LONDON — With a thinning calendar and the absence of big-name brands — from J.W. Anderson to Grace Wales Bonner and Craig Green, this season at least, while he shows at Pitti — some in the industry have been wondering whether London Fashion Week Men's can hold its own for much longer.The event, which this year has dwindled to three days from four, is not giving up and a small, yet noteworthy, group of young designers is moving to the forefront, moving the needle on men's wear by approaching genderless dressing in new ways, and experimenting with silhouettes and sustainable fabrics.Retailers are paying attention, too, and are looking to London, which kick-starts the European men's fashion calendar, to set the mood of the season and act as a crucible for trends and ideas."London is the first to present its collections, so it sets the tone for us of what's to come. Despite all the big name exits, the event is still relevant and it's important for us to attend and support our home-grown talent," said David Aquilina, head of men's wear buying at Harvey Nichols.For Browns, the British retailer that made its name supporting emerging talent, there's still an array of promising shows packed into the London calendar."London still holds a very important place on the fashion calendar. Initial trends, color palettes and silhouettes can be spotted in London ahead of Pitti, Milan and Paris. It’s also home to some of the most respected design schools in the world and it’s crucial that we celebrate and showcase the work of these young and emerging designers," said Lee Goldup, Browns' men's wear buyer, name-checking the likes of Edward Crutchley, Charles Jeffrey, Liam Hodges, Martine Rose and Bianca Saunders among the names worth watching."The fact that Rose, who is currently a men's wear consultant at Balenciaga, one of the world’s biggest fashion houses, still shows on the London calendar is testament to that."Rose, who is returning to the schedule after taking January off following the birth of her second child, explores different male archetypes and the concepts of race and identity by paying homage to both her Jamaican and North London roots."It's a bit of a Renaissance period for Martine because fashion has finally caught up with what she's been doing [since launching her label in 2007]," said Stavros Karelis, co-owner and buying director of London boutique Machine-A.Like Rose, London's men's designers across the board have been known to use the city's men's week as a platform to spearhead culturally and politically charged conversations, be they about gender, class or race."If you want to be part of what’s happening right now, it’s very important to speak about something that is very close to you. We’ve shaken off the notion of looking at fashion just for the products and the beautiful shows, it's much more important to have cultural relevance now and not in a fake way," Karelis said.Charles Jeffrey, who was also among the nine finalists for the LVMH Prize and who started his label off the back of a queer club night at Vogue Fabrics in East London, has been a key driver of the gender-neutral trend."It's hard to go deep in these issues if you only have seven minutes to show a collection on the catwalk, but Charles is succeeding because this is his whole ethos, starting from his club nights to the people he surrounds himself with," Karelis added.Alongside fellow designer Edward Crutchley, who experiments with elaborate printed fabrics and traditionally female silhouettes such as corsetry, Jeffrey has been responsible for drawing a bigger number of women's wear buyers to London's men's showcase.Natalie Kingham, Matchesfashion.com buying and fashion director, has recently worked with both designers to create their first women's capsules exclusively for Matches and also highlighted Jeffrey in the retailer's recent "Innovators" initiative, dedicated to young talent."Through the Innovators program we want to work with designers doing things outside the normal fashion remit, like men's wear designers whose work can also be translated for women," said Kingham, highlighting Jeffrey as one of the top-performers of the program. "lt's such a pleasure to work with people who are so creative and have a strong point of view that you can harness."It's also an important season for the highly politicized Daniel W. Fletcher, who first became known for staging an anti-Brexit protest in lieu of a presentation ahead of the Brexit referendum in 2016. The young designer, who is best known for his athletic, colorful silhouettes and laid-back tailoring, will be opening the shows on Saturday morning with his first catwalk presentation."We are really looking forward to seeing Daniel's first runway show, having been a supporter of the brand since its first collection. To open LFWM with your very first runway show is a big deal," said Laura Robertshaw, men's wear buyer at Liberty London, where Fletcher has also hosted pop-up stores.For Robertshaw, London is a place to see ideas in their purest form and while, in the past, British designers' creativity was often also their downfall, she said young labels like Fletcher's have been able to maintain "the right balance between creativity and commerciality and hit on something quite special."That's why Liberty is also putting its money behind young London designers: "Budgets are up for London this season. British brands account for 25 percent of our men's business which will grow to 27 percent for next season. It's very important to always champion British where possible. Our customer expects it," Robertshaw added.Despite the rise of coed shows, Browns' Goldup also talked about the enduring importance of having separate men's showcases in London to spotlight emerging talent and the growing men's wear industry."Keeping men’s fashion week separate allows for both established and up-and-coming designers to get their much deserved time in the limelight. Although in recent years men’s fashion globally is growing at a faster rate than women’s, the overall market it still very much dominated by women’s fashion," he added.According to Mintel, the men's wear market now accounts for 26 percent of the total clothing market and men's wear sales are outperforming those of women's. By 2020, the market is said to grow a further 11 percent to reach 17.1 billion pounds.There is also a slew of names returning to the calendar after a hiatus. Notable among them is James Long, who stopped showing his namesake label in 2016. He is making a comeback as the creative director of the longstanding Italian brand Iceberg and on the eve of London Fashion Week Men's will hold a show Friday evening. Then he'll venture across London with a street parade."The world, whether fashion, art or music always looks to London. Just to be part of the city and its fashion week is a gain for me. Iceberg will spend the year relaunching the brand and I want to show the stores and the customers of London — and beyond — what we have been up to," said Long, who has been revamping the brand with streetwear inspired, logo-heavy collections.Lou Dalton also took a break last year to rethink her business model and shift her production closer to home by partnering with the Scottish manufacturer John Smedley. She has since returned to the calendar and is embracing a more intimate presentation format. She said she wanted the opportunity to offer an insight into her world ahead of her buying appointments.Patrick Grant of E. Tautz is returning after opting out of the calendar in favor of one-on-one showroom appointments in January. He said he wants to use the shows as a platform to shine a spotlight on sustainability — another topic that's becoming a more prominent part of LFWM."E. Tautz has looked back to its own roots, rebuilding historic supply chains in the north of England and revisiting the social history of the U.K.'s textile regions as we try to come to terms with the very difficult issues the fashion industry faces in its future, a future that needs to address the spiraling issues of sustainability and ethics," said Grant, who has also launched Community Clothing, a nonprofit label that aims to use factories’ slow periods for its production in order to generate jobs and answer key industry issues, such as seasonality of demand.The British Fashion Council has been backing designers including Grant and Christopher Raeburn in their mission to rethink industry practices, and the organization is also practicing what it preaches. As part of its Positive Fashion initiative, the BFC has eliminated paper badges for the first time and works to mentor designers to encourage them to embrace sustainable manufacturing.The organization is also leveraging the momentum around the new wave of designers taking over LFWM with the launch of Discovery Lab, a showroom format that aims to spotlight "thinkers, makers, explorers and innovators" through a range of multimedia presentations. Among the brands participating in the new initiative are Jordan Luca, an avant-garde label by design duo Jordan Bowen and Luca Marchetto, and Ka Wa Key, a streetwear-inspired brand by Ka Wa Key Chow and Jarno Leppanen, which is set to host a 15-minute live performance piece on June 11.
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