British menswear has never felt more relevant here in the UK. Over the past few years, London-based designers such as Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Bianca Saunders, Priya Ahluwalia and Saul Nash have reinvented the codes of contemporary style. Whether through their personal and often cultural narratives, ultra-cool styles or a celebration of the gender-bending politics of modern dressing, British menswear has turned its back on stuffy tailored suits and rubbish trainers, and has instead ushered in a rebellious shake-up.
Welcome Jimmy Howe, Horace Page and Aaron Esh, three designers who have emerged from Central Saint Martins’ MA Menswear course over the past year. Their designs, like the designers that came before them, are everything we love: sexy, irreverent and far removed from yucky classic staples. “There’s still too much fascination with ‘perfecting the classic’, which is so done,” says 25-year-old Page from London. “It feels wasteful and boring.”
Page, like Howe and Esh, is approaching everyday wear with riotous effect, bending the straighter-than-straight line of traditional menswear. For his MA final collection, Page explored the skewered relationship between British cities and the countryside, looking at political class imbalance and the sartorial influences of both sides.
“When I was a little kid, I almost had a fetish for materials,” he says, laughing. “I was obsessed with clothes.” True to character, for the collection, he worked with a range of materials, such as hard tweed, practical nylons and cotton shirting, superimposing shapes onto one another. The result was a deeply cool mash-up that remixed typical city and country tropes into something contemporary.
There’s a political undercurrent within all three designers’ work. They’re making clothes with a purpose, not for the sake of it or, worse, because it looks handsome. For Kent-born, London-based Jimmy Howe, 24, who graduated with Page earlier this year and lives with his ex-classmate in North London, his designs are about creating an empathic space for men. “For me, I feel like menswear can be so stagnant,” he says. “It’s often as rigid as the people it’s trying to get to buy it – people designing stuff just to be bought and that affects the design.”
Howe’s approach, in design and ethos, is to make clothes that support men in ways that are accessible. “It’s about ideas that aren’t totally scary to people who don’t want to completely submit themselves to an elaborate idea,” he says. “It’s about opening this space in menswear as a whole, as opposed to screaming at them.”
An avid hiker and climber, Howe’s clothes venture the outdoors, with utilitarian elements such as waterproof anoraks, fitted cargos, handy pockets and soft touches on fleeces and comfy hats. His final collection, Men Who Care, featured tiny short shorts, Lycra three-quarter lengths, and feminine purples and pinks.
“I always liked creating stuff that was engaging,” Howe says, “and using it as a medium to share opinions and letting people access your opinion through putting on clothes.” Through his love for the outdoors, Howe hopes to appeal to the new man, one who is socially and environmentally conscious, politically aware and doing their bit. “For me, the future of menswear is optimistic, empathic and a lot more caring,” he continues. “But that depends on how much emerging designers can have a voice, I suppose.”
And 30-year-old Aaron Esh agrees, too: “I don’t want to say fuck the system, but fuck the system,” he says. “We’re living under post-Brexit, post-Covid Tory rulership and the system of fashion is broken as it is, whether that’s a lack of sustainability or not enough people getting opportunities.” In his final year of CSM’s MA Menswear course and a recipient of the Alexander McQueen scholarship, the London born and raised Esh designs for the young men feeling the impact of living in the UK right now.
“Existing in the city is really hard,” he says. “In the end, you start to feel burnt out. How many people do we know that own their houses before they’re 30? How many people live for Friday nights? There’s this existence of being on a hamster wheel and not feeling very happy.” His BA Menswear graduate collection at London College of Fashion took on tropes of feeling skint, tired and down on your luck: trousers worn low and loosely at the waist, a blazer held together with a giant pin, smart shoes with soles hanging on by a thread and fabric purposefully torn off the waistband. It was Esh’s way of expressing how being young and broke in London is quickly becoming impossible.
“I think lots of people relate to it because of how hard it is in London,” he says. “You can find inspiration from being pissed off and not knowing whether it’s really positive or negative.”
The future of menswear looks brighter than it has in years and perhaps it’s because the world is in the shitter at the moment. The best fashion – the most subversive, transgressive and compelling – often comes during the bleakest of times. Think about the punks reacting against conservatism, or the acid house ravers sticking two fingers up at a decade of Tory rule at the end of the 1980s. This is our moment for the young to fight, whether through fashion, film, music or whatever. It’s when young designers find that nugget of hope, or a fighting voice, that things get interesting.