The expansion of menswear has been a painfully slow process, especially in comparison to the rapidly-accelerating world of womenswear which welcomes conceptual designers and fresh ideas with open arms. Social attitudes and commercial restrictions are still real obstacles for young menswear designers, but the recent Graduate Fashion Week re-iterated the fact that there is still untapped potential when it comes to exploring new avenues. One of the week’s highlights came courtesy of Claire Latham, a Birmingham-based Wigan-born designer with an interesting narrative on the concept of androgyny and our definition of masculinity. Her candy-hued graduate collection was an amalgamation of lace & latex which blurred the lines of gender and challenged masculine stereotypes. In this interview, Latham talks about her first collection and the inspirations behind it, as well as social attitudes towards menswear and the challenges currently being by faced by young designers.
Can you begin by summarising the aesthetic of your graduate collection?
The concept behind the collection is an amalgamation of masculinity and femininity. The goal for the collection was to combine feminine fabrics with masculine silhouettes in an attempt to bridge the gap between menswear and womenswear.
How important was the element of femininity, and why so?
The element of femininity was important as it gave me more scope to experiment whilst designing the collection. Recently, the social issue of men dressed as women has been brought to the forefront – society is a lot more accepting than it used to be, and it’s mainly due to the rise of shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race which have introduced drag queens and cross-dressers into mainstream society. Androgyny isn’t a new concept; it’s one which has been used in womenswear for decades by designers such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. However, the application of androgyny in menswear is still a relatively new phenomenon, but it is one which is being explored more in fashion than in any other industry.
Can you see mainstream menswear ever really embracing femininity in the future?
I think there’s definitely a chance that it could be embraced in the future, but not for a while. High fashion has embraced androgyny and is progressing quickly, but things take a while to move from the catwalk to the high street. Things filter down slowly, so I don’t think we’ll see extreme androgyny in the mainstream for a while. There is also the cost of the fabrics to consider – lace and latex are both expensive which means that there is no real way to tailor them to a high-street price tag.
One of the most-talked-about examples of androgyny is J.W Anderson’s A/W 2014 menswear collection, mainly due to the fact that every look was completed with a pair of heels. What did you think of the collection as a whole?
Well, if you look at the history of fashion, high heels were originally associated with men but women claimed them as their own over the years. In that sense I don’t think that it was that shocking – I like that the heels were all extremely chunky and actually quite ‘masculine’. Maybe if he had sent stilettos or a thinner heel down the runway it would have been different, but the chunky heels weren’t overtly feminine and actually worked well in the context of the overall collection.
How did it feel to be able to design without restrictions?
The great thing about this being a graduate collection is that you can design without considering censorship or commercial guidelines. There was no design brief and the clothes didn’t have to be commercial which meant that I could be as experimental as I wanted. The difficulties of designing for a label are that the overall results can appear filtered – the aesthetic has to be diluted in order to still be commercial, and you definitely have to include more traditional menswear ‘elements’ such as classic tailoring. With this collection, it was liberating to be able to design exactly as I wanted and that element of freedom is definitely visible in the final result.
You chose some unorthodox textiles for this collection – the latex coat, for example. Why do you think it is that these fabrics are still rarely used in menswear?
In terms of the latex, I think the main reason it’s still rarely used in menswear is that it fits extremely close to the body. It’s extremely difficult to use latex and create something that isn’t skintight, so that was one real challenge with this collection. Women tend to celebrate their bodies a lot more than men – brands such as MEAT use latex heavily, and the Viktor & Rolf latex dress is a great example of latex done well. However, there are still sexual connotations to latex, and there’s an implication of subversity with latex – men tend to be less comfortable being sexualised than women so, from a social point of view, it would be difficult to incorporate latex into mainstream menswear.
When you were originally researching and looking for inspiration for the collection, what kind of things were you looking at?
Before I began designing the collection I had the initial idea of exploring the ‘grey area’ between male and female – I knew I wanted to visually portray that juxtaposition. The starting point for my research was Kazuo Ohno, a Japanese Kabuki actor. Kabuki in general was a huge inspiration – the element of drama and theatricality was a real influence, and from a historic point of view they can really be identified as the original cross-dressers as they played both male and female roles in plays. I also studied the work of Herb Ritts and Nan Goldin and researched stories of transvestites and transsexuals such as Lauren Harries. I was influenced by the movements of subcultures as well, and I looked a lot at the New Romantic era and the way that it influenced the way men dressed at the time.
In terms of current inspiration, are there any men in the media that you admire?
At the moment I would definitely say that, although I’m not directly inspired by him, I like A$Ap Rocky and his attitude to fashion. He takes sartorial risks and breaks away from tradition – his style is always fresh, current and really relevant.
Do you have a favourite look from the collection?
My favourite overall look was the latex look (pictured above) – it was a pink shirt teamed with a latex apron and the latex bomber jacket. I love that everything is translucent; it meant that you could focus on each piece individually as well as on the look as a whole.
And which piece from the collection do you feel best summarises your aesthetic as a designer?
It would have to be the pastel blue coat (pictured below). The dramatic silhouette teamed with the feminine colour is the best visual representation of the collection’s concept. The coat is actually made from a cotton twill which was heavy and difficult to work with – it was so huge that I ended up working with eight metres of fabric! The problem with the material was that it stretches so it was extremely difficult to sew and topstitch as I had to keep stopping to check that the material hadn’t stretched. The pleats were tricky too as the fabric was so heavy, but I’m really proud of the overall result and feel that the pleats really help to differentiate the look; pleats are so rarely used in menswear but they create a fantastic silhouette.
Finally, how do you see the future of menswear – do you think it will ever be as diverse as womenswear?
At the moment, there are still a lot of rules to adhere to when designing menswear – there are certain codes you have to include in order to create a collection that would be commercially successful. With womenswear there are no limits – you can be as creative, conceptual and experimental as you want because designers like Rei Kawakubo and Hussein Chalayan can exist in the same industry as people like Donatella Versace – there is room for everyone to be successful. Famous women like Lady Gaga also made it acceptable for women to be more outrageous with their clothing, but there’s no real male equivalent. Menswear is still a blossoming industry, so we need designers to take and risks and men that dare to take risks too. The high street plays it relatively safe as they need to make profit, so few high-street stores would be willing to stock any radically ground-breaking menswear as it wouldn’t sell. There are still so many social rules that determine the direction of menswear - society needs to discuss masculinity and re-evaluate the way it sees men in order for real progress to be made.
Follow Claire on Twitter: @claire_latham
All images credited to VOGUE UK
Follow Claire on Twitter: @claire_latham
All images credited to VOGUE UK