50 years of experienced and applied menswear history: a conversation with London College of Fashion’s teaching legend Alan Cannon Jones
Alan Cannon Jones was my pattern cutting teacher at London College of Fashion (where I studied Fashion Design Technology/menswear).
He turns 70 this Christmas which means his life spans over 5o year of experienced and applied menswear history. This man must not only be the loveliest teacher on this planet but is a walking menswear encyclopedia.
He had spent 22 years in the industry when he was approached by the London College of Fashion where he was a teacher for 29 years and retired in 2012. He still does consultancy work and gives master classes as an associate lecturer.
His formative years were in the 60s which means they coincided with one of the first youth movements that ever happened: mod. It was an era when teenagers had – and that was the news – their own disposable income and started to dress differently from their parents.
Cannon Jones talks us through several decades of menswear history: from his own teenage years to when dressing down became acceptable in the 70s and from a time in the 80s, when (unbelievably) boxy German suits were more fashionable than bespoke tailoring from Savile Row, to the 90s when things became more Italian again (we’re talking Armani’s influence). Plus: his prediction for the future of formal dressing.
You were an apprentice at Nicholson & Co, a coat manufacturer, in the beginning of the 60s. That’s basically when the youth movement started and when the youth finally had their own disposable income and stopped dressing like their parents. How did you experience that time?
It was an amazing time. I was aged 13 in 1960 so the whole of my teenage years were in the 60s. I can’t think of a decade that’s been as exciting.
We had, from mid to late 50s, this sort of youth rebellion. We called them teddy boys and it was the start of Rock ’n’ roll, with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis. And these teddy boys would wear these long draped jackets and it was a complete rebellion against their parents. Older men were all wearing a three piece business suit.
And then there was this sudden switch, because as soon as we got to the 60s, the British Rock ’n’ roll guys started to come on stronger, so we got people like Cliff Richards, Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele and it was the beginning of the Beatles as well.
We saw a big change. The menswear in ’62 was very Italian influenced and it was a very short boxy jacket which we used to call a bum freezer as it didn’t cover your bum. It had three buttons which you all buttoned up. From that became the mod movement by the mid 60s. The fabric that was developed then by Dormeuil was „Tonik“, a shark skin Mohair. It looked like shark skin but it was a Wool and Mohair mix, quite a light weight, sort of 300 grams and we either had them black or a very dark grey and it was a really shiny cloth.
The drug scene, which unfortunately I have never been involved in, rose to the surface. They took an upper called Blue Heart. It was a blue pill and basically it kept you awake and you could stay up all night.
A lot of London clubs then were jazz clubs. It moved from jazz to rhythm and blues because there was a lot of United States army stationed in the UK and it was the American servicemen that came into London on the weekend that used to go to the jazz clubs. So they didn’t use to start until around 11 o’clock and went through to six o’clock in the morning. I didn’t go to many, I struggled to survive after 2am. These clubs were called all-nighters, the most famous one was The Marquee Club.
I’d say probably everybody over the age of 35 wore this very conservative three piece suit but the teenagers and people in their twenties went from teddy boy (which I never was) into this very short Italian influence in the beginning of the 60s which moved into the mod in the mid 60s.
So you were too young to be a teddy boy but you jumped straight into the Italian or mod look?
Yes, I wore the Italian for a couple of years and then the mod thing came on with longer jackets, conventional length but a very slim fit. But the main thing about it was the cloth. If you didn’t have a Tonik suit, nobody talked to you. It had to be black, dark charcoal or midnight blue.
Where did you get your clothes and suits from back then?
I was very fortunate that I started my apprenticeship in 1962. The first suit I’ve ever bought was just from a shop, called Irvin Sellars in St Albans, the town where I lived. And that was one of these Italian inspired short suits and then of course I started my apprenticeship, so I always made my own suits and I still do.
A few things happened in the 60s. Designers started to be recognised. The two main influences for menswear were Hardie Amies and Pierre Cardin and people started to respect designers. And of course another thing that influenced mens fashion at that time was James Bond. Sean Connery, the way he dressed and all this stuff was made in Savile Row by Anthony Sinclair.
It might be difficult for you to imagine this but we suddenly had things in colour. We didn’t have a television set until I was a teenager and although colour was around most things were still broadcast in black and white. In the 60s we became very aware of colour and that helped with the flower power or the hippies. Colour became so important. Even within Savile Row you had people like Tommy Nutter and a guy called Michael Fish who was in shirts and ties. Mr. Fish he was known as, and he did really colourful shirts and ties with these big tulip collars. It was very dandyish.
The Kinks did a record „The dedicated follower of fashion“. That really talked about what was happening in London in the 60s. Young people, Carnaby Street, the fashion, a lot of colour in menswear. And music. It all happened at the same time, fashion and music – all came together.
Where there any other pivotal points in menswear?
Yes, in each decade. If you take the 70s, that’s when suddenly we got these flared trousers. It went from being very straight drainpipe trousers to the flared trouser. That’s when the whole disco thing started, the Bee Gees, John Travolta. So it changed from the early Rock ’n’ roll into the R&B jazzy 60s into disco music in the 70s and that’s also when people like David Bowie came on who had a huge influence on mens fashion. I once cut a jacket for David Bowie. He made an album called Pinups, it was one of the jackets he wore for the photo shoots.
What did it look like?
It was very, very square shouldered, wide shoulders, and then very shaped into the waist. It was very short and only came down to his hips.
What would you say is the change in attitude towards clothes in the 70s then?
It was still an era when you really had to wear a suit. If you were going out for the evening you would wear a suit, whereas today you rarely do. It has to be quite a formal occasion and even if you’re going out to a nice restaurant, you can actually wear jeans with a nice jacket. There were a lot of places that you wouldn’t be allowed in if you wore jeans and even in a lot of pubs, and I can remember this going to pubs and dances, you had to wear a collar and tie, they wouldn’t let you in the door. And that was still pretty much going on in the 70s. But for the disco you wouldn’t need a suit anymore and obviously that changed the attitude towards formal dressing which continues until today.
In the 80s we started to see quite a Scandinavian influence in menswear which shifted to a German influence with companies like Regent, Bäumler or Greiff. Towards the end of the 80s and into the 90s is when the strong Italian influence came back. In the 90s everybody was looking at Armani, that was a big influence.
In the 80s, were brands like Regent or Bäumler well known, like today Boss or Armani, when you went out to buy a suit in London?
Oh yes, they were. But the most popular ones were always Greiff and Bäumler. They were more affordable. Regent and Windsor, they were more expensive, more in the Brioni price range.
And we still refer to it as a very German cut. When I was doing my apprenticeship back in the 60s the company I worked for had quite a lot of business in Europe and we had patterns for every country because each body shape was different, which I still think is quite true because of heritage and lifestyle and diet.
Belgian men were always seen as very solidly built. Like Hercule Poirot. Quite round. And then next to that, slightly smaller was Germany but then the French and Italians were slimmer. We had our patterns for each country. Whenever we were making suits for the different countries, they would all be cut from a specific block and that has changed so much now, with all this stuff coming out of China and the Far East, it’s like all being cut on one block, as if every man in the world is the same figure type which is crazy.
So the German look was this boxier look, it was an easy fit because the German man was considered to be, what we call a stout man.
I wonder why it became so popular then in the 80s. You got the best tailors in London. I cant get my head around that. Why buy a Bäumler suit if you have Savile Row?
Business in Savile Row really dipped in the 80s. A lot of companies folded. The problem with Savile Row was, they never changed, they were still all about this very classic three piece suit. They believed that their money would always came from old money, royal families, maybe a few Hollywood stars. But they did nothing to recruit young customers. They really had a hard time and it wasn’t until into the 90s that they really woke up.
There was a lot of young people with new money, when footballers started to get the kind of silly money they get today and all that and also young businessmen. Suddenly there was a younger, international businessman who travelled the world, possibly had at least two homes, here or New York or the Far East.
Suddenly they woke up to this young, international businessman and they started to seriously reinvent themselves. The companies you see in Savile Row today, they are the ones that actually changed and brought in a younger clientele.
There’s a lot of sportswear and informal dressing today, even in business. Where do you see the future of tailoring – is it disappearing or is it a matter of the social sphere you move in, perhaps?
I come from an era when we saw the first astronaut, the Russian Yuri Gagarin, go into space. I saw the first man on the moon and I really believed that moving on maybe ten, 15 years, we would be regularly traveling to the moon and having holidays there. That is as far away now as it was then. There’s the prediction and then there is reality.3
I don’t think we will ever see a disappearance of formal clothing. I think people have the choice these days and in the way the work place has changed, how you work and where you work has changed, so that you can go to work wear casual clothing which is more comfortable but when you look at casual clothing in the work place, it’s not cheap casual clothing.
And I think myself, going forward the next couple of decades, I can see changes in style, I can see progression in fabric. I think we’re starting to see good technical fabrics, so we’ll see a change in fabrics that are available, but I still think there will be a call for good tailored, particularly upper body, jackets and some people will want to wear suits … it’ll be the tailored jacket and I see this strongly in womenswear
In fact your own chancellor, Angela Merkel, if you look at her, the strength in her dressing is in the jacket she wears. I’m not even sure … she seems to always wear black trousers, the strength of her character comes through in the jackets she wears. I think tailoring is going to continue to have a good future.
Now, I’m not gonna say it’s an expanding market but I don’t think it’s a vanishing market. I think it’s becoming more niche and it will continue as that. The people with money that do spend a lot of it on their clothes, with several homes, maybe a yacht, they wear their loafers without any socks and their rolled up chinos but they’re always wearing a superb tailored jacket. I can see that continuing.
Menswear in the UK is predicted to be growing for 5 per cent a year for the next five years. Some made-to-measure companies have seen a 5 to 6 percent increase in menswear.
I have a good friend who has a business in Nottingham in England, he’s been in business a bit more than 25 years. He does silk and cashmere dressing gowns that start at 3000 GBP and his business is growing. Again, it’s these international business people, they don’t order one, they always order a minimum of three so they have one in each home and one to travel with. There is this luxury end that is quietly doing very well.
Title image: Editorial in Männer Vogue (Mens Vogue Germany) August 1987