Westminster alumna, Rachel James’ third collection, ‘Glitch’, made its debut back in January at London Collections: Men. Comprised of knitwear and bold prints (the latter for which she's fast become known) and curving, Japanese inspired volume, the AW16 collection typifies the designer's aesthetic.
Elsewhere in the collection, repetitive lines feature across the arms and torso of a polo neck jumper; technical knit panels produced via digital machinery and hand-knitted sections of raised white are pieced together on another jumper in a palette of red, green, black and white.
Spliced, photoshopped images of a computer screen are arranged in horizontal lines on cloth; cropped trousers are fronted with volume and the rich folds of fabric exude the same kind of luxury presented elsewhere by respected Japanese labels. If it’s permissible to mention in the same breath, there’s also a pleasing whiff of MC Hammer.
Attention to construction is key to the Rachel James aesthetic. The eye is drawn to bold colour and print – a consistent element in the designer’s work – yet a closer look reveals the details that give form to the clothes. Walking Clash through the collection, she points to 'secret' darts in the back of a mock denim jacket that create a curving, voluminous shape, inspired by 80’s bomber styles and ski jackets.
"Construction is key because it's about the shape and how it works on the body. If you turn it inside out you can tell it's mine because I obsess over how it's finished and the detailing inside, for me that's really important."
James's approach to a collection begins in 3-D. Only after several stages of hands-on experimentation does she sit down with a pencil and paper: "I'm a 3-D thinker. When I start thinking about new garments, I literally go straight into shapes. I love pattern cutting. I think in terms of shapes so that's why my work looks quite sculptural. I cut it, sew it, put it on the mannequin, then after working between 2- and 3-D, I'll come up with a fun sleeve; I photograph it, then I sketch it."
This attention to composition detail is in part due to James' fascination with Japanese aesthetics and design philosophy, particularly the approach to construction and pattern cutting adopted by the likes of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, and the wabi-sabi concept of appreciating the importance of space.
"I got really obsessed with pattern cutting as a student. I realised that 3-D was the way forward to my designs and they had a similar approach to design, they would do incredible pattern cutting. The pattern cutting makes the design what it is, and I was really drawn to that way of designing."
James is wary of becoming bogged down in concept however, and the words 'boyish' and 'effortless' crop up several times over the course of our conversation. Concept and cleverness in design is one thing, she says, but if it doesn't work on the model it doesn't work; it has to be more than that in order to be a great piece of clothing. The no fuss, no bullshit attitude to designing menswear is what drew her in to begin with. "Even though [a piece] is conceptual,” she says, “I feel like it's really important that it's got that element of being real about it. For me that feels really masculine."
So what does James mean when she says something is masculine? "I talk about masculinity in a way that I don't want my aesthetic to be confusing, but equally, I'm not trying to define masculinity – it's very much an attitude; it's not defined by men who look a certain way. I say my stuff is masculine because I fit to the male chest, the male shoulders. To me fit it really important. I feel for a man to feel secure in himself it's about confidence. It's about having clothes that fit his lifestyle, that aren't ridiculous."
With the industry in a state of flux – in particular the see-now-buy-now model, currently developing in popularity – and the idea that it may squeeze out young designers, we wonder how a designer like Rachel James, with only three collections behind her, approaches her work: is the pressure on, or is this an opportunity to do things her own way?
“I think everyone's got their own path. Maybe my products will do well with a hybrid of approaches. I just did this launch in Baker Street – that was a really fun party – we had an exhibition with it, I invited some buyers down, I had stylists there and musicians. Maybe that would be a way to get more involvement in the music industry. Maybe work with some boutiques, maybe a way to do a collaboration. I'm keeping an open mind.”
Words: Cassandra Kirk-Gould