It’s no secret that women have been turning to menswear. By that, I don’t mean the odd mens shirt or Gap boy’s trousers but investing and buying into designer menswear, regardless of the sizing. Be it dandified looks appropriated to fit women bodies a la SJ Weston or women “sparring” off with guys outside the LC:M shows to see who can wear their latest J.W. Anderson/Christopher Shannon/Shaun Samson personal orders better, women are clearly up for crossing over in department stores and delving into all the options available. Girl in Menswear, as the name indicates, is one manifestation of these blurred lines (oh and hurrah – let’s big up a fashion blog with more than 200 words in a post!).
It’s one of the reasons why a spate of London menswear designers have recently turned their hand to womenswear, doing it in ways that are fitting for their brands. You could cast a worrying eye over what’s happening and wonder whether it’s because designers feel that the menswear pie is not big enough for them to all eat into, but in most cases it seems to be that designers want to create the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle – where both menswear and womenswear coexist to paint a fuller picture of their brand.
For the quirky print based menswear designer Kit Neale, he was straightforward in saying that 45% of his customers are women buying into his sweatshirts and tracksuit bottoms illustrated with fun fun fun motifs. It’s easy to buy into Neale’s work, regardless of gender because the eye is drawn to the theme be it fried chicken shop logos or rat silhouettes. For his first capsule womenswear collection, Neale was given the opportunity to collaborate with Hallmark on the 30th anniversary of Rainbow Brite, remembered more for its merchandise than the actual cartoon. I had the bed sheets and the lunch box as a kid and remember loving Rainbow Brite and her Starlite without really knowing who they were. Rainbow Brite along with the cutie Sprites and little Twink are awesome looking characters, ripe for fash-ing up and Neale has the right sense of humour and aesthetic to do just that. Neale did it in a way where the characters aren’t plonked about nonsensically. They pop up as embroidery on a mauve wool and mint green Steiff collared coat and on stiff denim separates. They’re incorporated into Neale’s existing Peckham Riviera print worked into silhouettes, which Neale consulted his circle of girlfriends about, resulting in sleeveless shirts and peter pan collared dresses. Sweatshirts and knitwear, the staples of Neale’s collections fill out this capsule. Neale was frank about the collection fulfilling more of a commercial and retail need and it will sell as a sort of in-between prefall-esque season, dropping in May next year into selected stores. The collaboration with Hallmark was a catalyst for Neale to wade into womenswear but will that necessarily stamp down gender border, and prevent women from delving into his menswear. Neale doesn’t mind who the end customer is but doing womenswear provides a feminine option of his aesthetic. In truth, some of the pieces could also be bought the other way by men. The cartoonish nature of Neale’s work almost neutralises any notions of gender. We all become giddy kids when faced with a Rainbow Brite shirt dress or a Perfectly Fried Chicken sweatshirt.
Matthew Miller has been gradually including womenswear in his offering since his SS14 collection and has applied a more uniform approach to the two categories, which adheres to a more rigorous idea of unisex wear. “I want men and women to be seen as equals,” Miller told Hunger. “That’s why I always, and always will, present them together. I see separating them into different categories as insulting to both. The womenswear is exactly the same construction and fabrication as the menswear. They belong together.” Miller has just relaunched his website, which sells the first AW14 womenswear capsule collection, sharing common fabrics and similar silhouettes (save for the dresses) with the correlating menswear. Miller’s work has always been concerned with the idea of using clothing as a form of social commentary or protest. AW14 in particular had pieces which spelt out lines of manifesto like “We will build utopia” or “Rent Life”. His men and women therefore are designed to resemble an army of sorts and their clothes, uniforms of belonging. That’s evocative for everyone, man or woman.
Baartmans and Siegel have taken a more specific approach towards their womenswear debut. They have just soft launched a range of women outerwear and accessories all adorned with something furry, after requests from retailers and women who had been inundating the luxury menswear designers with requests to add fur trims and create more fitted pieces. Wouter Baartmans and Amber Siegel have excelled at making fine-tuned menswear with beautifully judged fabrics. In particular their work with Kopenhagen Furs* has seen their outerwear become a particular strong selling point. They’ve seen a gap in women outerwear that they can fulfil with a range of coats, jackets and accessories that keep you warm with fraggle furriness, in an array of Aurora Borealis-inspired blues. Parkas, puffas, bombers and gilets are familiar entities, but when combined with Baartmans & Siegel’s choice of materials, you get serious outerwear (as in coats that will ACTUALLY keep you warm) with a point of difference. They’re currently adjusting the range and adding to it as they go along so that they’re ready to sell it properly in Paris for A/W 15-6. It’s clear from speaking to Amber that this isn’t a vanity-fuelled foray into womenswear but one that meets a need and happens to sit alongside their more changeable core menswear collections.
* I’m commenting on this range as a womenswear collection launched by a menswear designer. I’m not going to pass comment on their use of real fur, only to say that they work exclusively with Kopenhagen Furs, who make strong claims about the way their furs are ethically sourced. Baartman and Siegel are also meeting a demand in the UK luxury market, where fur sales have veritably increased. Make of that what you will.
Out of all of the menswear designers talked about here, Christopher Shannon is the most established and at a point in time with a bigger team that can take on a womenswear collection. Sitting on years of research and inspiration material, Shannon debuted a S/S 15 womenswear collection that wasn’t just about remaking his menswear to fit the women. Instead they both share that same mood and nostalgia for 90s club wear, which according to this interview with Wonderland was inspired by the cool girls who were older than Shannon at school. Oversized frills from his past AW 11 menswear collection together with illustrations by John Booth give the womenswear its own identity, related to but also separated from the menswear. Girls in London have long been buying into Shannon’s menswear and his Kidda line with ease but his womenswear is as he puts it, “another option”.
At the end of the day, does it’s only the rigours of the fashion week system and department stores and retailers that feel the need to categorise and compartmentalise these designers. Menswear, womenswear, unisex. Contemporary, high end, designer. Sportswear, casual, formal. From my perspective these boundaries are eradicated when you clap eyes on an item standalone and for a new generation of consumers who are looking at pieces of clothing quickly on an Instagram feed, desire can be instilled without a barrage of jargon surrounding it. Better yet, if designers can create their own retail environments be it through e-commerce or pop-up stores, it becomes easier to sell in their “universe” to an audience without the need to define what category an item sits within.