Craig Green and Charles Jeffrey: Let’s Call Them Saviours

Following the women’s shows in February, the second instalment of London Fashion Week’s 40th anniversary celebrations focused on the men’s end of the industry, but, as Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, said in her remarks at the opening event on Friday morning, this was “not a normal fashion week.” There were panel discussions on the state of the industry, and exhibitions that explored the impact of Black culture, South Asian culture and queer culture on British fashion, alongside a couple of run clubs, a pub quiz and a Northern Soul night. What there wasn’t were many actual clothes. The official schedule for the three days listed a few presentations and four catwalk shows. Definitely not a normal fashion week, even if David Beckham, the BFC’s favourite ambassador, did show up to add his reliably upbeat two pennies’ worth.

But this is scarcely a normal moment for British fashion. Brexit, the Tory government’s experiment in economic suicide, has been especially devastating for local designers. The implosion of online retailer MatchesFashion, which was a lifeline for a lot of those designers, has added to the misery. Then there’s Burberry’s woes: the brand’s logo is a knight in shining armour and Burberry has always seen itself as the noble cream of the British crop, but who’s riding to the rescue now?

“I’m hopeful,” said Charles Jeffrey during a preview before his show on Friday night. “It’s just having to accept where we are.” He didn’t sell to Matches so he dodged that bullet. And he has a devoted, and growing, following in Korea and Japan, which gives him a cushion where others are finding only hard landings. Jeffrey is one of those vaunted graduates of Central St Martins, the anointed few who have defined British fashion at least since John Galliano graduated 40 years ago. “Being at St Martin’s now, there are still things happening, but it’s in a weird way,” he muses. From my perspective — which also happens to cover the four decades of LFW’s existence — there have always been “things happening.” It’s always been cyclical, and even during the frequent downturns, it was usually the weirdnesses that generated the energy and hope. “REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion,” the exhibition that Sarah Mower curated so dazzlingly at the Design Museum last year, brought dozens of names back into the light, at the same time as it poignantly underscored the brutal attrition rate. But ‘where are they now?’ was answered by ‘at least they were there to begin with’ and none of the other fashion capitals could boast such a rich repertoire of fresh talent.

Which brings me to my reasons to be guardedly cheerful: the week just passed offered 10th anniversary collections from two designers who are living, breathing proof of London’s enduring viability as a seedbed for breathtaking fashion creativity. One was Jeffrey, the other was Craig Green, who showed off-schedule last Wednesday. They’re the most recent wrinkle in the fashion capital’s grand tradition of Apollo vs Dionysus face-offs: Chalayan vs McQueen, Erdem vs Kane, Nicoll vs Saunders. That’s how deep the talent pool has always been. Hell, I could even shoot for the distant sidelines and drag Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb into the ring.

Jeffrey is Loverboy, the Dionysian, the pagan celebrant. He populated the grand courtyard of Somerset House with his tribe past and present acting out a 24-hour narrative that began with one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys in a nightshirt, scalloped boxers and Jeffrey’s signature banana boots and ended with Erin O’Connor at her imperious best in a horned helmet and carapace topping a polka-dotted ballgown plucked from the most glamorous video game you’ve never played, reclaiming the night, the day and everything in between. And that “in between” embraced a fever dream of queerness, historicism, animism and paganism, in glorious thrall to Jeffrey’s idols Westwood and Galliano.

He is riveted by the notion of the worlds our world rests on. To him, London is built on the detritus of Londinium, an ancient world ruled by ritual. A burly youngster marched out in a fig-leafed trompe l’oeil knit of a classical nude statue. There were centurions in armour of soft knit, animal-eared beanies and chunky loafers with metal claws. (Don’t expect to have an easy time in airports, Jeffrey counselled.) St Sebastian, martyred by those very same centurions, showed up in the boys and girls pierced by arrows. They were like suction arrows from a kid’s bow and arrow set, which was a reminder that a sense of childlike play perversely infuses just about everything Jeffrey does. But I’d also swear I saw shades of les tricoteuses, knitting at the foot of the guillotine, in some of the young women who vamped languidly across the courtyard’s cobblestones, pinned with revolutionary rosettes. As Björk used to squeal at her most infectious, bonkers!

And yet there was so much that made pure commercial sense: the heraldic knits, the Fred Perry polos, the mutant banker stripes, the accessories. The polish of the stuff was impressive, with added gloss provided by super stylist Katie Grand. Jeffrey has big plans. Follow on from the Warholian banana motif that is a signature and you’ll find that he nurses dreams of a Warhol-like Factory, a creative nexus of film and music and dance and more. He wants a TV show. He already has a radio show, and a band called NEKO, about to perform live for the first time, though his stage outfit was already on display in “The Lore of Loverboy,” the exhibition that launched the same night as his show. In three rooms — Initiation, Ritual and Manifestation — it tracks Jeffrey’s arc to date, from clubrunner to couturier for pop cultural icons like Tilda Swinton and Harry Styles. The last look is a cardboard suit he made for the photographer Tim Walker, with a crown that reads HOPE.

Jeffrey was born in 1990. Craig Green is four years older. They’re young — and supremely talented — enough to carry the hopes of British fashion on their shoulders, for now at least. And if Charles is the Dionysian showman, Craig is the Apollonian, the apogee of restraint and reason. The role suits his own natural reticence. He’s the very opposite of showy.

It’s been a few years since Green has staged a physical presentation. To mark his 10th anniversary, he decided that his new collection was so personal it made sense to show in his London studio space — as well as off schedule, deliberately unaligned to the increasingly diffuse idea of fashion week. Green confessed he felt intimidated by the thought of strangers in a space that was so private for him, where he spends seven days a week and an unhealthy number of hours a day. “It’s like being in my home,” he claimed. He was still finishing looks when the runway was being painted. But he had enough he wanted to say with these clothes that he felt the invasion was ultimately warranted.

His father died at the end of last year. There was unresolved tension in their relationship between a father’s ideal of a son, a son’s ideal of a father (the show notes rather poetically described it as “the rough grip of inherited codes”), and Green’s efforts to resolve that tension produced an intensely resonant, emotional collection. Appropriate, too, in the current environment. As he said, “I think it’s important now more than ever to offer something new and different, which is kind of what British design is best at: pushing challenging ideas forward during difficult times.”

Green’s stepfather and godfather were in the audience, so father figures were front and centre. But a rumination on paternal influence will never be simple with a thinker as deep and conflicted as Craig Green. One of the key motifs of the collection was a handkerchief, a simple cotton square elevated here into asymmetrical shirts. Like a baby’s bib, he said. Or the sort of thing someone might save as a memento mori when a loved one passes, though Green’s father was, he insisted, never someone who would have used a handkerchief. Nor his grandad. And he himself found the whole idea of a hankie hideously unhygienic. Like I said, nothing ever simple. Tea towels, on the other hand? His dad would have been a tea towel man. So they were subjected to the same transmogrification as the hankies. And they were decorated with tractors and fire engines and cement mixers, motifs from a little boy’s bedroom. Sublimated codes of masculinity enforced early on. But when Green implied corsetry, extending the notion of sublimation, he made everything in padded jersey, as soft as a baby harness.

Harnessing has always been one of his signatures. Here, it was beautifully developed in Ecco leather jackets dissected and reworked endlessly. Green thought of them as a child taking apart his toys and putting them back together, maybe under a father’s tutelage. They reminded me of those anatomical dummies where you can see all the organs layered on top of each other. He has never been afraid of such viscerality, but in reality, they were actually collages of shooting patches, protective patches, functional elements that he saw as beautiful but also dark. Intriguingly, Green felt they referenced the fantasy of a father. Recently, he’s been wondering what it would be like to have kids himself.

As the show went on, an airiness took over: sheer djellabas, knits woven into netting, fringing, floating capes. The idea of a transmogrified tea towel appeared again in strange, beautiful tabards woven from rolled strips of polyester jersey, dissolving. Green found the combination of prosaic and poetic appealing. It also harked back to some of the most moving moments from his own catwalk career, when the soul of his work suggested enchanted nomads, shamans, angels. It wouldn’t be the first time that a Craig Green show had stimulated such fantasies, but this time the angels might also be guardians. I’ll take that as a positive message for the future of British fashion. After all, there’s an election in just under a month and we have to approach the polls with a faith that the demons will begone.

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