James Long is arguably one of London’s favourite designers.
He’s been the recipient of sponsorship from Fashion East, NEWGEN and Fashion Forward; he’s a hit on the high street, with Topman, River Island and Kurt Geiger collaborations, and he’s received international recognition with a nomination for the prestigious International Woolmark Prize. It sounds tiring, running through his many accomplishments and projects, but the man himself is a picture of calm, quiet confidence. Is his approach to fashion intuitive?
“It’s definitely intuitive,” he insists. “That’s all you’ve got, your intuition, your eye.”
Long credits Ike Rust – his former tutor at the Royal College of Art – several times over the course of our conversation. Incidentally, the RCA has recently been crowned as the world’s best design school and Long is part of a wave of menswear design talent that includes Astrid Andersen, Matthew Miller, Aitor Throup and Sid Bryan of Sibling, which has revolutionised London’s menswear scene, boosting the London Collections: Men event to its now highly respected spot on the fashion calendar.
The James Long brand gained a reputation for excellent knitwear and fabric innovation early on, winning praise from Lulu Kennedy at Fashion East and Lucas Ossendrijver, creative director of Lanvin Homme. Over the seasons, punkish threadbare knits with trailing threads have been interspersed with chunky jumpers with chaotic patches and varying weaves. His finer cardigans and belted jackets are reminiscent of Missoni classics.
Pattern has been equally important. Camouflage evolved over time to blend in with art-studio ink blotches; fine, palm tree weaves were layered effortlessly with faded florals and reptile was rendered in sequins to recreate the sheen of animal skins. Layers of zig-zagging lines on shirts, polka dots, primary coloured squiggles and embroidery on mesh demonstrate the continuation and evolution of key ideas over the years.
“It’s often about matching things up and clashing things together,” he says, “taking elements of certain styles or designs and putting them together and that really comes from trying and experimenting. Those are the best collections, where I’ve done a lot of that – a lot of fabric, a lot of knitwear sampling.”
The James Long man is louche, occasionally scruffy and sexily unkempt. A perfect example comes from his AW11 show, a beautifully soft collection of dusty pink, purple knits and checks that featured glossy black trousers and rich textured coats. A shawl neck jumper’s collar droops so low it appears at first glance to be a cardigan, and it’s worn over a dark blue silky shirt with white dots and a t-shirt beneath. It’s the epitome of nonchalant style.
Long cites the pencil-mustachioed John Waters as an inspiration and a recent interview with the controversial filmmaker comes to mind, in which he recalls a New York Times magazine cover featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat splashing paint on his Comme des Garçons suit as being the first radical suit moment. This image resonates with the James Long man’s spirit.
“When we see something too proper, if it scares us, we’re going to wreck it basically. That’s where the ruining, the destroying starts. If we see something and we’re like ‘Oh that’s not us, that’s terrifying, that’s not the menswear we’re trying to create,’ or if we look at it and we feel like we’ve seen that before, it’s ‘let’s change the silhouette’. As the head tutor of RCA always said, it’s about training your eye, that’s all there really is to it.”
Is perfection, say a tailored suit, something that scares him and his team? “We were talking about that the other day, it does have its own place. When it’s our own brand it has to be about what we we’re trying to do and what didn’t exist when I first started. If I’m honest yes, a tailored suit does scare me. I sort of see that as an older generation thing and that’s why we started this – I knew that people didn’t want to dress like that.”
￼“A tailored suit scares me. I see that as an older generation thing and that’s why we started this – I knew that people didn’t want to dress like that"
Other influences include Patti Smith, Edward Scissorhands, David Bowie and Kurt Cobain. “In every collection there’s a Kurt Cobain reference,” Long says. “There’s people that always make it on the board somehow. David Bowie always used to get on there somehow.” Sure enough, Kurt Cobain in striped top, red shades and torn jeans is striking a pose on the mood board.
Sportswear became a key element in the James Long look for a couple of seasons, with spring/summer 14 ushering in an ice-cool reincarnation. Zip-up mesh jackets, toggled hoodies and cycling tops came with lightweight, loose-fitting shorts. Horizontal-striped knits and crisp white shirts featured rows of woven plastic wire in black and royal blue. The sporting theme was then pushed into darker, more experimental territory for autumn/winter of the same year with loose-fit mesh joggers, sweatshirts with satin inserts and head-to- toe puckered and quilted tech fabrics in primary colours.
Skater boys and beach bums in worn-in denim strapped with primary-coloured tape, loose-fitting striped hoodies and socks and sliders followed for summer 2015, and for winter – the season hitting the shops right now – look out for grey marl joggers with blue paisley-style embroidery, panels of black mesh and strips of black haphazardly attached and wrapped around the leg, shearling on denim and leather jackets and jumpers undid from neckline to bicep – a feature to expect more of next summer.
With such an array of styles and fabrics, pinpointing singular influences is hard for Long. “Everything I do is so mashed up, a bit of this and that, denim, some Victorian frill, the spirit of the 60s mixed with the 90s, or embroidery with sports references from the 80s to make it new and modern. We try and make things modern, otherwise you’re just doing pastiche.”
What’s clear is that creating, designing, making – these things are a way of life for Long. He doesn’t seem to have an off switch. “It’s constant,” he admits. “But in a really great way.”