Thursday, 24 April 2014

Levi's Lot No. 1

Image courtesy of Levi's

A little while back the lovely folk at Levi’s were kind enough to invite me to their flagship Regent Street store to meet their master tailor, Elizabeth Radcliffe, and to learn about the Lot No. 1 made-to-order jeans service. I actually enjoy factory and workshop tours far more than most fashion shows...sacrilege I know, but I really like seeing things made. So, needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy store (and to those who know my obsession with sweet shopping that is saying something!).

For those who have never visited the Regent Street store, imagine a factory space with lots of glass, metal, concrete and, of course, a ton of denim. I rather like the idea of factory-chic, even though in most instances it is rather heavy-handedly applied (I’m looking at you All Saints). Thankfully Levi’s manage to hit that sweet spot with a nicely attractive store space. From the ground floor you can see down to the basement, and there, behind glass and metal, you catch a glimpse of the master tailor’s workshop. This is the workshop where the Lot No. 1 jeans are made, from the starting blocks of selvedge denim, loose threads and rivets, to the finished product presented with its own selvedge denim bag. Given the way the production and consumption of clothing has changed in recent times it seems odd to think that the jeans are made there on Regent Street, in the heart of London, from start to finish.

When it comes to anything made-to-order parallels to Savile Row spring to mind and so it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Radcliffe started her career as an apprentice on Savile Row. But as she pointed out when we spoke, the process of making jeans is somewhat the opposite to that of making a suit. That being said the made-to-measure process in itself is very familiar, and something that to my mind carries a certain romanticism with it. In today’s society we are taught to try and make our bodies fit the clothes, rather than making the clothes fit our bodies. There is a certain luxury to be found in getting some off-the-peg garment altered to fit just right, whether it be something simple like changing a hemline, or something more drastic. I am very much of the opinion that your clothes are your clothes, so you should change them and wear them how you will (a museum curator’s nightmare I am sure, but I leave it to collectors to buy garments to leave them untouched and, sometimes, unworn).  

Men are used to the tailoring process where suits are concerned, for every off-the-peg suit of whatever price is usually altered in some way. But then again not every man wears a suit, and those that do ordinarily require several for practical reasons. Jeans on the other hand are paradoxically at once a more egalitarian and a more exclusive garment. You wear jeans, your mother wears jeans, your neighbour wears jeans, your local politician wears jeans, everyone it seems wears (or at least owns) a pair of jeans. But not all jeans are created equal - there is a difference between stonewashed bootcut jeans from the supermarket and tapered rainbow selvedge raw denim jeans that have developed whiskers and honeycombs naturally over time through your wear. Spend a little more money and you can own a pair of raw denim jeans that you could easily wear every single day for a year (there are countless internet threads and forums should you be interested in this).

I do not believe in the phrase “investment piece” (whilst reading the phrase “statement piece” makes me want to hit something). Instead I think that there are the clothes you wear everyday (a coat, a pair of shoes, a suit, etc.), or the clothes you wear on special occasions (a tuxedo, a ball gown, etc.). In between the two is the majority of your wardrobe in whichever order - the fewer clothes you own the more likely you are to wear the same garments again and again. However I feel it best to buy the best you can afford where both ends of the spectrum are concerned (and it should be noted that this most definitely does not mean the most expensive). How made-to-measure jeans fit into this framework depends on how you personally wear and use jeans. They could be something you wear every day without fail, or they could be something you only wear on the odd occasion. Regardless the price to value ratio is dependent on you. They are either an everyday luxury or something special to be worn once in a while. Personally I side with the former, because while it is nice to own special pieces you wear once or twice a year, I do not really have the money or inclination to buy those pieces yet - I am more concerned with buying the best for everyday wear.  

When it comes to Lot No. 1 the client has a whole range of choices and options to create their jeans. The process starts with selecting the denim the jeans will be made from, and there were four samples on display - American Cone denims in blue and black, blue Turkish denim, and blue Japanese denim. The weight of the denim ranged from a lighter 13.5 oz to the heavier 14.5 oz Japanese denim. Personally I found the darker blue of the Japanese denim the nicest, but then I have never particularly been a fan of the bluer, more “classic”, Cone denim. You are also able to get a general idea of how the denim will fade with examples of each denim after an increasing number of washes. Of course where raw denim is concerned, in order to develop the best personal fade patterns, the chances are that you will not be washing the jeans that often. Indeed I believe a minimum of six months daily wear before first wash would be the most conservative estimate, with most wearers usually reaching the year, or year and a half, mark before first wash (and then options vary from sea soak to Woolite wash to just shoving them in the freezer every now and then).

Button and rivet options

Thread options

Pocketing fabric

Patch options

Inner tab options

The details are where you get to geek out, with a choice of twenty threads, seven styles of buttons and rivets (the open top is a vintage style, while the closed top is more modern), and twelve patches to chose from (including a nice vegan option). You have the ability to choose a singular colour for all the stitching from the button holes to the arcuate, or you could always mix things up. Similarly there is a choice of pocketing fabrics, from a heavy cotton to a nice herringbone, and also a choice of rear pockets (I prefer the larger size, because I use all my pockets). The red tabs used for the rear pocket are unbranded, which I thought was a nice subtle addition to such a classic style.

When it comes to the fit of the jeans the client can try on standardised pairs with three different rise styles in waist sizes 28-40 inches (half sizes can be made). Once the general style the client likes most is selected the jeans are then pinned to size and patterns made based upon these measurements (all of which are kept on file for ease of use when the client returns for their next pair of jeans). The denim requires 24 hours breathing time, whilst the making of the jeans from start to finish is all handled by Radcliffe herself, using 13 different machines, and taking around 16 hours in total. The actual order time from initial appointment to finished jeans is roughly five to six weeks. Everything is done on-site and in full view of customers perusing the store, a rather romantic touch, celebrating the art of making jeans.

The price for a pair of Lot No. 1 jeans from Levi’s is £500. Perhaps not a price your average high street shopper may necessarily pay, but then I do not think Lot No. 1 is aimed at them. This is for the denim enthusiast and for them I think Lot No. 1 is a pretty cool idea. For my own part, if they ever introduce a black overdye Japanese denim, they can expect a call.

30 year old machine - "They just don't make them like they used to!"

Example button holes and rivets





Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Comme Away With Me

Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons
Autumn/Winter 2014

Does it worry you when people adapt your collections to soften their impact or commercialise them? 
If my ultimate goal was to achieve financial success, I would have done things differently, but I want to create something new. I want to suggest to people different aesthetics and values. I want to question their being.

Rei Kawakubo in conversation with Susannah Frankel
S. Frankel, Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (V&A: London, 2001) 


I have a bit of an odd relationship with Comme des Garçons - I love the crazier side of what Rei does and I wear the tamer side of what she does. As much fun as I would have wearing the hot pink suits from her Spring/Summer 2012 menswear collection, the reality is that my wardrobe is moving in a different direction. Thus I find myself hunting for one of the black (what else?) lace blazers from the same collection. Similarly if I look at the Comme pieces I currently own, or have owned in the past, they are undoubtedly from the quieter end of the spectrum. Indeed quiet is how I would choose to define my wardrobe these days - as I have said on numerous occasions before, a whispered beauty is for me the most alluring. But that was not always the case. In fact far from it.

In the past I wore amazingly bright colours and patterns, and although I no longer do so, I am still obsessed with colour. It seems a paradox to be sure - my clothes are black; my walls, floors and furniture are white; I try to have only a handful of possessions. But to my mind there is no particular disconnect between the two. For me it is merely about maintaining a balance. A blank white canvas and a canvas painted white are two very different things. I hesitate to use the phrase 'controlled outbursts', because I do not see my relationship with colour as something that needs to be consciously controlled or restricted in any way, but it is perhaps the easiest way to understand the state of things. I like engaging with the extremes, black and white, because in the absence of colour or pattern, you are forced to pay closer attention to the details. It is a learning process, and having that focus is incredibly helpful.

It is perhaps unsurprising then to learn that I am a major fan of BLACK Comme des Garçons. BLACK was initially intended to be a temporary line, reissuing classic Comme cuts with a more youthful touch (of course when it comes to reissues Comme des Garçons Evergreen comes to mind, but I believe that line is now unfortunately defunct). It has since become a fully fledged line of its own, however there has been a certain shift in emphasis and style since the line's conception. Although I do still enjoy the pieces, there has been a determined move away from unisex androgyny to a far more feminine styling. As such when it comes to my own wardrobe there are now only one or two pieces each season that I would consider, where in the past I wanted the majority of what was on offer. I do rather miss the black wool elasticated trousers from one of the early collections I owned, and would actually still quite happily buy one of the old above-the-knee boiled wool skirts to wear over trousers, so no doubt I will be returning to BLACK in the near future.

In a similar vein I adore older Comme des Garçons SHIRT far more than the majority of the current pieces. Looking at the images above I feel like Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons is for womenswear everything I wish Comme des Garçons SHIRT was for menswear. CdG CdG is essentially a more everyday line, with typical Comme cuts executed in quieter colours and prints. And that is not to say that only the more basic styles are tackled - take for example the second to last photograph I have posted, that coat/cape hybrid is a reference to the coats featured in Looks 30-34 from the mainline Comme des Garçons Autumn/Winter 2009 collection (should you wish you can buy one from the lovely Gracia, aka Rosenrot, on eBay). I like the fact that the complexity of the garments are not watered down, for, just as with BLACK in its original form, it is simply about being able to wear Comme in a quieter fashion. And I love that. 

I would personally recommend trying to see pieces in person if you can, for as ever, images hardly do the clothes justice. You can find CdG CdG on the top floor of Dover Street Market ( to the Play) and also in the Avant Garde section at Liberty (on the second floor I believe).

"Comme des Garçons has always been committed to its quest for the new and unknown, to its experiments with the not-yet-seen-or-felt, and is even more so now, when it appears that fashion is avoiding risks. Continually questioning, encouraging individuality and looking to the future - this is Comme des Garçons' approach to creating clothes."



Sensing Spaces


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Try It On

Power Of Witches
Nick Knight x Rei Kawakubo

I was recently speaking to a friend who had just visited Dover Street Market for the first time. She expressed her surprise at the fact that in visiting this store fashion suddenly became "real". It was something she could see in person, something she could touch, and something she could try on. These were not garments immaculately packaged and presented in the pages of a magazine, these were not garments photographed on the body of some celebrity or model, these were simply garments in a shop. And, like in any shop, she could browse as she pleased and pass judgement on what she liked and what she did not like. Fashion was demystified.

Fashion must necessarily be exclusive to exist as fashion, so the mystification of fashion is actually highly desirable. If it is popular and available to all, it is by definition no longer fashion. Fashion carries a complex cultural cache in our society, desirable for its own sake rather than its actual content (hence the insistence of the high street to try and gain the veneer of fashion, either through designer collaborations or rather absurdly presenting with catwalk shows at fashion week). I suppose almost all luxury items, whether expensive clothes or expensive paintings, have to contend with this reality. Yet given that it usually benefits the seller, it is hardly going to be discouraged on their part. The faster fashions change, the more important it becomes to construct this heightened mythic status, otherwise what will entice consumers to part with their money? 

I would argue that the in-built redundancy of fashion makes its demystification essential. Fashion is conceived as an exclusive ideal, but soon becomes passé, by which point it loses its symbolic potency. In order to understand fashion from the moment of its availability, we have to treat it much as we would treat it by the point of its redundancy - not as something exclusive, but as something common. If fashion only ever exists in the mind as something unattainable, distant and perfect, it is only ever an exercise of aesthetic admiration. But more importantly it is an exercise of aesthetic admiration where you have already elevated the status of the garment before you even look at it. It is a scenario played out in museums and art galleries worldwide. By virtue of being presented in a museum context the object is conferred an inflated cultural value. It has been chosen, it has been preserved, it has been put on display. People feel the need to look and admire, even if they do not actually like the object, and seem afraid to voice an opinion. 

Go to an art fair, where the relationship between viewer and object is based on commerce, and suddenly people are more than comfortable to be vocal with their opinions (the memory of a man walking through Art14, stopping in front of several pieces, saying “ugly”, then quickly moving on comes to mind). Removed from the hallowed museum setting, laid out for people to see up close, with decent lighting, and with the potential to actually purchase, and the dynamic is entirely different. Art is suddenly accessible. The elephant in the room is perhaps the issue of pricing - but that issue is made redundant when one actually sees the way visitors interact with the pieces at art fairs. Yes it is primarily window shopping, rather than actual decisions of purchasing, but that in itself is dramatically different to how people interact with art in a gallery.

I believe that the same process is evident in fashion when considered in a shopping environment. Fashion is consumed primarily through imagery, but in the shop setting the garment is made tangible. It is no longer an image, but an actual corresponding garment. Whether that garment carries the full potency of the image of that garment, especially once removed from its artificial cultural context (as presented in fashion imagery and on the catwalk) is of course debatable. Indeed to quote Yuniya Kawamura, "Fashion is not visual clothing but the invisible elements included in clothing". Fashion is manifested through clothing, but clothing can never embody the full extent of fashion. Fabric and thread are far too slippery mediums through which to express the intangible cultural symbolism of fashion, but that is not to say that at times they do not come close.

So we return to the shop setting. Fashion, in terms of its manifestation through the garment, is no longer some intangible symbol, but something very real and immediate - you can try it on. Bring fashion down from its pedestal as an abstract artistic expression, and to the garment itself, something you can wear and interact with as you wish, and suddenly your appreciation and value judgements change entirely. In the shop setting you can be ruthless in saying what you like and what you do not like, and I think that is an incredibly useful process when it comes to fashion. Garments, whether they cost and lot or a little, are there to be bought and worn. You are the one who has to wear it, so you might as well wear something you love rather than what someone else loves. But even if you are not planning on purchasing and wearing the garment, in actually seeing it in person and trying it on you gain an invaluable insight. 

Dress is an embodied practice, thus to only ever consider it in abstract is to necessarily have an incomplete understanding. In trying something on, in seeing how it feels and how it moves, you learn more than you ever can from seeing images or reading descriptions. I actually went and tried on a corset a few years ago simply to try and understand the full implications of wearing a corset. Of course that is somewhat of an extreme example, but the point stands - clothing is meant to be worn, so wear it and you learn more than just seeing a picture of it, or indeed simply looking at it on the rail. The more you try on, the more you understand, and that understanding allows you to make a more informed decision. Try it on, fashion is there to be worn.