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Prestige | Runway | Interview | JAMES LONG | Winter 2012

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In a world dominated by corporate brands and classical tailoring, young British menswear designer JAMES LONG has struck a fresh chord. ALISON CATCHPOLE followed the music to meet him at his  studio in East London.

JAMES LONG GREETS me warmly in a stars- and-stripes-print shirt, which complements his dark eyes. Thoughtfully, he asks if I want the radio off, but I’m curious to keep it on; I have the feeling Long likes music to work by.


“This is my 11th season of menswear, and London menswear has changed so dramatically in that period, it’s just crazy really. When I did that first menswear show it was just that: one show. I mean there wasn’t even a day. Then we got a day, and now more than that and at last, too, there’s a showroom to back it up.”


Long debuted as a designer in February 2007 at London Fashion Weeks MAN, the Topman and Fashion East joint initiative that supports new talent. That show “introduced London Menswear to a new level of refinement,” according to Dazed and Confused magazine.


Fortunately for Long, he arrived on the scene at a point of critical mass. This year, for the first time in British Fashion Council history, a group of specialist menswear names including Long E Tautz, JW Anderson and Christopher Shannon were awarded the BFC’s Fashion Forward award. This accolade provides key funding to emerging British design talent, helping them to show their collections and develop their businesses.


Long is the first to admit that the recent downturn has been challenging. “I’ve never really been out of a recession. I feel like in the ’90s there was one, then we were just coming out and now we’re into another one. So effectively I’ve never been a designer who’s not in a recession. It’s tough.” Perhaps this is one reason why his output now includes womenswear, but he remains clear about his starting point. “I chose menswear because it always just seemed very natural to me. I felt there were things that could be investigated and done at the time, and mixing it with accessories as well was exciting.”


Long spent his formative years growing up in his mum’s hotel in Northampton, a market town in the UK’s East Midlands, with his older brother, who’s now a doctor, and his younger sister Charlotte, who helps run the James Long business. “My mum had links with the local theatres, so performers would use her hotel. There were a lot of outside influences, not just from England, but all over the place, so I picked up things along the way at quite a young age, especially musical things I was interested in. I remember Elton John’s band stayed there once, and loads of different people. It was a real hotchpotch and we’d entertain them. So a lot of my interest in music came from that period. And it would spark things off and I’d sort of research it myself and get into various different themes.”


Music, performance and fashion were always closely linked for Long. “I went to a lot of music festivals as well from a really young age. You know, Glastonbury from about the age 16. And that told me a lot about musical ideas and performers. When something is that large, there’s a huge amount of spectacle as well, and it got me thinking about the music-fashion connection. People like David Bowie, for instance. The looks and the people he chose to make his stage outfits are so iconic. Zandra Rhodes and Watanabe. A fashion designer couldn’t help absorbing that.”


Another major influence came straight from Long’s hometown Northampton. It was always renowned for its shoemakers, some of which — Church’s, Tricker’s and Grenson — survived the manufacturing slump of recent years. As a teenager, Long had begun to play around with offcuts from local shoe factories, and this soon triggered his lifelong interest in leather, which ultimately led to his degree specialising in leather accessories at the London College of Fashion. He would go on to the Royal College of Art’s MA programme, which gave the industry such names as Burberry’s Christopher Bailey and milliner Philip Treacy.


Between those degrees, he worked for London-based vintage-clothing storeowner Virginia Bates and then crucially headed off to New York. “I had discovered Patti Smith and that led to an obsession with the Chelsea Hotel and all the famous musicians who lived there. It triggered a long road trip with an artist called Ethan Cook who now does some of the prints for us. We travelled from New York to the Canadian border, stopping off along the way. We even went to Woodstock, which obviously has a massive heritage of music; that whole scene was really important to me. ”


In his studio, Long works alongside his sister Charlotte who sports acid-yellow hair (cut and dyed by her brother) to match the Long shirt she is wearing with a marbled Ethan Cook print. On the wall behind the desk Charlotte also has her James Long biker jacket with knitted sleeves. Intriguingly, Long also cuts and colours all his friends’ hair. The uniformity of a larger brand is notably absent here.


In fact his hands-on approach to the customer involves him at all levels, not least in-store training with the staff that sell his collections. “I want them all to know there is a reason why a fabric has been chosen or has been developed. For instance, there’s the Josef Albers square that we wove into the fabrics for men this season. Twists and details like that can be missed at a show or even the showroom. From studio to shop floor, a lot can get lost in translation so it’s just nice to let people see that the work has been put in and that we enjoy putting that work in.”


For autumn/winter 2012 there are dense hand knits, sometimes shot through with gold thread, and signature leather pieces. Black leather jackets are inset with different materials, layered and pulled through to reveal brighter layers underneath. Slouchy trousers, dense colours and embellishment create new textures, remarkably detailed yet still simple enough to be wearable.


Long’s precise, locally produced garments have been snapped up by buyers from Harvey Nichols and the cutting-edge London boutique LN-CC as well as Parisian concept store Colette. In Asia, I.T and Candy are the key stockists. It’s no surprise that he counts rock-star offspring such as Tara Ferry, son of style icon Bryan Ferry, and the influential GQ Fashion Director Luke Day among his fan base. “I think the main thing with having a young brand is getting the level and quality of design and making absolutely sure the product is of a high standard and then trying to make sure it sells and then the people are enjoying your clothes.”


That radio is still playing an eclectic music channel so I ask him about it. After all, an interest in music shines through all his catwalk work. “Yes,” he says, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm, “We do have a lot of music on in the studio. I mean when you’re building up to a show or getting in the mood for a show, music is really, really important though that track, that album will be sort of repeated until you can’t bear to listen to it.” For example in his most recent Kung Fu Cowboy catwalk collection he featured the music of Alan Vega and new London voice Gabriel Bruce. Bruce, an artist Long championed early in the singer’s career, made the perfect accompaniment to the light embroidered shirts and pleated shorts that are key to next spring’s look. Long is quite clearly developing his ears as well as his eyes. 

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