Talent spotting: Stefan Cooke and Jake Burt
The rise of the London menswear duo
Stefan Cooke and Jake Burt have never paid much attention to the rule book, as evinced by the unveiling of their Spring/Summer 2021 collection outside of September’s four-day London Fashion Week schedule. The duo’s latest biannual showcase comprised a mostly digital schedule of fashion films, in contrast to their offering back in January, when they presented a “skeleton orchestra” set designed by Zechariah Miah as the backdrop for a collection that - rather presciently, as it turned out - they called The End.
Originally, the meaning behind the title was to do with the two designers celebrating their brand’s idiosyncratic style: in the three years since its launch, Stefan Cooke has been pushing the boundaries of menswear through innovative textile techniques. Yet arguably, the collection did mark an ending, and not only of life as we knew it, thanks to the Covid pandemic. Gone too is the perception of the duo as “young designers”, following a series of increasingly confident collections and their success in building an ever-growing list of international stockists.
“There has been an industry carved out by people like Jonathan Anderson and Craig Green, big menswear players, especially in London,” Cooke tells me when we speak two weeks before his brand’s October show. Installed behind a pattern-cutting table in the east London studio where he and Burt work their magic, Cooke continues: “Luckily, we’ve been able to be in the secondary wave of that, in terms of us being able to explore other things and it not necessarily feeling like there’s a structure you need to follow.”
Doing things their own way has certainly paid off for these two members of this second generation. Just try getting your hands on one of their button-strap bags, for example: when 50 recently went on sale at matchesfashion.com, they sold out in two hours. And when another 50 then went up, they too sold out in two hours. The vintage-sourced bags didn’t even make it to the virtual shop floor, instead being snapped up immediately by VIP customers. “There is such a market for them now,” says Cooke of what have become unintentional hero pieces. “It feels a bit more of a conscious decision on [the customer’s] behalf [to wear] something that doesn’t have a logo, something that has well thought-out design and has been executed well."
Attention to detail, handcrafts and fabrication have become brand emblems for Cooke and Burt – and are also personal obsessions, as the former explains. “I always think when I look at a pair of trousers that are quite normal, the one thing you can change to make it worth the £800 you’re trying to sell it for is the fabric.”
Cooke and Burt met while studying for Master’s degrees in fashion at Central Saint Martins, specialising in textiles and womenswear respectively. “Jake always said that he knew as soon as we got together that we were going to do something, but I was like, ‘I had no clue’. I never planned my own brand, we [only] talked about it occasionally, ‘God, wouldn’t it be amazing?’.” Yet that dream became a reality following a string of successes.
Cooke’s final-year collection won him the L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award, and the following year, in 2018, he bagged the H&M Design Award. A year later, he and his design partner made it to the finals of the LVMH Prize, a prestigious industry accolade. The duo had also been part of London talent incubator Fashion East. “There’s something about the progression of how we’ve done it that feels very [typical],” observes Cooke. That progression is also the result of a lot of hard work, however, plus a bit of luck. Indeed, those button bag straps are a fluke design rooted in the pair’s penchant for thrifting.
“In the beginning, we were creating this identity for someone who wasn’t there, but now there is such a customer and there are people buying every season. It was quite amazing to work that from the ground up. What people really enjoy about our collections is that there will be loads of wearable clothes, but in between there will be things that have taken hours and hours of patience to make because of the textiles.” This autumn, Cooke and Burt’s designs feature patterns based on vintage woodblock stamps, laser etching, and studded and riveted denim (a collaboration with Lee Jeans), as well as trompe l’oeil techniques and air-brushed leather pieces.
The duo feel confident about their new collection, conceived during such unprecedented times. “I think people have been searching for something and I think that thing is right there in front of them,” says Cooke. “I think it’s nice to quite clearly be like, ‘This is the thing we’re all here for and it’s some good clothes and some cute shoes.’”