by Leoni Schwandt
The exhibition ‘NEWGEN MEN’ in the Museum of London, held from April until October 2014, presents the work of six aspiring fashion designers predicted to be among the future leading talents of London menswear. It follows an exhibition entitled ‘The Anatomy of the Suit’, and purports to give an outlook as to where London’s tailoring tradition might lead next.
For the uninitiated, ‘NEWGEN MEN‘ is a BFC initiative sponsored by high street giant Topman, launched in 2009 to support emerging menswear designers in the UK. The exhibition displays newcomers: Agi & Sam, Astrid Andersen, Diego Vanassibara, Kit Neale, Matthew Miller and Alex Mullins. Both exhibitions drew the public’s attention to the importance of London’s sartorial male landscape, from its past into its promising future, which is a major achievement regarding the neglect of menswear and men’s fashion in contemporary public perception.
Set up on the ground floor of the museum, next to the cafeteria, five mannequins and glass box displaying a pair of shoes by Diego Vanassibara were placed on a knee-high platform shaped and colored after the Union Jack, supplemented with a board with short information about each designer/label. Behind the mannequins, two videos of the Agi & Sam and Kit Neale were rotatory showcasing their collections during London Collections: Men. To the left of the platform, curator Timothy Long describes the purpose and benefits of the exhibition, namely documenting London’s vestiary past and anticipating the future of London’s menswear.
However, despite this progressive agenda of upgrading the perception of menswear in the public discourse, due to the physical set-up of the exhibits it was hard for the visitors to fully engage in the display and comprehend its importance. Located between the end of a long tour through the history of London, the cafeteria, and an open hallway leading to the first floor and further exhibitions, it was hard to take note of the small corner displaying only five mannequins and a pair of shoes without any serious interest in clothing or fashion. Situated in between toilet signs and a big circle of a digital bright halogen screen hanging from the ceiling produced a lot of distraction for the visitor, making it hard to concentrate. Two of the models were placed in front of the screen, which left only a limited view of the videos and made it less attractive to watch or even difficult to read the caption in the left corner of the screen, informing about which designer/collection was shown. The music, possibly meant to intrigue people, was so low that it could only be heard standing directly in front of the information board in front of the platform, with visitors using the cafeteria adding further distracting noise.
I was surprised by the use of the term ‘menswear’ instead of fashion, although this might simply be an adoption of the terminology of the British Fashion Council, which categorically refers to menswear, not fashion on their website in relation to NEWGEN MEN. Emanating from a common perception that men and fashion; as a predominantly feminine phenomenon, are two contradicting concepts, the use of ‘fashion’ could have caused male visitors especially to either reject engaging with the exhibition at all, but possibly also to question the dichotomy. Therefore the use of the more conventional term ‘menswear’ seems the safer option to draw in visitors, but simultaneously perpetuates this dichotomous approach of menswear versus fashion.
The use of the national flag as a literally underlying theme is somewhat critical. On one side it can be interpreted as highlighting Britain or indeed London’s tradition of men’s tailoring. However considering the close link of the exhibits; as originally being clothing items meant for sale, to the fashion industry the flag functions as a marketing tool by utilizing the idea of the seemingly natural connection of British menswear tradition and its quality. This provokes a very glamorous idea of ‘Britishness’ in clothing, concealing a brutal and violent colonial past influencing many of Britain’s sartorial characteristics.
A public museum addressing the wide general public has a great educational potential and responsibility. The endeavour of curating an exhibition broaching the issue of menswear in fashion is a progressive one, in the context of the importance of men’s clothing in wider public discourse and therefore has to be appreciated. Nevertheless, the unreflected replication of potentially commercialized nationalistic symbols, reproducing cultural, social and political hierarchies, and the exhibition’s terminology also positioned in the wider public discourse are what can be considered as a rather negligent act for a museum.