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Aug / Sep 2012
Cool Britannia

Writer: Warren Singh-Bartlett / Photographer: Ione Ascanio Green

When the offer to hang out backstage at Hackett’s first ever runway show was combined with the chance to interview the man behind the label, we were on the first plane out.


The burly, suited guard checks my wristband, a violet and white affair with the word ‘family’ woven into it and with a smile and a knowing wink, ushers me upstairs.

I’m backstage at a fashion show and probably from seeing one too many films, I expected drama and chaos. Shouted directions. Erupting egos. Moods in front of mirrors. Desperation as the make-up doesn’t quite cover the pimple. A tantrum or two, at the very least.

Instead, I’ve arrived to what can best be described as ordered disorder. Perhaps it’s the calming effect of the surroundings - the oil paintings on the wall, crystal chandelier-lit, stucco moulded ceilings and rich red-carpeted confines of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House - but pulses don’t appear to be pounding.

Jackets are being quietly steamed, racks are being hung with outfits – seersucker suits, creamy linen jackets, paisley pyjama-style bottoms, Madras checks, discrete plaids, striped tops, bowler hats and bow-ties - and while the room does look a little bit like an emergency shelter for the monied classes, with bin bags of clothes, half-drunk containers of coffee, phones, laptops and assorted other electronic paraphernalia lying scattered willy and nilly, it’s hardly havoc.

True, the PR people, stylists, make-up men and hairdressers (their t-shirts identify them as employees of Toni&Guy) are scurrying about but theirs is a blur of quiet efficiency. Then, I catch a whiff of desperation.

“I don’t know how we’re going to make it, to be honest,” a flush-faced, harried-looking, hot pink-haired stylist confides to her tall, flat cap-wearing colleague, who is carrying what looks like the entire Hackett SS12 collection in his arms.

“Pace yourself, love,” he replies in a deep and laconic northern drawl, verbally patting her shoulder. “Wait till the models come off the runway and have to get changed, that’s when we’ll really have a panic.”

Oblivious to the exchange (and indeed to almost everything going on around them), the lanky, boyish and frankly, almost identical-looking models, lounge on the stairs, texting and taking calls between practice forays down the catwalk in the airy glass atrium next door. They are living embodiments of blankness, languor and ennui and so reassured that at least one of my fashion world preconceptions will survive intact, I embark on a pre-show reccie.

As I pick my way past dressers, models and make-up people, it’s all remarkably friendly. No one knows me from Adam and I doubt sincerely that anyone has been told to expect me but as I wander around the room, observing, taking notes and generally being very nosy, no one asks what I am doing or who I am, let alone tells me to muck off when they catch me eavesdropping. Yes, I know I’m at a fashion show, not a gathering of global security chiefs, but still.

“Okay gentlemen,” a woman’s voice rings out, “it’s that time, please.” The air thickens. The gentle buzz picks up pace. Movement becomes more hectic and voices are raised as the ‘boys’ are dressed, two and sometimes three or more assistants sliding them into their outfits, smoothing hair, tightening belts, straightening shirts, fussing with ties and adjusting straw hats. Doing everything, it seems, apart from pinching their cheeks. Clearly used to such intimate attentions, they are unfazed.

The models line up, ready to file onto the catwalk. A row of cream linen-clad, floppy-haired Gatsbys face a row of sharply-suited, mildly menacing bowler-hatted boys - part City gent, part Diamond Geezer - while a clutch of highly-patterned peacocks, looking like they’ve just fallen out of bed, wait behind. The lip-biting, finger-tapping and easy smiles disappear and the frozen mask of the professional model, bored, worldly and arrogant descends. Abruptly, they are boys no longer.

A dapper figure in an impeccable grey pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt and blue tie appears at the top of the stairs. Steel-grey hair parted on one side à la Cary Grant, bright red socks peeking above highly polished shoes, Jeremy Hackett casts a proprietary eye over the proceedings before discretely making his way down to the catwalk doorway to make final adjustments of his own. Everything, you see, has to be just so.

A hush settles. The Gatsbys troop on stage. We watch on the flat-screen monitor as they make their way to the far end of the hall and when they reappear, the dressers descend again, ripping off their shirts and trousers, stuffing them into new outfits, primping, preening and then pushing them out again seconds later. As pit stops go, this one is awe-inspiring.

On go the peacocks and then, a phalanx of bowler-hatted boys. As I pull out a pen to scribble a few random thoughts, I notice that Mr. Hackett is waiting in the wings, getting ready to go on himself. The next time I look up, surely no more than 20 seconds later, he’s back. After hours of painstaking preparation, the show is over. It’s been eight minutes, from start to finish.

When I tell Jeremy Hackett that it seems like a lot of work for such a fleeting reward, he smiles but I do wonder if this helps explain why a label that has been around for 27 years (33, if you include its original incarnation as vintage clothing retailer) has waited so long to hold its first runway show.

Hackett is known for its unrepentant traditionalism. ‘Boldly conservative’ is the way Mr. Hackett has described both his own style - and by extension, his label’s - in the past. Still, I am struck by the show’s period feel.“What you saw on the catwalk was a little more stylised than need be but you don’t have to wear the clothes that way,” he tells me as workmen hammer away around us, removing the stage and the lights. “It’s nice to have a bit of nostalgia around.”

I’ve been there. Twenty years ago, I might (just) have given Jeremy Hackett a run for his money. Part English eccentric, part 1960s refugee, I was all about vintage clothes. A Dandy Warhol, if you like. Then I became a writer, lost my waistline and well, let’s just say that these days it’s my mouth and not my wardrobe that does the talking. That’s why, when it came to meeting the man who launched a thousand Sloanes and who, under the pseudonym of Mr. Classic, advises on the in-and-outs of looking pukka, I decided to dress down. So much for me. But why, I ask, is Jeremy Hackett so enamoured of nostalgia?

“The past seems a gentler, less frightening place. Plus, I like products that have longevity. I like clothes to wear in, not wear out.” In today’s disposable culture, where (men’s) fashion apparently dictates that clothes come pre-distressed and are lucky to survive a season, that sentiment is practically revolutionary. Clothes that last? Goodness. Whatever next?

“I’ve worn the same kind of collar for 25 years,” he continues, unconsciously running a finger under the one he is wearing. “They’ve even named it after me. Is it fashion? Probably not. But I like it.” And so do the customers. Exploiting male psychology, Hackett makes virtues of the facts that men don’t like too many choices, don’t necessarily enjoy shopping and that when they find something they like, they tend to wear it forever. A little bit Brideshead, a little bit Bond, classic and traditional, the label is aimed at the stylish, rather than the fashionable, (gentle)man.

That distinction is essential. They may be bedfellows but Style and Fashion are not synonymous and in Jeremy Hackett’s world, the two are all but divorced. If that sounds counterintuitive – we are talking about a clothing label - it isn’t. Here’s why. Fashion is transitory and dates. Style is enduring and evolves. Classics, while rarely fashionable, look as good on the young as they do on the middle-aged or the old and so can be worn forever.

That’s a distinct advantage when it comes to the pursuit in which the label, Mr. Classic’s musings and indeed Jeremy Hackett himself, are ultimately engaged; the development of personal style. It does not in any way diminish their value to say that Hackett clothes are like the base note in a perfume; the perfect foundation upon which to embroider and experiment, for if Style is born of knowing which rules to break and how and when to break them, one cannot break the rules if one has not had a chance to learn them first. Or as Jeremy Hackett puts it himself: “There’s a difference between being dressed and being dressed up. The most important lesson a man can learn is that he has to own his clothes. Not just wear them.”

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