Silhouette is everything. That’s what’s compelling about what the young London designers Stefan Cooke and Jake Burt, partners designing under the name of the former, can lay claim to. Because, especially in menswear, silhouettes change slowly, often reflecting radical shifts that originate in fashion and come to affect the wider sphere of style.
In the 1980s, for instance, the relaxed, deconstructed tailoring of Giorgio Armani shifted the way a generation of men looked; 20 years later, Hedi Slimane slim-lined suits during his tenure at Dior, and then Thom Browne tugged them tight, abbreviating the ankle and wrist. Today, the influence is sports and workwear-influenced, eased, wide-cut, born from the styles proposed by Kim Jones, Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton and Craig Green (that is to say, a broad trouser leg and square-cut jacket). While it may be hyperbolic to say that Cooke and Burt – 30 and 31 respectively – could have the same influence, their work is already causing a shift, rather than reflecting it.
The big silhouette story with Cooke and Burt’s work is simple. It’s tight – skin-tight – a riposte to that influential, easier silhouette of later. When it comes to the output of fashion colleges, the inspiration to be felt has been of Craig Green, whose designs are reminiscent of utilitarian attire, martial arts clothing and ceremonial garb. When it came to his own graduation from Central Saint Martins’ esteemed MA course, the impact Cooke’s clothes made came from his pursuit of an opposite but apposite aesthetic. He used miles of elastic, hand-woven to create tactile, irregular surfaces ultimately stitched into narrow, girdle-taut silhouettes. The elastic was printed with photographic details of garments, inside and out, in a complex mapping of imagery that resulted in endearingly mundane results – a trench coat with chequered interior, a biker jacket with trompe l’oeil zips. Each piece of elastic had to be printed four times. The result was an odd, unseen halfway point between Marcel Duchamp and Hervé Léger.
Graduating in February 2017, Cooke was joint recipient of the highly coveted L’Oréal Professional Creative Award. In December of the same year, he received the H&M Design Award for 2018, worth €50,000 (full disclosure: I was a member of that jury). And, even then, his clothes attracted more mainstream attention: that spring, he collaborated with the French brand Faith Connexion to spin off a few attention-grabbing pieces from his graduation show into a commercial reality of heavy-duty Lycra jeans cleverly constructed in horizontal bands. A few months later, he and Burt presented their first show as part of London talent incubator Fashion East. Since last June, they’ve been flying solo.
Stefan Cooke is interesting because it’s the full package: silhouette, sure, but also innovative visuals, inventive construction and conceptual nous. Taking a leaf from Martin Margiela, the clothes fetishise normality, using basic garments – a trench, a pair of jeans, a granny handbag, an argyle sweater – as the basis for extreme pieces. Those argyle knits are made from plastic plates, or scissored open; the granny handbags come encased in plastic, and the stretched silhouettes distort everything else. Cooke and Burt’s clothes manage somehow to be extraordinary and ordinary, avant-garde yet anchored in reality. They’re special.