Of course, there's no set time for a designer's coming of age. Some might say that it's a switch that's flicked the instant a student presents their graduate collection, unveils their eponymous debut or the second they secure their first stockist. Such instances are rare. In an industry that demands so much, so quickly and so frequently, the moment isn't part of a business plan but evolves at its own pace and reacts in varying ways to its shape-shifting surroundings.
It could be argued that London menswear is basking in the afterglow of coming of age. Where better place to carve your niche than London Collections: Men? "It is one of the very few places that is open to suggestion and not scared of change," Craig Green says, when pressed on why he chose to design menswear in the capital. It's true. After toiling and toile-ing in the shadows for a decade, LC:M has provided the catalyst for its effervescent talents to bubble over from an ever increasing presence at London Fashion Week to demand respect outside the M25, bursting beyond an afternoon concession into four full days of shows that not only glean admiring glances from the industry but have us all buying into their visions. Now, in its seventh season, LC:M doesn't just mark the dawn of each new season, it heralds new everything. Spring/summer 16 was drenched in youth and defined by its blossoming dreamers, romantics, realists and provocateurs. With a schedule packed with promise, familiar faces Astrid Andersen and Nasir Mazhar affixed their signatures to our hearts, and Cottweiler and Pieter thrived on their larger stages. This is London now.
After catching the eye with its unofficial curtain closer last season and causing an Insta stir with recent FKA Twigs collaborations, concept-led reality wear design duo Cottweiler was officially welcomed into the growing London menswear family for spring/summer 16. Having already amassed a fanatical fan base and international stockist list with its signature boundary blurring between casual and luxury, Cottweiler was able to open its world to a wider audience. "It's amazing to receive this support but we're going to use it to stay weird and do our own thing," Ben Cottrell promises. That's what LC:M is all about; nurturing the capital's weird and wonderful, brilliant and bizarre.
"It's difficult to pin down precisely when Cottweiler launched," Matthew Dainty confesses. "We had been designing and producing garments for our mates and people that lived and worked around the area for quite a while before we were stocked anywhere," adds Ben. When we first met two years ago, the pair were working tirelessly from a damp, dark enclave in a railway arch quietly evolving their offering. "This period was so important to us," reflects Matthew. "It was exciting to have our own space, away from everything and everyone," he explains. "It really gave us the chance to develop the whole identity, which at its core is really about our friendship. We took no notice of what other people were doing and just concentrated on what we loved and when the time was right for us to make things more public, we already had a clear idea of where we wanted to be and at what level," he adds. "We were never in a hurry to make quick money. We grew up with the same ambition and we want Cottweiler to last," Ben explains. "Slow and controlled growth is the only way we see longevity in a fashion label." Agreed.
Nasir Mazhar provides his own particular narrative of the long game. Initially training at Vidal Sassoon, he went on to assist some of the industry's leading stylists, worked with milliner Mark Wheeler and embarked on evening classes with Jane Smith at Kensington and Chelsea College. Following this unconventional path, he set up his own line in 2008. Establishing a loyal customer base through the continued development of a series of signature pieces, most notably the box peak Bully Cap, it wasn't until spring/summer 13 that he presented his first full range of ready-to-wear. Rather than design a collection around a throwaway theme, Nasir has been busy perfecting a uniform for his world through repetition and refinement. "I don't believe in scrapping good ideas, I want to build on them," he continues. "We're going to keep working on the things I'm into and the things that work, improving each and every season. We look at what we do and make it stick in people's heads. I want people to see a clear look when they think of Nasir Mazhar." Not only can the ever growing cult of Nasir buy into his label, they can hear it, dance to it and dream in it. He might not believe in seasonal revolutions but his ascent is evidence of evolution and he hints much more is to come. "I feel like a new chapter is about to begin, and this was us saying 'this is our look, these are our core products, this is what we do'," he notes backstage with a glint in his eye.
Astrid Andersen has a similar hunger and continues to grow as her reach stretches further. "Everywhere that I go that's new, I'm blown away by the local guys who wear my designs," she explains. Following Astrid on Instagram, you notice just how far the brand travels. Pockets of devoted fans are scattered across the globe appropriating her uniform. "They're an inspiration to me, seeing what they wear and how they wear it, influences how I design," she admits. For spring/summer 16 she shifted her filter from Tokyo to Shanghai. "Ultimately, this season is an homage to men who dress bravely and have a point of view." Essentially, this is Astrid Andersen. It might be pushing a new luxury but it's grounded in reality. "It's not a trend but rather a period of my life, it's an obsession. I didn't want to shy away from it and instead wanted to push on and introduce different elements," she explains. Mixing intricate silver embroidery with heat-transfer prints on a play on chinoiserie to simplifying Chinese Courtier headwear from the Qing dynasty. It isn't about China's past, this is about Astrid Andersen now and tomorrow. "I'm conscious of growing up each season, because I'm growing up too, which is why I introduced the trench coat, the weave, and why I'm pushing fabrics and silhouettes that play a bit more," she admits. This is Astrid Andersen's world and it's spreading across the globe.
Whilst offering a very different world, Sebastiaan Pieter's emergence is just as unorthodox as Nasir's. "I didn't limit myself to design as I wanted to work for people and companies that I thought were inspiring, Sebastiaan Pieter begins, "I think anyone would take up the opportunity to intern at Google HQ or the BBC just to see what they are up to," he adds. Whilst studying, Sebastiaan looked beyond strictly design opportunities and supplemented his work experience with placements at Monocle, Fantastic Man, and Jil Sander. "I was lucky enough to work with magazines that taught me how they interacted with fashion brands but also created images and stories that constructed an identity. I worked in showrooms and even PR at some point, which gave me a much more all round experience of the industry. Without these experiences I would have never had the confidence to start my brand, it showed me it was a business rather than just 'designing'," Sebastiaan adds with a smile.
So what advice would they give to anyone wishing to following in their footsteps? "Don't follow any trends, be original with your ideas and allow criticism to drive you forward in a positive way," Matthew Dainty offers. "Keep an open mind about how you get to your goal, opportunities may arise in unexpected forms. But don't ever compromise on your vision. And know when to stop," Sebastiaan concludes.
Text Steve Salter
Photography Harry Carr