‘I love dressing in a workmanlike way,’ says the acclaimed menswear designer Nigel Cabourn. ‘These are clothes that are designed for purpose, which is something fashion seems to have lost sight of. Workwear is built to last, too. It has an honesty to it. It makes me feel like I’m ready for anything.’
Cabourn is certainly not alone. While visitors to his London store pay handsomely to buy into his best-in-class utility and combat trousers, chambray shirts, parkas and other functional and military-inspired clothing, other men will be picking clothing of a similar look and feel in many of the city’s leading independent menswear stores. From Couverture & The Garbstore in the west via Oi Polloi and American Classics in the centre to Son Of A Stag in the east, London’s most fashion-forward designers and boutiques are embracing workwear as an aesthetic for modern life.
While catwalk fashion has wended its flashier way, recent years have seen menswear retrench into more practical garb, typically inspired by that designed for specialist use and often from British manufacturers of long standing – think Barbour and Berghaus. It’s all the more noticeable in London, where the trend arguably found its beginnings in the city’s vintage markets and artistic communities. As consumers tire of fast fashion, workwear appeals for its durability, practicality and seasonless style.
Quality is key
‘I think one factor is the sheer quality of the goods. You’re buying a product that lasts, that you can actually wear in and see get better over time,’ argues Jake Hardy, the owner of Number Six boutique, which counts American workwear brand Filson among its bestsellers. ‘Throwaway fashion is not for everyone. But I don’t think this way of dressing for men is in itself a trend. It’s more an old way of dressing that’s been rediscovered.’
Of course, the clothing’s toughness and practicality also gives men a chance to enjoy a form of dressing up. It plays to a deeper desire to wear obviously masculine clothing that, while offering practical benefits – comfort, protection from the elements, plenty of pockets – references trades and activities your typical desk-dweller never actually experiences in real life. ‘A lot of men’s fashion is quite feminine now, in that sleek, slick way. Work and military clothing is an escape route from that,’ argues Lewis Hull, whose Real McCoy’s boutique in Covent Garden specialises in upgraded, Japanese-made reproductions of classic work and military garments. ‘These are clothes that have achieved a kind of cult status. There’s a nostalgia to them,’ says Hull.
History of style
History is a huge influence on workwear. In part this is because many of the garments were designed in menswear’s golden age from 1930 to 1960. It is also because, stylistically, many are associated with historic events, such as the conquest of Everest or polar expeditions. ‘Whether it’s a greatcoat or an M-65 [US military field jacket] or just a pair of khakis, there’s an undeniable “Boys’ Own” adventure, “boys and their toys” quality to this kind of clothing,’ says Steve Davies, creative director of The Content Store. Here, visitors will find workwear from the likes of Red Wing and Carhartt WIP: established brands known for their no-nonsense approach to great menswear.
New names to know
But, as well as looking back, this new workwear also looks forward. There is a proliferation of young brands offering modern updates of these tried-and-tested pieces, and again many of them are British. Universal Works, Tender, Albam and Old Town are among these, while the likes of Engineered Garments, Arpenteur and Post Overalls come from further afield but are no less worth exploring.
‘Workwear has become a subtle, lo-fi look, one that you can expect to filter down to the high street,’ explains Eddie Prendergast, founder of the seminal Duffer brand and owner of Present in Shoreditch, which sells original French workwear brand Vetra. ‘But the vintage examples and the modern quality makers offer something else [beyond high-street interpretations]. There’s a kind of insider appreciation to the detail and fabrics used in the best examples which has made it collectible. And, of course, in a way this is all a recognition that ultimately all menswear comes from work or military origins, even tailoring. It’s not just a passing trend.’