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.

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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.

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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. 

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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”.

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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.

Haphazardly finding old repeats of mint documentary on BBC iPlayer (TV and radio) is one of my favourite things to do at the moment.  Under the less-frequented Film section, The British Guide to Showing Off popped up.  I didn’t catch it the first time round when it was released in 2011 but just as I’ve been writing a think piece for a magazine about the corporatisation of fashion, it felt like appropriate viewing.  One line courtesy of Andrew Logan, who’s the main subject of the documentary, lingered on in my head…

“The alternative has been beaten out of people…”

The British Guide to Showing Off documents the anarchic world of eccentric British artist Andrew Logan and his extraordinary Alternative Miss World Show, which has just notched its 13th edition this year.  Director Jes Penstock and producer Dorigen Hammond, followed Logan and his partner as they prepared to mount the 2009 show and interwoven throughout the film are anecdotes and footage from past Alternative Miss World shows dating back to 1972.  Longstanding friends and supporters like Grayson Perry, Sandra Rhodes and Brian Eno pop up with their own AMW tales.  Contestants and patrons have included Leigh Bowery, Stephen Jones, Derek Jarman, David Hockney and Divine.  Logan presides over this congregation of outsiders, often as a half man, half woman ringmaster as contestants go through the conventional daywear, swimwear and evening wear categories in costumes that defy any pageant convention.  The documentary indulges in the event’s doo-lally, camp as Christmas and irreverently British traits as animation and collages are used to present Logan’s archive imagery and film footage.  It’s the video equivalent of an overdecorated and saccharine cake with some madcap flavour combos going on.  In other words, perfect viewing for rose-tinted inspiration of how fun and irreverent the past was.  There’s a danger in overindulging in the zane of it all, but you finish watching, feeling like there is some truth to Logan’s comment about the alternative being beaten out of people today.

If you haven’t seen it, the film is available on indie film pay-per-view site We Are Colony for a mere £3.99 along with extra footage and stills and obviously on BBC iPlayer for free if you’re in the UK (or know how to do clever things with proxy servers…).  Go on.  It’s nearly Christmas.  Work is winding down and the escapism for an hour and a half is well worth it.

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>> A few weeks I caught up with Nicholas Kirkwood on set of his new film “Pearlessence” directed by Marie Schuller, to celebrate his signature Casati Pearl pump.  It struck me then how far Kirkwood has come on since I was a little young un’ blogging about his editorial sky high wedges back in 2006.  Shoe signatures, glossy new website, flashy fashion films and multiple stores around the world (Beijing is Kirkwood‘s latest shop location) – these are major milestones that Kirkwood has fully earned as he approaches the ten year anniversary for his brand and of course since LVMH came onboard as a majority investor in 2013, brand Nicholas Kirkwood has only propelled further.  They have built up a shoe language where there now exist “classics” like the Casati Pearl pump, featuring a pearl lined platform, which he debuted back in A/W 08-9, inspired by Marchesa Luisa Casati and her penchant for floor sweeping strands of pearls.

Kirkwood celebrates it with a festive film that combines two of my favourite things – anything resembling “bubbles” and never ending reflections with the mirrored set.  More significantly the film represents a shift for Kirkwood to go beyond product.  In a recent interview with Business of Fashion, Kirkwood said “Brand awareness has to be right at the top of the list right now.  I think we’re getting to the point now where the product’s there, we have an image for our retail; there are a lot of things that are in place. It’s just about passing that message on.”  Creating visuals like these films will be key to taking Kirkwood’s image from just shoe cut-out stills to something that is part of a brand “universe”.  

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>> For my birthday on Saturday… I saw some exhibitions and had a lovely nice dinner and was back by 10pm with a cup of tea in my hand. Welcome to my thirties. Ok, I omitted the fact that I did go out on an all-night rager in Tokyo the night before and was still recuperating from jet lag. Still, the quiet birthday did give me a chance to attempt to chug through the clog of style and fashion related exhibitions that London is enjoying at the moment. It’s not drudgery when everything is worth the trek and the crowds. I’ve still yet to see the excellent Women, Fashion Power at the Design Museum, Knitwear from Chanel to Westwood at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Horst at the V&A and Allen Jones at the Royal Academy of Arts.

I attempted two in a day to compare two very different photographers of different eras, who both have distanced relationships with the products they are photographing. First was Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House and the second was Viviane Sassen’s Analemma: Fashion Photography from 1992 to 2012 at the Photographer’s Gallery. There’s no superlatives that hasn’t been said before about Bourdin’s work and specifically this exhibition. It is the biggest exhibition of his work with plenty of unseen images, films and other visual material that reveal sides to Bourdin that the fairweather photography or fashion fan may not know. A series of photographs taken around Britain for the shoe brand Charles Jourdan (for whom Bourdin shot many advertising campaigns) in 1979, for instance opens the exhibition as we discover a humourous and detached oddness – a world away from the glossy-lipped hyper sexy femmes of his editorial work.

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On display are plenty of those famously surreal images as well where sense of proportion is distorted as well as many where the female subject is obscured and shrouded in sex-tinged mystery, namely shot for Paris Vogue, with whom Bourdin collaborated with extensively in the sixties and seventies.

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More revealing were the sketches on display that mocked up the shot that Bourdin wanted to create as well as magazine layouts with meticulous notations about dimensions. These were examples of Bourdin’s exacting approach towards his photographs. Nothing was spontaneous or haphazard. This evidence of planning and eye for detail only adds potency to the final image.

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I especially enjoyed the showreel of Super-8 films which Bourdin shot. These were less about precision and more about the energy on set that you can’t quite glean from the resulting photography.

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I also loved seeing Bourdin’s early paintings (they’re undated by probably date to the 1950s) and how they would directly correlate with his photographs.

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But of course the exhibition isn’t a complete tell-all. You still leave wondering what exactly is Bourdin’s relationship with the fashion and women he photographed so extensively. It’s not as simple as calling it out as “sexual objectification” because it feels so much more complex than that. The image leaves you hanging and that tension is difficult to explain in an exhibition. Perhaps that’s why he shunned books, exhibitions and even awards.

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Over at the Photographer’s Gallery, one of my favourite contemporary fashion photographers Viviane Sassen has taken over the top floor, not with static hung frames but with a moving “analemma” of 350 of her fashion photography looped into a video projection, moving across the walls and floors. You’ll see there’s a slight graininess to the images below. They don’t need to be crystal clear though to convey Sassen’s pre-occupation with disgured forms and using clothes and background to sculpt an image. The body is always manipulated somehow either with the clothes themselves or the angle which Sassen shoots from. Sassen has said herself that she has a love/hate relationship with fashion. That shows in her photography but you wind up being intrigued by the new form that she has created be it an inside out skirt pulled over the head or a shadowy figure striking an abstract pose.

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Part two of my Dior Tokyo experience and into the vast Ryogkoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium we go.  I can’t communicate how vast the scale was.  Dior venues under Raf Simons’ tenure have been lavish, ornate but never vast on this level.  It felt like the “biggest” Dior show I had been to because of the sheer number of people there coupled with the mega height of the vaulted ceiling of this stadium from which “snow” fell through a futuristic suspended grid structure.  Official numbers said 800 people were there but it felt like more because technically the venue can hold 10,000 people.

It was vast for a reason though.  It wasn’t just to wow the selected journalists that were flown in for the show.  On the upper tiers of the stadium sat Tokyo’s younger generation – the Shibuya and Harajuku kids and IT-people that are fast becoming influencers in their own right.  They’re the sort of peeps that you wouldn’t see at a regular Japan Fashion Week show (JFW’s cachet of cool is an up and down affair but that’s another story) but here they were, made to feel inclusive and invited at one of the biggest Dior shows ever to be staged.   After the show, Sidney Toledano was eager to talk up Japan’s strength as a market, asking us to disregard recent news that it has entered recession again.  The Japanese know and are ready to spend on luxury and have done so for a very long time and Dior are ready to reciprocate.

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ESPRIT-DIOR-TOKYO-2015-CELEBRITES-Susie-LauHead to toe Dior… with all-night partying, karaoke and sushi breakfast at Tsukiji market in mind – Have to thank Emily Sheffield from Vogue, Jess Cartney-Morley from the Guardian and journalist/stylist Gianluca Longo for being well up for a night out in Tokyo.

Those sentiments were echoed by Raf Simons himself, as someone who knows Tokyo well, with Japan being a primary supporter of his own namesake brand.  The collection began before Tokyo had even been discussed as a destination for the show.  Simons has been building up his repertoire at Dior based on ideals of seeking modernity – he’s done so by exploring both Dior’s past and more recently, the distant past in his last ready to wear and haute couture shows.  For this particular collection, he thrusts us back into the present and into his own nuanced observations of Tokyo street style from the well-proliferated images of Fruits magazine to actually being in Tokyo many times himself and seeing street style tribes shift from place to place.  This put him in good stead to avoid any cultural cliches and of course, he moves as far away from say, Monsieur Dior’s Hokusai and Utamaro-drenched vision of Japan.

“Tokyo is a place that has been and is so constantly inspiring to me,” Simons says in the press notes.  “Particularly in terms of the liberty people take for themselves in how they dress, there is nowhere else like it: the freedom of styles, the new architecture of clothing that you can see forming in the street as well as in city’s fashion design history…. it’s a place that is both extreme and exhilarating.”

These are sentiments that I fully concur with having been hugely inspired by my trips to Tokyo and it’s clear that the freedom and liberty in Tokyo street style was translated into the layering of the collection.  A sequinned polo neck under a strapless bias cut gown with chunky boots?  Why not!  Likewise, school uniform-esque checked shifts over sequinned bloomers?  Cho kawaii!  And I mean that not in the “cute” sense but in the general way that the word is used to describe anything vaguely cool.  Traditionally outdoors-y fabrics employed on a plethora of outerwear pieces points to the way that “heritage” wear has exploded in Japan, mainly in menswear.  When rendered as dramatic opera coats and zip-up flared-out dresses with sculptural knee high boots though, that street style trope is subverted.  Same goes for Simons’ use of sequins.  He admitted he is normally a sequins-hater but when used on Aran and Argyle knits and on polo neck pieces, he nullifies the glam and evening aspect of this motif.

The language of Dior, namely in the Bar jacket, faintly persists but is also deconstructed so that the shape lingers on in waxed cotton jackets and coats and duffles and bombers.  After the show, Simons said this was outerwear that could be chucked on the floor and become an old favourite over time.

In a way it’s easy to see a parallel between the freedom and contrasts seen within Japanese streetstyle and the way that Simons has been incorporating a similar sense of freedom and unexpected contrasts within Dior’s house DNA, in order to push its aesthetic forward into the 21st century.  This collection falls in line within the trajectory that Simons has been building up at the house – one that has been exciting to witness.

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Dior are banking on this love letter to Japan to translate anywhere in the world.  They made it big so that the word would spread and by now, fans of the Dior universe will have heard about the sumo stadium, the fleet of Dior taxis and of course, the clothes.  Dior aren’t officially calling it a pre-fall collection and instead it has its own fancy name – Esprit Dior Tokyo collection but that doesn’t stop it from being a collection that will be on the rails longer than the main ready to wear collections and that it will have an appeal that goes far and beyond Tokyo.

As the afterparty pulsated on through the night and we moved into the intimate rooms of the kooky bar Trump Room, then into a random karaoke place in Shibuya and finally queueing up at Sushi Daiwa in Tsukiji market, dressed in my own head to toe Dior outfit (a mish mash of AW14 pieces), it felt like Simons’ vision for the house was being truly vindicated.  Breaking out of the house’s remit of occasion wear will reap rewards as a new generation of Dior customers can get in on the action, stumbling around the streets in bar bombers, panelled flat chelsea boots and layered up in sequinned polo necks to get through the cold nights.  You could already see these clothes in situ and on-the-go and that’s more exhilarating than any static lavish ball gown.