Katie Eary belongs to a generation of young designers who are taking menswear into a new era, changing how we buy and think about men’s clothing. Known for her playful use of silks and imagery, her grace and boldness has allowed her to pave her own way in fashion, placing menswear centre stage. The career of the London-based designer has told the story of an evolving menswear industry which grows alongside her own success. For Eary, it is reality that she is really interested in and is an idea that carries through her designs. “Reality is painful, sad and beautiful, so I always strive to look at all of that and never, ever turn away”, she tells Men’s Fashion Ireland in a phone interview on her commute from Notting Hill. We catch up with her just as she leaves the studio where she had been finalising prints for a client. Her interest in what’s real is what defines her long-time love for the novels of Irvine Welsh, saying “people actually live like that every single day and there’s loads of them. So you can’t ignore it”. The concurrence of the release of her Spring/Summer 17 collection, alongside the anticipated sequel to cult classic film Trainspotting earlier this year, had been meticulously thought out, the self-professed book nerd and Trainspotting superfan explains: “I’d been waiting to do a collection based on one of the Trainspotting lot for so long… it should have come out in 2013 or ’14 or something, and it would have been 20 years. So I sort of knew something was going to happen.”
For her Spring/Summer 17 collection, the British designer took inspiration from Welsh’s The Blade Artist, a sequel to Trainspotting. The novel follows the journey of a reformed, and even successful Francis Begbie on his return home to Scotland, only to soon fall back into his usual destructive behaviours. Begbie, the unruly hardman from the Trainspotting series, played by Robert Carlyle, represents a curiosity for Eary, and is the driving influence behind the collection. With the requirement of traveling for work coming with her success, Eary often finds her muses in books, “The Blade Artist came out just in time because I was traveling so much last year, I spent half of my life in an airport. I saw the book, bought it, and it was brilliant”. The collection follows the story of Begbie now. Eary found herself pondering – perhaps during her long-haul flights or departure delays – what he wore then in the 90s against what she imagines he would wear now. “Because in the book he’s got a bit of money, he’s a famous artist, he’s got a bit of something about him, but he’s still so dark.” This idea takes form in the collection through the iconography of the ubiquitous barracuda, to which she makes comparisons. The seaside theme continued throughout the showcase, which saw netting, buoys and other ocean paraphernalia hang from the ceiling to decorate the space, even identifiable by the styling of the “wet fish hair” that the models donned. As a nod to Tommy Hilfiger, she tells us she lifted the idea of the American flag, punctuated by stars along the sleeves, calling it the kind of 90s sportswear that she imagines her favourite character would have worn in the first novel. And now, having come into a bit of money, “he wants to feel a bit chic. But he can’t take that inner chav out”.
As her plush, peachy-hued hair may suggest, she exudes a convivial and care-free spirit. And when talking about the subject of the novel, of which she is a major aficionado, Eary becomes infectiously excitable. Much like when we discuss her beginnings in fashion. She tells us that before graduating from her Masters in Menswear Design from the Royal College of Art, London, her path into menswear did not initially arise from a great deal of interest in the area. Having begun in Contour, which is underwear and swimwear, she asked to, instead, transfer into fashion, to which the college administration replied: “Well yeah you can, but you have to do menswear, because that’s the only thing that’s available”, she recounts, “so they were sort of handing it to me like it was like the worst thing ever, and at the time I was like ‘ugh boring’”– she now jests with a hindsight which offers a becoming self-awareness. Eight years on from her graduation from the Royal College of Art, Eary’s career has been anything but boring, with a client base that is as diverse as it is star-studded. This includes her ongoing working relationship with rapper, turned fashion mogul of Yeezy Kanye West, which saw her designs make their way across the whole spectrum of Kardashians who wore her bespoke, white fur jackets for NYFW AW16 last year.
Celebrity endorsement is not new for Eary, however, and has become almost synonymous with her brand’s identity and an integral part of her story. Praising the British press on their support of the graduate collections of Masters students, she tells of her big break, which soon followed as a result of this. A stylist, who had seen her menswear collection, approached her to dress 90s supermodel and British Style Icon Kate Moss in her designs. Not the typical response to a graduate collection, this came as a surprise to Eary, who recalls: “I didn’t expect those kind of requests immediately, I thought that would be kind of, I’d have to put a couple of years in first to get there.” Photographed by Mario Testino, the images went on to grace the pages of British Vogue, despite the collection being originally intended for men. This theme appears to follow the designer through her career and has led to the addition of a seemingly inevitable womenswear appendage to the initially menswear brand. When I ask her what she thinks her being trained in menswear can offer womenswear she tells me: “I guess what I thought is men’s clothes [is what] women want to wear. Which is completely unintentional. It’s funny, whenever I’m on to something new, the first people to buy it are always, always womenswear buyers. So I couldn’t even tell you, when I did a Masters in menswear, the first person to wear it was Kate Moss and it’s Vogue, a woman’s magazine.”
“the reason that London Fashion Week Men’s even exists is because it was myself and probably, I don’t know, like eight others making so much noise tacked on the end of Women’s Fashion Week that they had to create a Men’s Fashion Week.”
Although, Eary’s initial reaction to studying Menswear Design is not entirely invalid. At the time of her beginning in design, men’s clothing was a bit boring. There was nothing like the level of interest in it as we enjoy today, and men’s self-expression had yet to be appropriated in the name of fashion: “Well it was 2003, so it was when it was starting to get exciting. Like Dior, Raf was doing his thing and it was so, it was exciting, but it’s just nowhere near what it is now.” Looking back, for Eary, “It was like there was no rules, there still are no rules, but just everything seemed so new then and so fresh to do stuff on such a mad scale. I think it did seem quite new at the time”. Eary, designer and director of her independent label, little did she know at the time, would go on to flourish alongside the menswear industry. Her beginnings as a men’s fashion designer were the grassroots of the menswear campaign which has taken hold, and she reminisces to say that “the reason that London Fashion Week Men’s even exists is because it was myself and probably, I don’t know, like eight others making so much noise tacked on the end of Women’s Fashion Week that they had to create a Men’s Fashion Week.” Now, Eary shows at LFW:M and is a staple of the weekend schedule. The Menswear industry in Britain is estimated to be worth £14.1 billion and accounts for 25% of the total clothing market, according to Mintel’s British Lifestyles in 2016.
Piercing the noise which fills the background of passing traffic, occasional bleeps of public transport and the added inconvenience of dodgy reception, Eary’s thick, London accent sings as she meanders between topics. Her honesty and openness in discussion is utterly refreshing as the observant designer tells me how she sees the industry today. Having upped and left for LA, only to recoil to London soon after, she says: “I had loads of plans to go to the US and just leave London. Kind of just like left everything and thought, ‘you know what? I’m going to have a break’. And then I got to LA and I was just like ‘actually I fucking hate it here’. So I came back and I was just like ‘oh I’ll just do a collection and see what happens.’” Hesitant of sounding too negative about the industry that she is a part of, she explains how, after working eight years in it, it is now a completely different industry. “People themselves, designers themselves become fashionable, where they are in one minute and out the next and it’s so disposable, it’s kind of scary. So unless you’ve got like a real good core skill set, I think it’s more heartbreaking than ever.” She goes on to say that “in [her] time, there were so many designers who, at one point, were absolutely thriving, now they’ve just completely disappeared and that happens more and more and more”.
Read the full interview in the Spring/Summer 17 issue of Men’s Fashion Ireland.