Tradition and Surprise at a London Men’s Fashion Fair

Off The Rails
Off the Rails, the London men’s fashion fair
Photo via Off the Rails’ Instagram

London—It’s not often I’m asked to a fashion industry event. Never, really. So when an invitation showed up to attend the Off the Rails undertaking at the Truman Brewery on downscale Brick Lane, I figured, A men’s fashion fair—why not?

It’s only when I got to the old and not extensively refurbished warehouse that I realized the score of booths set up in the venue were also open to the public and that the merchandise being shown was for sale at, for the most part, discounted prices.

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No problem for my edification and enjoyment, although some of the designers might have been let down that the first-time affair (the second is scheduled for April 2015) was less well attended—though not badly attended—than they expected that Friday. Probably more would fetch up Saturday and Sunday, they were hoping.

Not to say those presiding at the booths were anything less that chipper and, of course, well dressed. The sartorial splendor was evident. Even more evident to me was that the general look strongly tended towards the conservative, and was largely geared towards more traditional apparel. What flashed through my mind was Beau Brummell’s comment, “To be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.”

It would undoubtedly be assuming too much to say that a shift from the rebellious statement is definitely underway, but it’s not going too far to say that many of those to whom I spoke stressed the return of the British gentleman. It’s a trend that could easily and quickly travel stateside where men already seem prepared for it—the Casual-Friday-extended-to-Casual-Everyday look getting more than a bit old.

One purveyor who went on about it, and in a Scottish accent, was Ryan Palmer. With Davy Pickard, Palmer has only a few months ago launched London Sock Company. Having tweaked their logo from an image in a Victorian magazine—a casually dressed dandy standing by a large bicycle wheel—Palmer and Pickard include “vibrant” colors, as Palmer said, but more muted colors predominate.

“The first thing in the morning,” Palmer also said, “you pull your socks up.” He made it clear that his and Pickard’s reason for doing what they’re doing is the very habitual pull-your-socks-up gesture as a sign of a gentleman’s getting off on the right foot daily.

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At Harry Stedman, Rick Ashton, also outfitted splendidly, acknowledged that the fellow in the poster hung in the back of his booth and on the postcard-sized business card he had handy was his maternal grandfather, the man after whom he named his brand.

Again the full range of clothes were stylishly conservative, and for a good reason. They’re designed by Amy Greenland, who not that long ago spent time in New York City (a Williamsburg flat) while working for Ralph Lauren. She knew him and particularly admired his signing off on absolutely everything that went out under his name. She intends to keep doing the same thing, as indicated by one of the influences on the company website: A still featuring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn from the 1954 movie Sabrina.

At my feet in the Harry Stedman space was a bucket holding socks in subdued autumnal colors. I plunked down five pounds for a pair featuring horizontal black herringbone stripes against brown, beige and grey backgrounds.

Speaking of socks, the fellow at Archer + Peyton—the motto is “Socks for the Discerning Modern Man”—commented that men, apparently the discerning modern ones—“definitely” display their more adventurous side with socks. Incidentally, Archer + Peyton were among the few manufacturers with which I was familiar.

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Pocket Chief
Pocket square with a Native American-inspired design from Pocket Chief / via
(Click to enlarge.)

Perhaps another sign of adventure in the conservatively dressed man is the continued resurgence of the pocket square, or handkerchief. At Pocket Chief, a brand available only since July, the sole item designed and made is the pocket square. The good-looking man and woman there, whose names I didn’t get, must be convinced that their product answers such a current wardrobe demand that they need market nothing else.

The “chief” in their name refers to their inspiration, which is Native-American-Indian design. They base their fancier squares on Indian patterns and philosophical attitudes. Their interest in the subject doesn’t stop there: They donate some of their revenue to Survival, “the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights.”

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Other pocket squares caught my eye at L’Estrange, where founders Will and Tom (no surnames given) were present. Their motivation was creating the perfect hoodie, as they phrase it in their promo material. From the look of the refined hoodies (refined hoodies!) they’ve turned out, their inventory is so conservative that the hoodies are lined with either a subdued stripe or a slightly more colorful paisley. And—get this!—the gentleman’s hoodie boasts a pocket square, except that it doesn’t. What looks like an inserted pocket square is actually the breast pocket lining which can be pulled up for that dashing effect.

Before I go any further, I should mention that many of the designers declared that their clothes are made in Great Britain, often from domestic fabrics. This was always expressed with smiling pride.

There is another brand I’d seen elsewhere, which makes sense, since next year is the outfit’s 135th: Barker Shoes. Wingtips in various tradition leather shades are big for them, but the pair I picked up for closer examination—for the very reason that it was anomalous is the larger context—was a blue suede wingtip. The suede was a dark blue; the shoelaces a bright robin’s egg blue.

Oliver Nesbitt, one of the reps at hand, said, “That’s the one everyone picks up.” He admitted this surprised him, and not because the shoe is in any way iconoclastic. Nesbitt is based in Ireland, where, he informed me, no one wears suede because of the weather.

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This, he insisted, is a misunderstanding about the nature of suede. If treated properly after rain, he said, it resumes its qualities. Then he dispensed perhaps the best piece of advice I received at Off the Rails: “Let the shoes dry naturally. Don’t put the shoes near heat.” In other words, as Carl Perkins didn’t quite sing, “Don’t you heat up my blue suede shoes.”

I learned something even more astounding from Richard Robinson at Realm & Empire. One of the two founders and the only one manning the R&E booth, Robinson told me that he acquired rights to search the Imperial War Museum archives, and it was on his finds there that he models his line—much of it from The Great War that began a century ago.

R & E Trench Floral pattern
The WWI trench wallpaper pattern at Realm & Empire / via
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For his apparel, he’s riffed on military outfits and yet again for today’s anti-casual-Friday bloke. I liked what I saw, especially the grey flannel trousers, which retail for 150 pounds but which was going on those premises at a 10 percent discount that I should have taken advantage of but didn’t.

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While I was admiring the trousers, Robinson went to a nearby rack and grabbed a hanger holding a white T-shirt with a faded blue flowered print. To say the least, it was at odds with everything he had on view. “This,” he said, “is based on a snippet of wallpaper found in a soldier’s trench. It was a way to feel at home.” It’s the first I’d ever heard of wallpapering trenches, but Robinson insisted it happened.

Will all these young and enterprising designers—many of them the company’s entire staff—make a go of it? Will these fashions make it to more than the few stores already carrying the lines? Will they get to the streets where I normally do my looking? Is what I perceived as a pendulum-swing back to conservative dress actual?

I can’t say. I can say that as the outbreak of the First World War is commemorated this year, I learned something about it that still has me reeling. And I learned it at a fashion fair.