Sometimes fashion isn’t about clothes. Many designers think runway drama first, wearability second—or third, or fourth. But London-based men’s designer Christopher Shannon is out to change all that, striking a balance between catwalk confection and strung-out street cred. Here, Shannon traces the improbable road that led from working-class roots in Liverpool to a scholarship at Central St Martins and stints with Kim Jones and Judy Blame—a long haul to becoming an overnight success story. —Kay Barron
When one thinks of Liverpool, images of football and music come to mind. Fashion isn’t on the radar. How did you end up at Central St Martins?
I hated school. I only went to college on Fridays for life drawing. I finished college at 18 and all I had was a big pile of life drawings and some textiles. One night my brother had a pair of Felix Blow trousers on at the pub, and later I met one of the designers in a club. Felix Blow was massive in Japan and stocked in really cool London shops. Around that time I heard about St Martins and I knew that I had to go. As a working-class kid, it was the only way I could see to get out of Liverpool.
Did you feel an instant affinity?
Not after I got there. I had a total nervous breakdown. I hated everything. I was in a year of people who were really capable and older than me. I didn’t even know how to use a sewing machine, nor had I seen a pattern before. I hated it and still hate sitting at a sewing machine. But I got my shit together in the final year and pulled together a really good collection.
Why didn’t you go straight to the MA program after graduating?
I was just so sick of it. I wanted to get out into the world again. But it was almost impossible to get a job. I ended up working hard for no money. I was still a kid, too, and still had that energy to just go out all the time. That’s when I saw Kim Jones’ graduate collection and I started working for him.
What was it that drew you to him?
He was the only men’s designer in London at that time who had a following. He also worked with Nicola [Formichetti] and they were creating menswear images that no one had done before. The power of Kim and Nicola persuaded Topman to get behind London Fashion Week and sponsor MAN [men’s group show]. It meant that there was somewhere to go in menswear.
How do you feel about the comparisons of your work to Kim’s?
We were just on the same page at the time, using a lot of color and not interested in dramatic tailoring. I suppose it goes back to all the pop references that I was into as a kid. But we do have the same goal in mind, that we want clothes to have a broad appeal. In London it has become quite culty to celebrate designers who aren’t very accessible. Not to slate that, but I’ve always liked clothes that people wear. I feel uncomfortable whenever I’m tempted to design something more dramatic. A voice in my head says, What kind of knob would wear that?
Tell us about Judy Blame’s influence on your work.
I discovered Judy when I was about 11. He worked with all the people I really loved—Neneh Cherry, Bjork, the Sugarcubes. I met him when I worked for William Baker [Kylie Minogue’s creative director]. When I heard that Judy was coming into William’s office for a meeting, I shit myself! He was the one who defined the way I looked at things and made me want to get back into design. I was terrified about meeting him, but he was massively charming.
Okay, let’s talk about the dark moments.
Yeah, sitting on the dole back in my hometown and thinking, Fuck, what the hell am I going to do? I couldn’t get a job. I had no experience, just a book of interesting images. I went for a few really shocking interviews for shit money during the ten months I was there.
Is that why you actually did return to St Martins for your MA?
Well, not really. I knew my dole time was coming to an end and they were going to start making me work at Tesco. But I couldn’t afford to do the MA without a bursary or something. Then I went to see Louise [Wilson, MA Course Director] and she said, “Why the fuck don’t I know who you are?” And that was that. She offered me a place and I got a scholarship.
Did you find it easy to get back into design?
I knew the MA wasn’t some big shiny ticket to a job. I thought I would have to reinvent myself, but I just did what I was good at. I had spent time with Kim, Richard [Nicoll] and Jonathan [Saunders], so I knew that I really had to work hard.
Did you go back to the pop imagery that inspired you as a kid?
Yes, which was hard as I hadn’t looked at it in ages. I was worried that what I was doing was too simple, not a Fashion Week collection. Also, lots of people do sportswear, but I wanted to do sportswear with the finish of Louis Vuitton. It has to be a luxury product. I’m never going to sell in Sportsworld.
Are there any designers who you rate now?
I really like Bernhard Willhelm and Martin Margiela, because even if it looks intimidating, it’s really accessible. I got really into Helmut Lang when I was at college. Those collections were really well thought-out, but without the excessive drama. You can also see in my collections that I like Moschino, skater clothing and a bit of ostentation. Apparently there was a time when Versace sold more in Liverpool than any other non-capital European city, so I was surrounded by that kind of ostentatious fashion growing up.
You’re going into your third season at MAN. What are you thinking for spring?
It’s been a hard slog, but I’ve had loads of support from Reebok, Eastpak, Topman and ASOS. So I think we’ll keep with what we’ve been doing, develop the prints more and bring in the work we’re doing with Reebok and Eastpak. I’ll take risks, but now I don’t feel like I need to grab headlines by being tricksy. I know that there is a void for the type of work that I do and a lot of people are into it.