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When an Intellectual Picks Fashion as his Target

Liam Maher, head designer at new label Denham, takes us on a mysterious ride through the corridors of ideas and design that he treads . But is the Militant Guild of Rural Tailors for real?

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 18-06-2009

Next week during the Arnhem Mode Biennale, Reshaping Attitudes will hit the stage. A symposium where fashion types discuss the ideas and morality underpinning what they do. Liam Maher, head of design, at Amsterdam’s newest and most interesting denim brand, Denham, will participate.

It’s good news for the Dutch fashion industry that jeans genius Jason Denham has tapped cult fashion philosopher Liam Maher to join the merry band at his new venture, Denham. The outfit focuses on putting an old-fashioned, craft-oriented ethos back into the heart of fashion with an emphasis on utility, quality, values and narrative.

Maher’s idea of fusing ideals (which could almost be described as political) with fashion can be traced back to the influence of his recently deceased father, who was once the head of psychology at Harvard university. After working for big department stores a well as companies like Timberland, Oilily, Burton Snowboards and Japanese label visvim, he decided it was time to create more simpatico between his values and his work.

“My father was English and like a lot of returning WW2 veterans I think his horizons broadened after the war when it seemed you could begin to reach further on your own merit,” Maher says. “He deeply distrusted the class system … I think he thought it was corrupt and fundamentally wrong. Most of my childhood took place in the US and I remember he would council me to be cautious of inherited rights and to take advantage of the more American attitude. I guess that really stayed with me.”

Maher, however, faced a conflict. From as far back as he can remember and throughout art school, men’s tailoring, its sheer style, intricasies and beauty, had weaved its way into his heart. “The problem was that the center of men’s tailoring was along the hallowed streets of Savile Row, home to bespoke tailoring in service to the aristocracy,” he says.

Firmly entrenched in the more egalitarian values of his father, Maher, in an attempt to make more sense of his quandary, traced his way back to his paternal great-grandfather.

“He was a rural tailor in Ireland,” says Maher. “But then I started to think that that wasn’t really possible. Wasn’t it a contradiction? So I typed ‘rural tailor’ into Google and came up with a most beautiful picture of a man sitting cross-legged on a table sewing.”

It turns out that in old England and ireland, rural tailors who made durable garments for the working classes, worked cross-legged and sitting on top of tables so they could access better light without electricity. Apparently sitting “Indian style” used to be called “sitting tailorwise.”

“I really like the vibe of those kinds of clothes,” says Maher. “Railway workers, post office employees, and manual labourers … it was about tailoring utility, not aristocracy. It was about function and durability … something a bit more noble and genuine than the pure flattery of Savile Row's focus.”

The picture of the cross-legged tailor stuck in Maher’s mind. “It was such a beautiful image and I wanted to know what happened to him and the other rural tailors,” he says. “Why doesn't anyone talk about them or what they accomplished?”

The obvious answer projected Maher into his Eureka moment. “If nobody was talking about them, it was because their existence was unimportant in the world of over-production,” he says. “The more I thought about it, the more I understood that of course the introduction of uncontrolled over-production put them all out of business. It put the whole rural way of life out of business, which made way for factories and suburban sprawl.”

This lead Maher to think about Frederick Winslow Taylor and his work in scientific management and industrial efficiency. “I like the irony in the idea that the tailors might have been against the Taylorists,” he says.

So just imagine if the tailors formed a sort of brotherhood against the havoc the aristocracy and industrial mass-production were creating in their lives. Imagine if they united to protest and protect their craft.

Maher looks excited. “Imagine if that union grew into a kind of guild like the masons,” he suggests.

It's a suggestion that might be less fanciful than it sounds because a little bit of Internet research (type “rural tailor” into Google, for example) reveals that such a guild did, or at least may have existed. It’s called the Militant Guild of Rural Tailors and Maher may or may not be involved in the unearthing and sharing of the guild member’s dogma, and documents.

The guild was a celebration of craftsmanship, a thinly disguised criticism of the values underpinning mass production and built-in obsolescence. “The rural tailors were the opposite of Savile Row,” Maher says. “There it is about flattering people’s vanity by designing clothes that make the aristocracy look broader or taller or thinner. Whereas rural tailors were about producing clothes that lasted, that protected workers from the elements, and which were utilitarian.”

Inspired by The Militant Guild of Rural Tailors, Maher launched a project called Young Meagher (a purposeful twist on his own name), a clothing line based on the very same principles that his brethren rural tailors lived to uphold. “The guild created a dogma that filtered through all their work,” he says. “I built a non-commercial concept label around that very same dogma.”

Maher moves across the floor to his antique set of gymnastics parallel bars and starts pulling off garments – rows of jackets and shirts with exquisite hand-made detailing. He offers precise descriptions of every decision behind every seam, button and functional detail. He talks with contagious passion about why the cleft in a man’s shirt cuff should lie on the inside of the wrist, under the thumb so it can move as a man works, not, as is aristocratic tradition, above the pinkie finger.

Maher concedes that this project was intended primarily as a sort of provocation. In reality he also believes that it is worthwhile to try and find a balance between craftsmanship and industrial production. The potential of managing an effective and contemporary balance of these represents a sort of holy grail. He pulls open a drawer of knick-knacks like a match box printed with the Young Meagher dogma, but only legible under a magnifying glass, and a thick envelope containing a hand-written letter by the lead singer of Aerosmith. “They are fans,” he says.

Another fan, as it turns out, was Jason Denham who is also based in Amsterdam. When the two first met this year, Denham had already laid the groundwork for Denham, his fledgling new jeans label.

“When I first saw his Spring 09 collection, I felt we had a real simpatico,” Maher says. “Denham is truly about utility tailoring, tradition, function and rugged handwriting, and even though I didn’t come from a jeans culture, I think Jason saw me as someone who shared much of the same tastes and excitements.”

Along with women’s designer Barbera van Rest, and art director Ali Kirby, the Denham team, which Maher is now head designer for, wants to keep things special and quality-focused so as to avoid the designer jean cliché. “I think we are all pretty wary of the shallower elements in the fashion system and built in obsolescence,” Maher says. "I hope I can help the team figure out how to create a subtly new proposition. Like Jason himself is always saying, it’s about balance.”

Avoiding that is, according to Maher, dependent upon the sorts of values the brand chooses to uphold and work by. It’s about staying modest and not losing specificity by trying to appeal to too many different types of people. “But mostly I think it is about worshiping tradition while destroying conventions,” he says. “It’s important because tradition teaches quality, but convention prevents progress.”

At Premsela’s Reshaping Attitudes symposium this Saturday in Arnhem, Maher will talk about how the current economic climate is the ideal time for people to realize that everything they thought they believed in is in fact not true. “Especially for a designer, I think a lot of attitudes have proven just not to work, and they have to be really challenged on that,” he says.

Maher says he is particularly bored by the image of the enfant terrible designer who thinks nothing from the past matters. “They make all these youthful pronouncements about destroying the old to make way for the new,” he says with palpable disdain. “Of course a healthy disrespect is always good, but we need to know and understand what came before and why it worked.

“Fashion has a rich tradition and it would be so gratifying if in some small way I could be part of the group that pushes and pulls and tugs on the weight of that tradition. I want to participate in that process, take a risk, be reverent and pay homage to the greatness that came before me.”

Images: main Militant Guild of Rural Tailors tools, a shirt and two jackets from Maher's Young Meagher line, Denham Spring 2010 sportscoat made from tent canvas and garments from the current collection.

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