peacock has never had a free pass. ‘Of all handicrafts,’ the satirical magazine the Town said in 1838, ‘that of tailoring appears to be the most successful in the way of coining money. We might compare it to witchcraft.’ According to Bespoke: The Men’s Style of Savile Row by James Sherwood, even Queen Victoria got in on the act, writing to her son Bertie that ‘dress is a trifling matter,’ before adding: ‘we do not wish to control your own tastes and fancies … but we do expect that you will never wear anything extravagant or slang.’ In the end she lost that battle, for Bertie, as Edward VII, went on to introduce the dinner jacket, the velvet smoking jacket, the white dresscoat and the bowler hat. He also fell in love, temporarily, with Lillie Langtry, whose velvet-slippered friend Oscar Wilde said that ‘where there is no extravagance there is no love.’
These days the male fashionistas get to drink champagne in the sun and become overnight stars on people’s mobile phones. The London menswear collections stir up a mayflies’ nest of passion, with chief scholars and pedants of the knicker arriving from all corners of the Twitterverse to pronounce on the latest blossomings of the artform. Many designers don’t take the menswear business very seriously – ‘wait until the women’s,’ they whisper, backstage – but for those who care, the shows are like visitations. Last week there was a perfectly tonsured young man in full Berber costume outside the old sorting office in New Oxford Street. He lives in Cockfosters and maintains a blog on male trends. ‘If fashion isn’t everybody’s life then I don’t know who everybody is,’ he said.
‘Well, it’s not the life of a Masai bus conductor on the roads of Tanzania.’
‘Are you kidding me?’ said Azrur (who used to be Kevin). ‘Have you seen the sandals they wear? I’m talking pink. I nearly died.’
Outside the shows, young photographers from Japan were taking pictures of other young photographers from Japan. It may be pretty ordinary to most children now – who all have paparazzi for parents – but I was still taken aback to see the scrum around anybody wearing a coloured sock. One man came along the street wearing red braces under a nice grey suit and the Japanese went into overdrive. The guy stopped, put on his shades, sucked in his cheeks, they went bam, bam, bam, and he walked on. The Warholian timeframe had shrunk to 15 seconds. Everybody interviews everybody. ‘What are all these people doing?’ I asked.
‘They’re following fashion,’ one of the magazine editors replied. ‘Most of them don’t even have a ticket to get in. They’re just Instagramming and getting the word out to an audience of none.’
At the Matthew Miller show, the man from Chinese Vogue sitting next to me was worried that he wouldn’t be able to get an interview with any of the guys from GQ. David Gandy, the male supermodel, wearing a shark-tooth suit and a Burberry tie, was being interviewed for Fashion TV. Within seconds of him standing up people were photographing him being filmed. You see this all the time at fashion events. Legend says there was a time when style journalists would brandish their notebooks and take down details on the togs. You don’t see that now. At the launch of David Beckham’s new swimwear line at Shoreditch House, every journalist took a selfie with Beckham. They didn’t ask him any questions and they didn’t look at the trunks. They self-papped and drank a cocktail and then went home. That’s the job.
‘I think I might have drunk too much coffee,’ the man from Chinese Vogue said, still scanning the horizon for subeditors. I looked at the press release. ‘Anti War, Anti Social, Anti You,’ it said across the top. ‘For Spring/Summer 2015, Matthew Miller investigates what life looks like for soldiers returning home from war. What happens to the post-conflict warrior as he’s thrown back into a peaceful society?’ I shifted to get more comfortable on my bench. ‘Miller has modernised the “demob” suit silhouette by adding oversized pleats and reattaching shredded fabric in a death rose embroidery.’ The designer said the collection is made in ‘a plethora of blue hues and mashed-up pinstripes that make the models look like walking battleships’. I looked at the Chinese man.
‘Awesome, huh?’ he said.
There were something like seventy shows over three days, some of them glitzy to the point of blindness, and others, well, a bit worked up. Being worked up is the natural state of the person overly interested in cool. A wonderful aura of fake ceremony surrounds every event. The invitations arrive by bike, some engraved onto dayglo perspex and delivered with fairy tale gravitas. The Richard James show, held in a long glass corridor on Park Lane, also had a military theme, depicting the savoir-faire of the Desert Rats, their khaki humility, their blond and fawn reserve, as opposed to their real-life fear and thirst on the baking sand. In the new dispensation, prints of colonial maps make their way onto shirts, while crisp white suits come emblazoned with flowers from an imaginary oasis.
Kensington Gardens was the setting for the Burberry Prorsum show, a rather baffling event where literature was onstage, if off-kilter, printed on cranberry-coloured scarves. Fashion will borrow from anything but sometimes the source creates a lovely buzz of befuddlement under the spotlights. ‘The collection, entitled “Book Covers & Bruce Chatwin”,’ the notes declared, ‘features illustrations and typographical prints that take their creative lead from vintage English book covers.’ And where does Chatwin come in? It turns out that he was being referenced on the runway by men in floppy hats like the one Chatwin wore as he gadded about Patagonia, except that Burberry made it a jolly ‘aqua green’, ‘magenta pink’ or ‘storm blue’. The hats were more Pharrell Williams than Bruce Chatwin, but since Chatwin used to go out with Jasper Conran, I suppose there is a connection to the world of fashion. But the Burberry Travel Satchel? The Burberry Field Sneaker?
The idea of the nomad seemed to confuse the models and actors in the front row at the Burberry show. To them, the nomadic instinct referred to that strange feeling that occasionally overcomes one on the way down New Bond Street, when, just for a second, you feel that nothing would stop you from nipping down a side street to buy a coffee. ‘It is the nomad’s fatal yearning for increase,’ Chatwin wrote in the LRB in 1979, ‘that causes the endless round of raid and feud, and finally tempts him to succumb to settlement.’ And it was indeed nice to see my fashion-week friends settle into their tribal rhythms, just as the news came that London is now the luxuries capital of the world, next to Beijing.