Old peculiars: how British men’s brands are harking back to the days of Empire

Originally in FHM

Britain is back in fashion.

But the country that provides the inspiration for the best of the new season’s menswear is not one of comedy-postcard punks, Union Jack electric guitars and Austin Powers faux-‘grooviness’. No, the Britain – and British-ness – that permeates the clothes you’ll want to wear this winter predates the swinging ’60s by a good 30 years or more. A time when the sun never set on the Empire and thoroughly decent chaps with names like Sandy and Roger would navigate the Zambezi river in the morning before ascending Kilimanjaro after afternoon tea – usually armed only with a penknife and a pouch of Golden Virginia.

The clothes these men wore – and by God they were men – were built to protect them on these adventures. Overcoats made from rubberised cotton, lightweight jackets with countless hidden pockets and hunting outfits slathered in waterproof wax all kept the chaps safe as they headed into confront Johnny Foreigner and his ghastly ecosystem.

Today, while the Empire is limited to the Isle of Man and some helpfully mineral-rich outposts of the south Atlantic, homegrown designers are harking back to this golden age of British manhood. From Dunhill to Nigel Cabourn and Oliver Spencer, coats, jackets, luggage and footwear are all imbibed with the Boy’s Own spirit. Even on the high street the look is gaining ground, with Marks & Spencer doing what it does best and producing classic British staples, while Topshop is aiming for the more discerning customer with its new range of grown-up classics. That’s not to say these clothes are stuffy though: seemingly every collection drips, not just with tradition, but also 21st Century cuts and tweaks designed to flatter the wearer. Here there is no compromise between style and practicality.

At Dunhill, a brand forever associated with the pleasures of both the road and the smoking room, designer Kim Jones has been drafted in to create a series of clothes that fuse the label’s august traditions with the silhouettes of now.

“There’s a storm system coat in the new collection,” he says, “which looks distinctly modern but is actually lifted from the company archives. Look hard and you’ll also see echoes of a butcher’s jacket, a sailor’s jacket, things made for a reason. Each and every piece has a story and a purpose.”

Dunhill isn’t the only brand to get in an innovative designer to accentuate its heritage. At Barbour, a company whose waxed jackets are a staple in many a man’s wardrobe, Japanese designer To Ki To has created a range of coats expertly engineered to bear the brunt of whatever the weather can throw at the wearer. His slim-line horse-riding coat, with its waxed cotton shell, tartan interior and range of pockets is ideal for braving a winter weekend in the country, while the ‘Rustic’ driving jacket boasts a brilliantly designed hood and button-up front sure to frighten off the most unfriendly of elements – and traffic cops.

The apex of this spirit can be found in the works of veteran designer Nigel Cabourn. His new collection, which features robust tweed jackets and a stunning parka with its own inbuilt rucksack, is inspired by the clothing that mountaineers Mallory and Irvine wore on their doomed expedition to Everest in 1924. Like Stone Island founder Massimo Osti, Cabourn has a vast collection of vintage military and industrial clothing that he draws upon for inspiration.

“The clothes I make are always inspired by real people or events – they always have a heritage,” he explains. “I use real fabrics from the past and even real zips – and it’s expensive. But if you cut these clothes in a contemporary way men love it.”

These clothes are far more than mere fashion items. They are not garments to be slung out when style editors declare that the colour is no longer in vogue or the cut is not right for whatever season we’re in. The coats, trousers and jumpers here are meant to be treasured and brought out when the occasion demands, year on year. London designer Oliver Spencer, whose new season collection is an exercise in restrained British menswear, sums this philosophy up.

“It’s about making utilitarian luxury. The buyer of our clothes is a ‘new casual’ who appreciates the finest details. He wants clothes that are made with the purest of fabrics. And importantly, he wants them to be made in Britain.”

Just, it seems, like the men who wear it. Now, where’s that canoe…


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