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Cottweiler: London menswear’s most underrated label

Born from Tumblr, inspired by sportswear fetishism and with an impressive list of creative collaborators, get to know the compelling, overlooked world of Cottweiler

From FKA twigs to Yung Lean, Skepta to the ICA, London label Cottweiler’s fans and collaborators include an army of musical and artistic pioneers. With their brand having taken root on Tumblr rather than in the atelier of some lofty house, the approach of designers Matthew Dainty and Ben Cottrell is radical – highly concept-driven, they find inspiration from the worlds of digital art, sportswear fetishism and even the overlooked and brilliantly banal, like patio furniture. Founded in 2010, the brand self-define as contemporary luxury, but their style is definitely drawn from sportswear. If fashion was architecture, Cottweiler and performance sportswear’s emphasis on form following function, minimalism and technology would be seen as exemplars of enlightened civilisation, instead of being disdained by snobs.

Having previously displayed a collection in the form of a Hare Krishna-inspired live installation and in sets that range from a dystopic cornfield to a grey-carpeted office space, this LC:M marked the duo’s first runway show. Against the raw concrete of a chamber deep in London’s 180 The Strand, models walked on a catwalk scattered with broken bowls and plates in tracksuits and shorts, silhouettes that Dainty says were made to “work our classic tracksuit in a new way, to find the relationship between British and European fit.” 

Dainty explained that the SS17 collection and show were about a “new future Mediterranean civilisation, a mix of the ancient, North African and European.” Accordingly, most of the lads walking were French-Algerian, north African or of mixed European heritage. Of course, this vision of a new Mediterranean currently seems like a utopian idea, with so much European dread of those peoples on the other side of the Med. However, for most of history, the Mediterranean was a superhighway for such luminous civilisations as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the Romans, and the early Islamic caliphates that did so much to innovate maths and science during Europe’s dark ages. Directly relating to this new Mediterranean vision were dusty pink tracksuits in a super lightweight synthetic suede the “colour of Turkish social housing,” and cargo pocket styled neoprene diving shorts, which Dainty labels “a kind of super scuba sporty technical look.” In other words, there was a lot more to this than simple sportswear.

Adding a further level of meaning to the show was the soundtrack – a mix of fierce 21st-century electronica and mystic vocals, the track was titled “Palmeray” and produced by Tokyo-based, French-Algerian singer-producer Ta-Ha in collaboration with Paris-based hip-hop producer Myth-Syzer. Fiercely proud of her roots, 24-year-old Ta-Ha is named after the 20th chapter of the Qur’an and labels herself as “from the French projects”. Building on the show’s meta-narrative, the musician identified with its modus operandi. “Cottweiler wanted to relate the ancient Mediterranean world to today’s youth, it’s a mix you hear in my sound,” she explains. 

“Social media has changed the balance of power in deciding who or what succeeds in fashion – and the internet has always had Cottweiler’s back”

Given the thought and hard work that goes into their output, it’s disappointing that the mainstream fashion media, as if blinded by too many zips and cuffed trouser legs, haven’t sat up and paid attention to the artistic and technical merit in Cottweiler’s work. In previous seasons it was even said that the designers were “too late” for the streetwear moment – as if comfort and function could only be an interruption in menswear, or as if men haven’t been wearing trackpants and baseball caps for decades. It’s not as if others can’t spot the label’s cultural resonance. Gosha Rubchinskiy and Wolfgang Tillmans were both at the show, two men who have done much to frame male identity – and in Rubchinskiy’s case, acknowledge sportswear’s inherently subversive nature and place it within an artful context.

Luckily, social media has changed the balance of power in deciding who or what succeeds in fashion – and the internet has always had Cottweiler’s back. In fact, the brand was a Tumblr meme before it was really even a label. Before they had stockists, Dainty and Cottrell would put together collections and then release a few images on the blogging site. At the time, Dainty thought “Cottweiler as an expression of pure creativity should be enough.” Like a fashion version of Plato’s Theory of Forms, this “pure” idea of Cottweiler preceded the clothing itself. Films were put out before wholesales were made, and the brand became known not through a logo or hype around products, but through a growing interest in their aesthetic. For those first three or four seasons, Cottweiler was a side project, making a tiny number of pieces to order, while Cottrell and Dainty worked on other things.

Only from AW13 did a collection as such exist and wholesaling happen, just as their influence across the web was picking up. That first “proper” collection – mostly in black, or with white highlights, and styled with an emphasis on performance sportswear – was heavily referenced by the Health Goth Facebook page. Health Goth, a trend born from the internet, was a style concept that become Google’s second most searched trend of 2014 – proving once more the powerful influence online communities, the digital swarm, can have on shaping fashion, rather than the other way around. Dainty sees this more modern way of building the buzz around a label as usefully direct for someone trying to run a business and make some cash. “Our primary relationship coming up was with the customers and the fans,” he says – “rather than the critics.” It was around this time that the duo met rapper and Sad Boy in chief Yung Lean, who’s now often spotted in their gear – like Cottweiler, he too owes his initial success not to establishment media or radio-play, but to the early-adapting world of Tumblr.

Cottweiler’s online aesthetic fits in with the overclean, hyperreal, purposefully corporate imagery you see posted all over Soundcloud, Tumblr and on screens in galleries across the planet now. Their artwork, lookbooks, collaborative fashion shoots and films often reference the “digital coldness, harsh visions of the future, glossy, metallic, HD rendering, cybernetic soundscapes” of what University of Oxford tutor Adam Harper describes on his Rougesfoam blog as the now dominant indie style, the Hi-Tech aesthetic. See the films of Cottweiler collaborator animator Daniel Swan, the film the brand made with Novembre, or Diamond Black Hearted Boy’s track, “Damaged Mech Walking Through The Outskirts of Neo-Dubai”, for reference.

In this age dominated by HD, virtual reality, Oculus Rift, and MMORPG gaming, it seems instinctive now to feel that reality is or should be transmutable – that anything can transform into anything. Indeed, Cottweiler often seem to be cross referencing their clothes and the environments they exist or might exist in – whether virtually or IRL. For SS15, they designed clothing that referenced tiling, glass and aluminium doors and patio furniture, as explored in hyperreal 3d in the film above. That collection debuted via a short collaborative happening at the ICA, led by Cottweiler and NTS radio, that included performances by FKA twigs and Palmistry – an artist Cottrell and Dainty do a lot of art direction for. 

And then there’s the sexuality that sits opposite the coldness of these digital worlds. As with their watersports-themed “Ideal Standard” presentation for AW14, some of Cottweiler’s work either directly references fetish or just easily sits next to sportswear fetishists’ own imagery – the kind where scally lads are getting down in trackies and trainers. But mostly for Dainty and Cottrell fetish doesn’t imply hardcore. Their images are cleaner, sharper, bolder, and always less explicit than that. This is a sort of branding genius – after all, marketing departments are forever making subliminal and not-so-subliminal efforts to connect with our more vanilla sexual desires. Uniquely, Cottweiler’s images can sometimes work both in the sorts of browser tabs we curate in the hope the world will recognise our creative genius, and the sort of the browser tabs we probably close right after cumming. In a world where our commodity fetishism is encouraged, but our sexual fetishes are still shamed, Cottweiler deserve extra credit for helping to resolve the sort of cognitive dissonances that can really fuck you up.

“Our primary relationship coming up was with the customers and the fans, rather than the critics” – Matthew Dainty

Fetishists also tend to fetishise material, and unsurprisingly Cottweiler are big on fabric research. “A lot of people confuse branding and marketing with luxury,” Dainty insists, saying that “Cottweiler’s take on luxury is quite traditional in the sense that lots of time and thought goes into using the finest fabrics.” For their AW15 collection, they released a liquid black tracksuit, made out of an Italian-sourced fabric made up of silk and a transparent synthetic yarn woven together, creating a solid black surface that appears to have depth and contain moving reflective shapes within. Above all, Cottweiler are known for transparent fabrications. As Dainty tells it, “We wanted to play with fabric and colour without being obvious,” – instead “creating interest within the fabric is our aim.” New for SS17 is a “transparent linen, with a really high gloss finish to it, that’s actually breathable too because it’s really fine super coated mesh that creates the effect of a transparent yarn.”

The pair say they don’t really buy fashion, instead they obsess over clothing from outside of that world. In terms of their collections, this means drawing inspiration from diving shoes, hazmat boots or working with Gaston Mille, a French safetywear manufacturer. “We look to incorporate the functional details, fabrications, ease of use, and especially with footwear that combination of comfort and protection,” Dainty explains. Last season Cottweiler were sponsored by a Grimsby-based concrete finishing shoe manufacturer Shoe-in Pro, and because of that, the designers proudly explain they were featured on Floorinsite, a flooring industry website.

The broken pottery on the runway at LC:M was meant to represent the future ruins of their planned new Mediterranean civilisation, taking us forward to a time when someone will revere that society in the way we revere the ancient Greeks today. In this way, Cottweiler attempts to tune our real lives and the technology we use to a sense of history, to the mythic. It’s easy to do this in the digital realm, easy enough in the context of an installation or show, but way harder with a sweatshirt. AW15’s mining and mineral-themed presentation played the same game. Cottweiler placed their models on top of metal filing cabinets on top of stone piles to “show appreciation for manmade materials and the materials man makes from nature.” The filing cabinets were also an attempt to place “a mundane object in a different context, making its beauty recognisable again.”

In exactly the same way you can understand trackpants either as ordinary, or an incredible, magical achievement wrought from advanced manufacturing, global supply chains and textile chemistry. As the filing cabinet readymades were presented and reborn as something monumental and mythic, in a similar way Cottweiler aim to make over safety wear and sportswear as something sublime too.