Three avant-garde designers define style for the modern man
Updated 2nd July 2015
Conceptual conformity. Thom Browne Autumn-Winter 2014
Three avant-garde designers define style for the modern man
This is an exciting time for menswear, whether you're designing it, buying it, or admiring it.
On July 13, New York will at last join the other fashion capitals in hosting a men's fashion week of its own for the first time. This isn't surprising. Market research has shown menswear outpacing womenswear in terms of growth year-on-year since 2009, and that millennial men are more interested in fashion than previous generations. But let's talk about the clothes.
For those who believe there's more to style than a suit that fits, a new generation of designers is presenting a varied and unconventional vision of what menswear can be, bringing off-beat design from the fringes to the center with the support of the industry at large. These designers further a legacy of anti-establishment design that has been around for decades, enhancing the menswear tradition while challenging it with work that could be called avant-garde or, depending on your tastes, bizarre. In any case, they're never boring.
So what's the thinking behind these highly conceptual visions of men's dress and, perhaps more importantly, how do you convince the modern man to buy into it? CNN brought the question to godfather of avant-garde Yohji Yamamoto, New York standard-bearer Thom Browne, and celebrated London newcomers Agape "Agi" Mdumulla and Sam Cotton of Agi & Sam.

The Veteran

1/7Style Perspective: Yohji Yamamoto
Seventy-one-year-old Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto has had a place at the vanguard since he debuted in Paris in 1981. Along with his menswear line, he heads his own womenswear line and Y-3, an ongoing fashion collaboration with Adidas. Credit: Courtesy Elise Toïdé
Menswear has to be fun. Some sort of meaningless excitement. Something you could laugh about, something you could appreciate without any specific cultural background, or knowledge. Being stylish and good looking isn't enough. Some sense of humor, some kind of self-derision seems crucial.
Each collection is just a milestone in my career. I am not targeting to achieve something within a few seasons. I have decided to walk on the wild side of the street, a very narrow path where I do not care about trends. I love to make motion and action of the fabric on the body. I'm interested in the cutting process of creation.
In every collection I need to be excited about new shapes, otherwise I can't create. Every time I make a show I have the feeling that I've made a mistake, so I have to do it again!
I have decided to walk on the wild side of street, a very narrow path where I do not care about trends.
Yohji Yamamoto
I simply cannot stand people's tendency to become conservative. I don't know if the term avant-garde is still relevant because it seems that it has itself become so common in fashion. It sounds almost pretentious now. But I still believe in the essence of that spirit; to voice opposition to established values.
But I also believe that the only way to oppose something, or to find something of your own is to start your journey by taking the long road of tradition. So I always tend to include a certain sense of authenticity in my clothing, even in the most conceptual pieces I make. It is a delicate balance indeed.
I need to be audacious enough to create something original, but also need to make sure that there's a sense of practicality, substance and wearability.
As I said, a charming man always has something clunky, clumsy. The kind of situation where the more you try to get serious, the more you can't hold your laugh. Just like Bruce Willis in Die Hard who finds himself in such a desperate situation that he ends up laughing about himself. When I see too fashionable people, I think something is wrong with them, so I always ask them "Are you ok?" (Laughs) I feel we're somehow cultivating this kind of image in men's fashion today.

The Trendsetter

1/6Style Perspective: Thom Browne
New York designer Thom Browne is charged with making the shrunken suit a men's style requisite, and putting on theatrical shows worthy of Alexander McQueen. After starting his own line in 2001, he branched into womenswear in 2003. He's been creative director of Moncler Gamme Bleu since 2008. Credit: Courtesy Circe
When it comes to design, the important thing is that it's very simple, and it's very easy. There's a uniformity to it, but it starts with something really graphic. There's something in how I approach design that I'd like to be very conceptual. I like to put things in front of people that will make them think; to take a classic idea and make it more interesting than they thought possible.
It really starts with something that is very understandable to people. My job as a designer is to take those ideas and move them forward in a way that makes them relevant. I do this so that people will see things differently.
I like to put things in front of people that will make them think; to take a classic idea and make it more interesting than they thought possible.
Thom Browne
I find inspiration in so many different places. It comes from books that I've read, movies that I see; it comes from real people on the street.
But whenever it comes from a specific place, I make sure that I reference it loosely. You never see a literal reference when you're looking at the collection. When you forget enough about a reference you're using, the designs are that much more interesting. There's so much design out there that's so literally inspired, and it doesn't move the field forward.
Sometimes I feel as though I am totally on my own because I don't know what the new developments in menswear are. For me, every season is a new development in terms of the fabrics I develop for each collection, the concepts, the shapes, and the proportions.

Agi & Sam: The Newcomers

1/6Style Perspective: Agi & Sam
Agape "Agi" Mdumulla and Sam Cotton, the two twenty-something Londoners behind Agi & Sam, have drawn the attention and support of Paul Smith and British GQ editor Dylan Jones with their in-your-face prints and off-beat styling. They were nominated for this year's prestigious LVMH Prize. Credit: Courtesy Agi & Sam
Sam Cotton: We started doing this as a bit of a joke. We obviously wanted to do a brand, but we were frustrated by how serious everything was in fashion. We started out just having fun, getting drunk, and making clothes on Agi's floor. It was literally all we did and all we knew. We had to obviously learn how to do everything along the way.
Our design process usually comes from a conversation or a joke or something like that, and then we'll start thinking about how it could work.
Agi Mdumulla: We've always been quite conceptually based, so there has been some narrative.
It's good to have that because it gives you a strong story behind the collection, which is what people seem to like from us, but this season I feel like we've grown up quite a bit. Of course there's still a concept, but we've tried to think about clothes more. In the past, the narrative always took over.
SC: At the start of this season, we saw an article on the AnOther Magazine website about Céline-isms [a breakdown of how to adopt the aesthetic of the Céline brand], and we were like "we should try and do that." So we wrote what we like, what we do, and what we're into, and looked at what we wear, how we wear it, and how our friends wear clothes. That made it a lot easier.
We always said in the beginning that we want people to wear our clothes. We don't want to be these weird conceptual designers.
Agi Mdumulla, Agi & Sam
AM: We always said in the beginning that we want people to wear our clothes. We don't want to be these weird conceptual designers.
I'm sure we came off that way in the beginning. When we actually stopped and looked at the clothes, we thought would we wear this stuff? Would our friends? They wouldn't.
SC: This season especially we've focused on the commercial side of things: Is the quality of the fabric good enough? Is the trimming good enough? Does it hold in a range? Does it have hanger appeal? It has never been easy to do that because of the concept being the main thing that drove everything. Now, we look at all of that first, and then integrated it into the concept. There's another layer.
As told to CNN's Allyssia Alleyne
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