From teletext to up-cycled ties, meet the Irish women striving to transfigure menswear.
“I found this tiny subculture in the Congo called the ‘Sapeurs’, and instantly loved the level they took”
To most, the style mores of Irish men boast (or stomach, depending on your take) a few steadfast features. There’s the staggeringly limitless supply of check shirts which, season after season, traverse through this city; the facsimile suits in stockbroker blue that saturate all manner of corporate nests; the tracksuit-sporting boys who blast ringtones from their consecrated throne, the top deck of a Dublin Bus (this last breed might have since died off – or at least acquired some AirPods – but my primary school commutes would’ve been aurally bare without them).
Overseas, these sartorial tropes are replaced by perceptions of turf-cutting, tattered-tweed-wearing men, their toothless grins hovering over pints of plain (before you label this line as totally hyperbolic, this is exactly how Ireland was portrayed in mid-2000s Italian textbooks). While there are obvious exceptions to the above – here’s looking at you, Jake McCabe – those who don’t deftly slot into such categories are largely considered lacklustre in dress sense, never willing to stray from their monochromatic comfort zone should they risk a slagging for it. Conversely, some 2,000 kilometres south of us, Mediterranean men are peacocking through their January sales – fearlessly stocking up on fuchsia shirts and cerulean trews.
Bar the dearly-departed MFI, most discussions of men’s style tend to sidestep Irish magazines, despite the fact this is fertile terrain: some fiercely inventive showings are shaking up menswear fashion month, most visibly in London (whose roost is ruled by Craig Green and Grace Wales Bonner) and Florence (the Renaissance capital’s Pitti Uomo, a trade-fair-cum-fashion-week, presents sartorial juggernauts and newcomers with equal flair). Amidst these innovators is a trio of talented Irish: cue Hannah Ennis, Robyn Lynch and Grainne Walley, whose contrasting design identities are threaded together by tireless critical acclaim.
At the heart of Ennis’ sustainably-charged label is an itch to “make it okay for men to wear colours – there’s that strange taboo around men and pink shirts, even though many traditional menswear brands like Ralph Lauren do beautiful pink clothes… They’re so well done, but it seems like most Irish men feel uncomfortable wearing them.” Having cut her teeth at the London College of Fashion’s menswear BA, she admits “slipping into that pathway: I did a short course at Central Saint Martins when I was 16/17 to figure out what I wanted to study. One of the tasks was to pick a subculture [from which] to source inspiration for a project. I just wasn’t that interested in the most conventional or obvious subcultures – punks, rockers, mods, skinheads… I found this tiny subculture in the Congo called the ‘Sapeurs’, and instantly loved the level they took [their style] to, and the rules they followed: there was always three colours in their outfits.”
Spurred on by the (relative) lack of objectified forms in men’s fashion – “A lot of womenswear isn’t considered nice or flattering if it’s not somehow shaping your body” – her predilection for punchy hues (and up-cycling – she turned a sack of Oxfam ties into ridiculously cool clothes) instantly captivates in ‘Golden Boys’, her graduate collection unveiled last June. Never one to skimp on research, her multi-layered, sporty silhouettes possess many an inspiration point. First exploring the style idiosyncrasies of older Irish navvies living in London – Ennis cites one influential gent “wearing a really flamboyant blue shirt underneath a tweed blazer, with a tweed cap and big ole glasses” – her subsequent, summer-long trek through Ireland involved gallery visits to Sybil Connelly and Ib Jorgensen’s collections (their penchant for hand-smocking and traditional embroidery techniques is echoed across ‘Golden Boys’) and interviews with young Irish men to decipher if this country has any true semblance of national dress.
“My dad’s generation tend to connect tweed blazers and Aran jumpers with how their parents dressed,” Ennis states, “so they pushed them away, but younger generations are now embracing them; of course, some hate that ‘scratchy old Ireland’ style. My conclusion got back to [national dress] being more about sportswear nowadays: that whole sports spirit is really strong, especially amongst Irish men. I spoke to some guys who went to all-boys schools where everyone would play rugby, or hurling, and if you didn’t participate you’d be bullied. Sport, in that sense, has the power to polarise as much as unify.”
With the Belfast rape trials unravelling during her research, ‘Golden Boys’ is, as a title, intentionally two-fold: “On the one hand, I wanted to describe gorgeous men wearing gorgeous clothes… On the other, it was about how [famous sports stars] can do no wrong, they’re considered untouchable.”
Just as Simone Rocha spellbinds London on a bi-annual basis with her heritage-steeped (but inarguably inventive) wares, Lynch’s design practice is entrenched in the Emerald Isle. It takes a certain kind of wizardry to suffuse your MA graduate clothes with the tricolour and escape any traces of twee, but she managed – so skilfully, in fact, that Fashion East (London’s celebrated talent incubator) snapped her up soon after.
Akin to Ennis, Lynch is a visible colour fiend: her coveted version of Aran knits, coupled with nostalgia-soaked drawstring shorts and baggy jeans, were submerged in variant blues and greens for SS20. Such pieces turn the hackneyed trope of ‘sustainable fashion = oatmeal-coloured clothes’ entirely on its head: from this season onwards, Lynch’s collection buttons will be made from compressed milk (yes, you read that right) while her looks will come encased in 100% compostable packaging. As Fashion East now stage their shows on the womenswear calendar, this month marks Lynch’s first stand-alone showcase for London Fashion Week Men’s.
“I’m actually really excited,” Lynch enthuses. “I feel like for the first time, I get to have creative control over everything: I have to think of catering, sending out invites, production, lighting, sound, all these technical details.“
AW20 directly draws from a project she cooked up last year, wherein Lynch, photographer Lewis Khan, producer Katie Gunn and a merry crew of other creatives descended on Inis Oírr for five days. Keen to shoot her debut post-MA collection (AW19) outside of urban surrounds, thus returning to the Irish craft heritage whence it came, Lynch cast male models from secondary schools surrounding her native Malahide and from the island itself; following the Inis Oírr boys around on tangent bikes, capturing them in their back gardens and filming them at a ceili, to name but a few excursions.
“The experience of this project took me back to my childhood. It’s like time stands still on the island, but in the best way possible.” She’s even plucked “three lads who we met that week, and who I didn’t [initially] know could play this amazing music” to soundtrack her AW20 show. “They just play in pubs next to their dads most evenings, they’re only sixteen. They’re gonna play the uilleann piles, the bodhrán, but I’m gonna incorporate it with techno music – it can’t be gimmicky or cheesy.”
Her visual research this season stems from the panoply of paper cuttings covering the walls of the island’s pubs, while her graphic prints transform a defining staple of Irish childhoods pre-2000: teletext. “We’re using teletext print, reworking the old [RTÉ] Aertel: we got on to this website where they’ve literally documented all the different types of teletext font throughout the years. We’ve used it on our graphics this season, but we’re trying to turn it into something less nostalgic, more modern; putting it on a repeat stripe, pairing it with the knits and trying to merge [tradition and innovation] together”.
Walley’s MA graduate collection may possess a stripped-back colour palette, but its tactile qualities prove alluringly intricate. Named ‘Lámh 1’ – a nod to hand-crafting techniques which characterise it – Walley melds crochet with leatherwork and knits to achieve textural ecstasy, a feat that (putting my bias for colour blasts to one side) might have been undermined, in this instance, by the distraction of bright hues. Feeling “a sense of duty to bring a baroque quality back to menswear, to move away from this idea of feminine versus masculine clothing”, her comments stress a sentiment felt by all three designers: that fashion shouldn’t impart a gendered segregation onto its wearers.
This is already apparent in the popularity of menswear with female consumers – the majority of Lynch’s orders hail from women, while Ennis’ iconic Forty Foot Jumper has a strong female fanbase – but it’s comparatively rare to see men snatch looks from womenswear shows, something which, culturally, societally, cannot shift overnight, but which this trio of game-changers are keen to revise.
As we edge into a new decade of dressing, one in which men will hopefully step – scrap that, leap – closer to wearing whatever the hell they want, Walley expresses hope that “menswear becomes more considered.
I have noticed men feel as though they do not have as much choice as women in relation to fashion – in a fashion department store, there is always more of a range for women. Choice in men’s fashion can sometimes be limited to variations in colour or fit, rather than new styles of garments altogether. I think rather than producing more of the same, everyday male attire needs some reinvention; some opulence.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
Robyn Lynch AW20 is now live, having shown on Sunday 4th for LWFM (@robynlynchireland);