christopher shannon is in it for passion, not just for fashion
We talk to Liverpudlian designer as his cult menswear meets its female counterpart this season.
Designers' studios are often strange places. Eerily quiet or crazily chaotic, they seem almost uninhabitable. Refreshingly, when I walk into Christopher Shannon's studio on London's De Beauvoir Road in Dalston, there's no pretence or pandemonium. Cheryl Cole's Crazy Stupid Love blasting from the speakers, samples and patterns scattered on the tables; it's clear this is a place for work. A small team (Shannon, two assistants and a seamstress) are in the studio. He has just shown his autumn/winter 15 collection to critical acclaim: sweaters complete with the words "Broke", "Save Me" and "Thanks 4 Nothing" - paired with carrier bags for face masks - had the undertones of a political fashion statement, but Shannon stresses that this was not intentional. "I'm surprised that it was as emotive as it was. There were so many different points of view in it. Someone showed me a New York Times review and I thought, 'God, people have really gone to town on thinking about these ideas!' I think it was partly because I hate the idea of false luxury and I hate all that faux Prada rip-off bullshit that people do."
At the age of 18, Shannon left the outskirts of Liverpool for the bright lights of London, but his future career as a fashion designer had not yet made itself clear. "It wasn't really ever a fashion thing for me; I think it was music videos I was into the most. I'd always read i-D and The Face but I didn't look at them as fashion. I was looking more at the music side of things. I just knew that there was another way to live, and it wasn't about being in Liverpool. I didn't know what it was, but I knew there was an option."
That option presented itself in the form of a place at the prestigious Central Saint Martins school of Art and Design. "I knew people who had gone there and I shat myself for three weeks thinking I hadn't gotten in. I just wanted to get to London and pay for my flat, and that gave me a ground. It was 1999 and the aftermath of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano [at CSM]."
After finishing the rigorous BA Fashion course, Christopher worked for fellow designers Kim Jones and Richard Nicoll, "did a bit of print design", and worked with Kylie Minogue and stylist William Baker, "which is where I met Judy [Blame], which is how I ended up knowing Neneh [Cherry]" - his now frequent collaborators. But it was a scholarship for the MA Fashion course, under the tutelage of the late Professor Louise Wilson, that would set Shannon up to be a fully-fledged designer in his own right. When I ask what the best advice Wilson ever gave him was, Shannon reminisces: "She didn't really work like that. The thing she did when teaching was to make you understand your point of view and its validity. I knew I had loads of work and I could do stuff, but I never really knew what it was. She beat me into submission with it and made me pull myself together and focus. She completely transformed my life, to be honest, probably in the way that only someone in my family would have done."
Soon after he got his Master's in 2008, Topman came knocking with an invitation to show at LFW under the MAN umbrella. After that an up-and-coming Shannon was bolstered by consultancy work from Eastpak and others. "Money was good, but it dried up quite quickly, for everyone really." Apart from fellow designer James Long, Shannon points out that many designers from that time went kaput, crippled by the debt and the challenges of creating a fashion brand from scratch.
Luckily Shannon avoided being one of the casualties, thanks in part to a tight-knit family of people he trusts. They include "Louise [Gray], Lulu Kennedy, John Colver and John Booth who did the illustrations." Legendary stylist Judy Blame offers direction to Shannon's collection, though to call him a consultant would be an understatement, "He's such a fucking fabulous person. Our relationship is ongoing; we're really close. He makes the jewellery for starters. Judy says a lot without saying anything, so you can never ask him if he likes something, because he doesn't like that direct question, but you can tell what he's thinking from his eyes. I don't think he styles, I think he just spends time with me and that helps me. Judy is my ultimate fashion hero, and always has been. I'm still completely blown away by him."
Shannon deservedly won the inaugural BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund in 2014, and with it a £150,000 grant. "It just took the pressure off a little bit," he explains, "but [£150,000] is a drop in the ocean in terms of what you have to compete with and the things you have to achieve as a small company. We've spent that money - it's gone! Hopefully it will come back to us in different ways, but I don't think people realise how much it costs to run these fucking albatrosses!"
The financial relief also gave Shannon the chance to put into play something he had been researching and planning for six years: a womenswear line. "I'd designed womenswear collections before and just not done them. We had a little bit of time in the schedule, so I said, 'Let's just make the pieces and see what it looks like.' Within that, I think we found a narrative of the woman against the man."
Choosing not to do a show, his foray into womenswear resulted in a 25-piece collection of ruffle-heavy separates and scribble-covered tracksuits that would look right at home on the "self-assured, sassy and tough" girl Shannon envisages wearing them. A perfect embodiment of her is Tyson McVey, lead singer of musical duo PANES (and daughter of Neneh Cherry), who modelled the collection for i-D. "She's a very genuine person," Shannon says of Tyson. "It comes through in her style and the way she is. She's a giggle. She's not trying to present herself as something that she isn't."
A focused Shannon has a clear directive for the future: "More of the same, but a different type of focal point. It has to be business as much as it is fashion. The one thing we've had that a lot of people haven't is that we've kept the business going long enough to understand what it is. You don't know what you want straight away. I think people start with such a clear vision that sometimes you get trapped in it. Because of support, we've been able to play with the identity, but because the DNA is quite strong, it has always looked like what we wanted it to look like. So [I'd say the future is a] bit more grown-up, just in terms of the way we do things, a little bit more business-minded, which sounds dry, but without that, you don't have the rest of it anyway."
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Hanna Moon
Styling Rosie Williams
Make-up Charli Avery using Bobbi Brown.
Tyson wears all clothing Christopher Shannon. All jewellery model's own. Socks Falke. Trainers adidas.