Phoebe English on Menswear and the Importance of Intuition

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Phoebe English Man A/W16
Phoebe English Man A/W16Photography by Maxime Imbert, Styling by Ellie Grace Cumming

Ahead of London Collections: Men, we discuss design and determination with the British designer alongside behind-the-scenes polaroids of her new menswear collection

When Phoebe English launched her first menswear collection last season, it found its way into the likes of Dover Street Market, Ssense and The Store Berlin – in fact, in one season, she ended up with half the amount of menswear stockists that it has taken her four years to build for womenswear and was self-proclaimedly "gobsmacked". But, despite its rapidity, the menswear’s ascent into some of the world’s most renowned retailers somehow makes sense; it is a natural evolution ("an evolution rather than a revolution" she quips) from her womenswear, grounded in the same esoterically beautiful silhouettes and relaxed, beautiful forms that she has developed over the course of her career.

“With womenswear, the finished product is a lot more about an atmosphere or a feeling that I’m trying to create – but with menswear, it’s a lot more garment-led,” explains English, who laughingly explains that her entry into menswear was a bit of a trial run. “I mean, I didn't ever study menswear," she continues, "And designing for men is so different to women; their approach to clothing is so different and every man has his own obsession, whether it's the length of a sleeve or a collar. So really, I knew nothing about it at all and it was all a bit of a gamble – but the good thing about what I do is that you can just try stuff out and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. It could have been a disaster, but it seems to have gone okay..." 

Her initial unfamiliarity is something that feels slightly bizarre considering the elegantly constructed basics that make up the A/W16 collection, where green waxed cotton coats and perfectly-formed grey pinstripe shirts appear a modern composite of a history of menswear – but perhaps it is English's charmingly relaxed, intuitive approach to design that results in such aesthetic ease. Further consolidating her vision is the familial way in which she works: the first of her menswear collections took direct inspiration from her boyfriend's style, long-term collaborator Ellie Grace Cumming is responsible for "working her magic" on the styling, Eddy Martin looks after the impeccable casting. The photographer who has documented her lookbooks over the past two seasons is Maxime Imbert, who she met last year when he shot her portrait for 1Granary and she "just really liked something about him."

The entire process really is as intuitive as it appears; "It’s a bit like that kind of automatic writing," she says of her design process. "I just automatically do it, and then look at it afterwards... I’m not someone who draws something then makes it, it’s a very impulsive thing. Then, I step back and ask myself, 'why did I do that?' because you have to figure out where it came from in your head." And, as we step into the first of 2016's seemingly endless fashion weeks and the reams of analysis they will inevitably provoke, remembering the value of that intuition seems more appropriate than ever.