Features

A Fashion Revival Made in England


Alastair Rae and James Shaw, the founders of Albam, proudly flaunt their lack of affinity for haute couture, making clothes that are stylish but never so edgy as to invite ridicule

Photograph by Ting Cheng

Alastair Rae and James Shaw, the founders of Albam, proudly flaunt their lack of affinity for haute couture, making clothes that are stylish but never so edgy as to invite ridicule

Fashion designers generally fit one of two stereotypes. There’s the monosyllabic minimalist, inhaling unfiltered cigarettes and indie rock; or the couturier, resplendent in fuschia-pink, fond of crêpe de Chine and comically small dogs.

At first glance, the founders of Albam, a British men’s fashion line, fit the part of fashionista-as-Kraftwerk-understudy. Austere side-partings? Check. Artisanal shirts that murmur discreetly of vast expense? Of course. The reverie ends there, however. When I ask to meet them in a setting relevant to the clothing they produce, the pair suggest a rock-climbing wall in a particularly grotty part of East London.

James Shaw likes to climb. A lot. As a student, he’d do it for four hours a day. Now in his early 30s, he’s moved near the Peak District, a mountainous area a few hours outside London, which he reckons is “one of the best places in the world for rock climbing.” With that, he’s off scaling footholds, and shouting aphorisms about how rock climbing inspired the Albam sensibility: “Fit for purpose,” “No deadweight,” “Travel light, travel fast.” Down on terra firma, Shaw’s business partner, Alastair Rae, rejects the idea that Albam is a fashion line at all. “We’re a clothing business,” he says.

Rock-climbing designers. A fashion label that denies it does fashion. That incongruity sums up Albam’s appeal. Walk into an Albam boutique and what jumps out isn’t the requisite stylishness or even the price tags. (A Seamless T Shirt will set you back £36—about $57.) No, it’s how practical everything is. On sale are fisherman’s cagoules, trail pants, alpine parkas, and zip-up vests with so many pockets and technical specifications they’d be the talk of Bagram Airbase. Somehow all this has made for a thriving business. Since launching their first cozy store four and a half years ago, Shaw and Rae have opened three more in central London and attracted a hum of respectful press. And they’ve done it without a single big outside investor or a credit lifeline from a bank.

In the last half-decade, several other British menswear businesses have flourished by taking a similar approach, from Folk, which produces semi-rustic clothing that looks best accessorized with a beard, to Oliver Spencer, whose tailored tweeds earned him a nomination for best menswear designer at last year’s British Fashion Awards. Their clothing doesn’t feel disposable. Nor is it in your face: No blaring brand names, pec-hugging tops, or outré colors here. It’s sufficiently durable and detailed to justify the expense; sensible enough to reassure a prospective mother-in-law, and—despite the tapered cuts and the young things hanging around the shop counters—rather traditional. Most of all, these clothes are proudly, insistently, made in England.

Brands like Albam and its ilk challenge the stereotype long held by clothing manufacturers and glitzy retailers alike that British men don’t do fashion. Their rise is partly a tale of how a new market has emerged in just a few years. It’s also a heartwarmer about the resuscitation of British clothes manufacturing, an industry that received its last rites long ago. And it’s wrapped up in perhaps the unlikeliest story of all—how dressing like a geography teacher became big business.
 
 
Children around the world are taught maps and mountains; perhaps only in Britain has the term “geography teacher” become so loaded. Forever laboring under the suspicion that feeling up rocks wasn’t a proper subject, he (and in British popular prejudice it was always a he) was likely to boast a connoisseurship of real ale, or to begin lessons with the invitation, “Call me Nigel.” A few years ago, groping for insults for rivals Coldplay, Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher said, “That lot are just a bunch of knobhead students.” Then he went for the nuclear option. “Chris Martin looks like a geography teacher.”

Which is? “Shabby cord jacket,” says Josh Sims, author of the 2011 book Icons of Men’s Style. “The technical outerwear that was always a bit garish, the product of too many field trips. Chunky Clarks shoes. Jeans, but never the right kind or color.” Anything else? “Yeah, a check shirt. A really crappy check shirt.”

Yet this byword for sartorial tragedy now rules the High Street. Those Clarks schooners? Back in. Corduroy? Weighing down a rack near you. Elbow patches? Rare are the youthful British arms without them. Albam sells a trail parka for £315. “The geography-teacher look is the new preppy,” says designer Oliver Spencer. “Wearing preppy is about fitting in, being part of a crowd; but this is about being more confident. An individual.”

Just as New Yorkers wear Sperry deck shoes to pick up the kids from their Park Slope kindergartens, the traditional English wardrobe is being revamped by Spencer and his cohort. (Urban hipsters wear their plum-colored cords tapered, with the bottoms rolled up, the better to flash their brogues.) The result is stylish without being so edgy as to invite ridicule. The new British designers proudly flaunt their lack of affinity for haute couture. “I’m never going to make a jacket that has three arms,” says Spencer. Albam’s Shaw and Rae don’t come from fashion backgrounds. At university they studied business, and considered opening a whisky bar before going into the rag trade.

The rise of these high-end, earthy brands reflects a shift in the British male sensibility. Put yourself in the position of a 35-year-old British man at the start of the last decade. Back then, if he gave serious thought to buying clothes, his choice was largely between the dull department store brands or those pricey Italian designers like Gucci (GUCG) and Prada (1913:HK). “A decade ago, men were more about brands and less about style. They just wanted big names emblazoned on their sweatshirts,” says former menswear buyer Sarah Peters, now an analyst at business research group Datamonitor. “Now it’s the opposite. Men care less about brands and much more about style.” With annual sales of £9.8 billion, according to market research firm Mintel, the men’s clothing market in Britain is still only half as big as the £19.4 billion women’s wear business. Still, it has expanded rapidly in the past decade and is expected to grow faster than the rest of the economy over the next five years.

What explains the attention British males are suddenly giving to their appearance? Cathy Bakewell, a fashion marketing expert at the Albam pair’s alma mater, Manchester Metropolitan University, gives two major reasons. The first is a slow burn: The traditional male dominance in both education and the workplace is under threat from women. The second is more recent. The tripling of house prices in Britain over the past decade has deterred young men from buying their first homes, leaving them with surplus cash to spend on looking good. “The geography-teacher look is a way of establishing your masculinity, of feeling more secure in what is an insecure position by supposedly dressing like your dad,” says Bakewell. “The irony is that it’s the youngish man in all this get-up, while his dad is actually in a rugby shirt and chinos.”

For the thirtysomething who’s (ahem) outgrown his skinny jeans, there are now plenty of options, says Datamonitor’s Peters. “He can wear nice tailored clothes and not worry that he’s making a statement.” She could almost be describing Joe Pickering, a publicist at Penguin Books (PSO) in London, who has the rustic look down to a T. Single and just into his 30s, he’s sprouted an impressive beard and wears horn-rimmed glasses and natty brogues. In the interest of research, he’s agreed to provide a rare insight into the habits and preferences of this new consumer demographic. Or, in unscientific terms, to take me clothes shopping.

Within 10 minutes of sauntering into a Paul Smith store in central London’s Covent Garden, Joe’s used the term “color palette,” talked about the fleck in a jacket’s wool, and held up examples of collar stitching. There are times, Joe will confess, when fixing his outfit has made him late for meetings.

On a recent date, a woman admitted to Joe, “I don’t care about clothes.” Big mistake. “I thought, ‘This isn’t going to go anywhere.’” He pauses. “This makes me sound really bad, doesn’t it?”

To watch Joe Pickering shop is to glean an answer to a conundrum that has troubled retailers and observers for decades: What do men want from clothes? In Pickering’s case, it’s clear. Like God, fashion resides in the details. Pickering homes in on shirt linings and buttonholes and believes that “socks make an outfit pop.” This reflects an observation made by that bastion of Middle England retail, the department store chain John Lewis. Last year the chain—a British equivalent of Macy’s—launched a line called John Lewis & Co., inspired by “the country’s excellence in tailoring, outwear and utility fashions,” according to the accompanying press release. “We have seen a real demand for less commoditised men’s fashion. Our customers are increasingly interested in … the product’s authenticity and provenance.”

In other words, men are willing to spend more as long as what they’re buying comes with a story. In Albam’s case, that means product descriptions such as “Crafted in England from vegetable tanned and waxed leather … secured with a brass buckle and leather ‘keeper.’ Hand stitching and Albam stamp is concealed when worn.” All that, mind you, is for a “Simple Belt.” Just imagine the lengths they’d go to in describing a complicated one.

After decades of losing orders to China, British factories are sometimes struggling to keep up with new orders. A tour of Oliver Spencer’s stockrooms provides a glimpse of the challenge facing the Made in England movement. On a recent morning in East London, three Oliver Spencer employees stand in a freezing warehouse, frowning over a pair of freshly made, blue leather brogues. Spencer, the designer, is given some bad news.

“The size 9s are the best,” says his colleague Josh Bird. “And they’re bad.” What he’s referring to is the brogue detail on the front of the shoe, which is off-center. Lace them up, and your feet look as if they’re turning in. The deformed brogues come from just up the road in Northamptonshire, England’s center of shoemaking; yet, as operations brain Karen Leetham points out, the order went in months ago and has only just turned up.

Later in the afternoon, hurtling around in his black Mini, Spencer mutters about how the manufacturer of his company’s shoes will try “every excuse under the sun. ‘It’s your design!’ ‘What do you expect with handmade shoes?’ Every-bloody-thing.” With half a pack of rice cakes stashed by the gearshift and a bottle of water rolling around on the floor behind him, Spencer comes off as an endearingly quixotic small businessman. An enthusiast for British clothing, he tells customers he’s worn Tricker’s, a traditional brand of English shoes, since he was a teenager. The same goes for many of his counterparts, which partly explains why they collaborate with venerable, if until recently moribund, British labels such as Tricker’s and Barbour.

At the next stop, a factory on a road once renowned for its textiles (I was asked not to give away specifics—fashion types are prone to poaching competitors’ suppliers), we see workers turning out jackets. Over a cup of what Spencer calls “the best crappy coffee in London,” I ask Mahboob, the de facto sales manager, what he makes of Oliver Spencer. Mahboob replies, “They’re one of our dearest clients.” Two winters ago the factory lost its biggest contract, after a retailing chain moved its manufacturing to Asia. “Around 60 people lost their jobs, and the owner threw the equipment onto the streets.” After months of touting for business, the factory won an order from Spencer. Others followed. The plant is now back up to 35 full-time workers.

How long the geography-teacher look will survive is anyone’s guess. It’s already familiar enough to invite parody. (One put-down, from the blog Menswear: “Take a vaguely old-fashioned-sounding name, maybe put a waxed jacket in there and a pair of Quoddy boots and play some Seasick Steve in the background.”) That’s as close as fashion gets to a sell-signal.

However, the underlying trend of large numbers of British men shelling out to look good is bound to grow. The comparison that springs to mind is food. For centuries, British mealtimes were really just a car crash of carbohydrates. At some point in the ’80s, things began to get more interesting. Today, exotic restaurants are springing up all over suburbia. And as luxury becomes more commonplace, it’s also more closely identified with the local. Just as fashion was once considered something done better in France and Italy, Britons had to bone up on their Romance languages before heading out for a meal. Now, however, British cuisine is no longer an oxymoron—it’s modish and often expensive. The emergence of the geography-teacher labels confirms that a similar process is under way in fashion.

“Men in their 30s buying into fashion aren’t going to lose all interest in clothes when they hit 50,” says retail analyst Peters. “They’re going to carry on being demanding customers.”

And younger Britons are catching on, too. Fifteen minutes before closing time in Oliver Spencer’s flagship shop in London’s Soho, store manager Tom Bodaly, 24, and colleague Thomas Marriott, 21, fold jumpers and chat about—what else?—clothes. Marriott, still at university, talks lovingly about rubber shoe soles. What’s the appeal?

“It’s the quality. You pay a couple of hundred pounds for a pair of boots or a coat and you know it’s going to last for years.” He laughs. “Except you buy another the next season.”

His teenage brother, he says, is even worse. “I’ll come home, and he’ll pull out a shirt and say, ‘What do you think?’ And I’ll be like, ‘How have you got that?’”

Bodaly can remember a time when teens spent their money on something other than tweed overcoats. To him, this is all evidence of a wider shift in attitudes. “A few years ago, going up to another bloke and asking where his top was from would have been asking for trouble,” he says. “He’d think you were being funny. But now … Well, now it’s just natural for men our age to care about how they look, isn’t it?”

Chakrabortty is a columnist for the Guardian.

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