The Engine Room
Having established himself as a visceral headliner on the London schedule, this season sees Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOY relocate to Milan with the intention to, in his own words, “grow a new muscle.” Known for subverting tradition, pushing boundaries of gender and distorting British subcultural energy, Jeffrey is keen to transpose his Glaswegian roots to a new fashion capital. Having visited Milan last year, Jeffrey tells us how the city reminded him of his Glasgow home city: “It’s a working city, the people are expressive, friendly, family orientated and they love their food.”
Last season saw a mature take on creative liberation and hedonistic club culture with soft 80s tailoring and delicate knitwear in a predominantly pastel colour palette, this season he tells us he’s built a multi-layered narrative inspired by Scottish artist John Byrne. Titled ‘The Engine Room’, Jeffrey’s upcoming show (taking place this Sunday) will see him weave influences from the work of Byrne with 1950s Teddy Boys and the music of Oliver Sim. Before his Milan debut, we caught up with the designer to chat about what sparked the move, his musical muses and the importance of sticking to your guns.
Ella Joyce: It’s your first time showing in Milan, congratulations! What sparked the decision to show there and what does Milan mean to you?
Charles Jeffrey: Thank you! It was an interesting decision because London felt like our home. I started from scratch there and I was like, “Oh my god I’m at London Fashion Week, this is the pinnacle of my career it’s amazing!” We were part of London Collection Men’s even though we’re a queer brand and pretty gender fluid, but I liked being part of the men’s schedule because it meant I had a bit of friction to work against. I was showing a different take on menswear and it was such a shame post-Covid that London Menswear kind of died. My business is set up to sell in January and June so we were thinking about shifting our production over and still showing in London but it just didn’t work so we thought, “Let’s graduate into a bigger pond and start playing with the bigger fishes.” I went to Milan and Paris Men’s Fashion Week last year to scope it out and make a decision, when I went to Milan it completely reminded me of Glasgow. It’s a working city, the people are expressive, friendly, family orientated and they love their food, there was something that felt very similar to Glasgow.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Milan before, I interned in Paris and lived in Paris so I know the city really well. I went to a couple of different fashion weeks in Milan and I was like, “No one is really doing what I’m doing,” I think it’s a really interesting space for me to be myself. When I went to Paris and got to see all my friend’s shows and see all the greats, I thought, “I’m not ready for this yet.” I think that’s your crown and glory. I think some brands do the whole fake it until you make it thing and go straight to Paris to be that Parisian brand, but the nice thing about LOVERBOY is we’ve always been really authentic about who we are. I’ve never lied and tried to say I’m something I’m not, we’re a small business who have some support now but we’re still trundling around and I think it’s nice for us to go to Milan and be around people who feel similar to those I’ve grown up with. I want to grow a new muscle here and understand what it’s like, it’s a big week! Already seeing all the press, the attendants and the hubbub of doing a show is huge – it’s a big difference.
EJ: It’s interesting you notice the parallels between Milan and Glasgow, I’m sure not everyone would make that connection… [both laugh]
CJ: Not at all, Glasgow can be a bit of a shit hole! [laughs] I romanticise Glasgow because it’s where I developed myself, I think about Glasgow more in terms of the people and the culture you find there. Obviously, Milan is really beautiful and at the moment it has this beautiful winter sun but there are lovely places like that in Glasgow as well. I think there is an industrial side to Milan and when you go behind some of that concrete you find these pockets of brilliance which remind me a lot of Glasgow.
EJ: What can we expect from this season – can you tease a few influences?
CJ: I’m really proud we get to do a show for this season because it was the first time I decided to write a story and come up with my own world. I’ve always created my own world, but it’s always been very rushed, whereas this time I actually had time to sit and respond to some inspiration. I took a lot of inspiration from the Scottish artist John Byrne who is sort of a renaissance man, he’s a playwright, an artist and a sculptor. I was introduced to him by Tilda Swinton because he was the father of her children. I’d never resonated so much with someone’s work before. He’s from a different period, he was born in 1940 but all the things he did married quite a lot with my upbringing: we’re both from working-class backgrounds, he saved to go to art school and developed himself. He has this amazing body of work which focuses on the subcultures of 50s Teddy Boys and magical, mythical paganistic scenes, plus The Slab Boys is an amazing colloquial play on words. I was really inspired by that and I wanted to respond to it with my own world so I created this concept called ‘The Engine Room’ and it’s part of a sky city called ‘Azuka’, which was also birthed from the album project we did. I created these three separate subcultures called ‘The Workers’, ‘The Posers’ and ‘The Snakes’ and they all live within this world, the beautiful thing about it is its kind of like doing character design.
Designing a collection nowadays is very tedious, you have to do a lot of merchandising, it’s responding to things, it’s about knowing what factories can do. It’s not about just doing a sketch and working with your pattern cutters, it’s very methodical and you have to go between things. I think coming up with this story and having all these tidbits which govern design details has oiled that machine a little bit and made everything easier, my design team really responded to it. I’m giving away quite a lot, but from my side it feels like it’s the finale of a film or a trailer and you get to meet all the characters. At the same time it’s also not going to be madly performative with things flying around everywhere, it’s a show and it’s grown up – we’re in Milan. We’ve been doing this for nearly six or seven years now so it’s about the clothing, it’s about the looks, it’s about the individual. I’m just so excited to share it.
EJ: You always have such great music recommendations, what have you been listening to in the studio when designing this collection?
CJ: I think for this collection specifically I was dancing in between two worlds, I was listening to a lot of 50s crooners like The Flamingos but I’ve also been really inspired by Oliver Sim and his new body of work. He was a big inspiration to me last year in terms of his music, his journey and his world. We’re remixing one of his songs for the finale of the show, as the last part of the catwalk is happening you’ll hear his voice come through. It’s been about mixing crooner elements with something that is quite experimental or industrial. You’ve got to have a fashion beat, do you know what I mean? You’ve got to have models stomping, that’s what really gets your goosebumps going. The show soundtrack is fucking amazing I can’t wait to release it.
EJ: Has a change in location influenced any changes in the collection?
CJ: Logistically it has meant we had to finish a lot earlier. We’ve been so organised, the collection was finished in November so it’s been done for a while – we’re already working on June. There have of course been conversations where I’ve thought, “Oh it’s Milan, we’ve got to do this!” But actually looking at it and what it’s going to be, it’s just authentic, it’s who we are and I think it needs to be like that because I don’t really know anyone who is doing anything in the way we are. We’ve got people like Francesco [Risso] at Marni who does such amazing work and I love what Jeremy [Scott] does as well, but we’ve got our own little song and our own little harmony, I think it’s important to show Milan an authentic self. If I went to Milan and did a minimal thing it would be cool but that isn’t sustainable because our customers would be upset. It’s always just about being yourself.
EJ: Finally, can you sum up the collection in three words?
CJ: I’m going to go for four words. [laughs] I would say it’s traditional, it’s painterly, it’s efficient and it’s unexpected.
GALLERYCharles Jeffrey LOVERBOY FW23 / Behind the scenes