He’s the one who’s brought his young queer community together, channeled their collective creative energy into a London phenomenon, brought theater and performance back to fashion shows, and put smiles on even the most anxious and jaded of faces. For these powers, Charles Jeffrey was voted Emerging Menswear Designer of the Year at the 2017 British Fashion Awards last month. But is it sufficient for Jeffrey to box himself in as Britain’s fun fashion club kid entertainer, an ephemeral role at best? Absolutely not. He answered that unspoken query with a collection that went to dark and honest places: an “explosion of anger,” which revisited memories of his Scottish upbringing, and among all that furious energy, still elevated his show head and shoulders above what we’ve seen before.
It’s awkward to speak only to the photographs you see with this review. Sheared of context, they look like stuff that kindles up the implacable desire to buy or to belong to this set, group, gang, whatever we want to call it. The opening navy tailored suit, artfully torn like a Schiaparelli throwback. The exaggeratedly padded red argyle sweater you know would deflate into something wearable. The tartan skirtsuit with a flared midi hemline and a matching tam-o’-shanter. All these do indeed prove, to those who’ve been on the fence about this spectacle-maker, that Jeffrey can put his design, technical skills, and tailoring where his mouth is.
But where his mouth is? In the performance that preceded this regular-looking runway show, there was a primal-screaming confrontation with the experience of growing up gay. Performers, as in a dregs-of-the-night underground club, cried, howled, and stamped their feet in a repetitive psychotic round of behavior. Even though dressed in dingy, streaked, paint-dashed clothes, with faces smeared with chalky, peeling makeup—faces occasionally thrust into the crowd—they were less threatening than heartbreakingly vulnerable, wounded. Then a neo-rock drummer started up, the lights went on, and the official fashion show began—with the wounded nightclub kids blearily applauding the show for all they were worth.
You felt like you’d been taken through something emotionally educational. Backstage, Jeffrey acknowledged the suggestion that there was painfully on display. “There’s growing pains, yes. It’s what you feel from being bullied when you’re young, for being gay. I wanted to revisit those feelings—and that feeling I had on a Monday morning, ‘One day, I’ll show them!’ I wanted to make this show about an exploration of that anger, accepting it, rather than always being joyous and fancy-free.”
Jeffrey quoted the influences of Claes Oldenburg’s happenings and the fierce and emotional pull of his Scottish heritage (Pictish patterns on knits, merging seamlessly with the attitudes of punk and graffiti art), but the real basis of the whole reckoning was a book. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by the American clinical psychologist Alan Downs—required reading, as far as Charles Jeffrey sees it. Young as he is, there’s a sense of responsibility in this guy. Opening up like this in a personal way only makes his credibility as a leader and educator of dazzled young followers stronger. The more hard-bitten moneymakers of the fashion industry should take note.
Location Selfridges Car Park
Words by Sarah Mower