"It's A Bit Of A Red Herring When 'Sustainability' Is Cheap"

Charlie Teasdale
·9-min read
Photo credit: LEJ
Photo credit: LEJ

From Esquire

A former Lanvin, Dunhill and Drake’s staffer, Luke Walker liked working within a big fashion machine and was never especially keen on starting his own thing. But now, as his shirt-centric (but not shirt-exclusive) brand of menswear gathers pace and adulation, it seems his decision to launch LEJ was prudent. It’s a simple premise, really. The super high-quality construction you’d normally see in tailoring and shirting, used in much sexier, insouciant-ier garments. Clothing from LEJ is the perfect brand for now – one that allows you to rediscover the joy of “dressing up” without having to endure the fuss of proper smart clothing. It’s seriously soigné, well-made stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously, essentially. We got on a Zoom with Walker to discuss, among other things, the power of social media, the challenges of sustainable messaging and the ubiquity of overshirts.

Where does LEJ sit in the spectrum of menswear right now?

It's such a tricky question because I'm sure everybody that you speak to who has to have a bit of focus on retail has to approach that question - you know, who are they? Who do they sit with in the marketplace? How is it perceived? - and throughout my career, the brand or the designer or the creative director's own wish for the outward perception isn't necessarily what other people perceive a brand to be. I had a recent experience with buyers – I think I spoke too much about shirts and they perceived it to be more of a formal shirting brand, whereas I see LEJ as taking all the beauty, quality and precision of a shirting brand, but then trying to project a bit of my fashion background and make it bit more exaggerated, a little bit more playful in terms of colour and detail. I’d like it to be perceived with a fashion eye, but you can’t control the way in which people see it. You have to allow them to take ownership of it.

Photo credit: LEJ
Photo credit: LEJ

And how about menswear in general… where do you think we’re at right now? We seem to be moving away from bombastic “streetwear”, but it’s not flipping straight to tailoring, either. Would you agree that we’re at a time of more personal style and nuance?

I completely agree with that. And I guess for a long time, throughout the 2010s and a little into the Noughts, there was respect for rules and traditions and values, but I think one of the great things that I guess social media has brought is globalisation [of information]. China doesn't have a tradition of the suit - in the West, we've got a tradition of the suit which started 300 years ago and so it's developed this rule structure and hierarchy around it. And so, there's a fear in the West, I think, of breaking those rules, especially in menswear, because men generally like to conform and fit in, not necessarily stand out with a bright pink shirt. Whereas I think the consumers in Asia and even places like Australia, which haven't got such a super heavy culture, they can be much more free with their personal style. And so they experiment more, and because we're all sharing more images now, the rule structure of menswear is starting to be broken down. And we've got these great icons now like Harry Styles… I mean, I wouldn't have said that 10 years ago maybe but he's amazing because he's embracing all of these incredibly bold and brave looks, and he looks amazing in it.

I think that because of social media and the much broader access to information, brands are held to a higher standard, especially when it comes to sustainability. But it seems as though authenticity is perhaps the best message of sustainability, if that doesn’t sound too trite. Use social media to honestly show how you make something, where you make it etc.

I rant about this a lot because I think the most sustainable way of changing this industry is to stop the disposability of garments. That is the most unsustainable aspect because if you buy something and wear it for a week and throw it away, I mean it's an old, old cliché, but that is not sustainable. “Sustainability” means something different to everyone, it’s very subjective. But to me, sustainability means using great quality raw materials which will stand the test of time, making them in a country where fair wages and paid and constructing them really, really well. And well-made stuff which is truly sustainable it's probably going to be a little bit more expensive, so it's a bit of a red herring when “sustainability” is cheap.

Anyway, to LEJ. Have you always been moving toward this point? Was it always going to be this aesthetic or has it evolved over the years?

I actually never wanted to do my own brand, I always wanted to work in a company, in the big houses. And I loved those experiences because you've got great budgets, you've got great support structure, you've got a great team. Your ideas don't have any limits on them, to a certain extent, and I'm very spoiled in the fact that the brand that I first went to work for - Lanvin in Paris - was a creative explosion in the house at the time, and we were really unlimited. And that's what I thought was the Holy Grail, just doing that forever.

And then slowly, slowly, slowly, I decided that I wanted to change the way in which I was working with clothing, and again, it's back to this point of waste, I think. Getting in a cycle of making just for making something, adding changes just to create something more desirable than the previous season. And I slowly moved away from that and I felt that I wanted to make something that was more honest. And this isn't about any specific brand that I've worked for, it's more comment about the industry in general – but we're all used to going into luxury brands and the prices being very, very, very expensive. I use the same mills, I use the same factories, and it doesn't have to be that expensive. My stuff is still expensive, but I think it's as good if not better quality than things which are maybe double the price.

I start everything with a construction, because that is the most important thing because you're wearing it, first of all. You don't see it. You see it a couple of times a day when you catch yourself in a window, look in the mirror. And I didn't feel that was a priority at other brands so that was how I started thinking about that and sharing that.

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And when did the first embers of LEJ emerge?

I think it was roughly 2016. I might have still been at Dunhill or I might have just left, I don't remember exactly. But I was at Dunhill for three years, wearing a suit, wearing a shirt, wearing a tie - very much in that sartorial spirit that was happening in menswear, and I was kind of bored of it. I wanted to get into jeans, casual shirts, beautiful leather, but I couldn't find what I wanted unless it was vintage. I love vintage, I'm surrounded by it, but I wanted to find something new in the marketplace. And I felt that the only things I could find were either like really great brands who were making super reproductions of vintage with very kind of caricature details, but I wanted something that was a little bit more now – with a little more of our current mood injected into it, rather than just wearing a previous era’s clothing.

The point is, I’d spent those three years wearing really beautiful formal shirts, and I wanted that beauty of the fabric, of the construction, of the detail in a casual shirt. And that's really what started me thinking about doing something. I couldn't find it. I think it's everywhere now!

Is it everywhere now? Is it a trend?

The overshirt is a trend, for sure. We sat in the park the other day for, I think, three hours, just on a bench, people watching, and it was amazing how many people were wearing two-pocket overshirts, untucked, over knitwear, under a gilet… so there is a real moment of these work shirts.

Photo credit: LEJ
Photo credit: LEJ

I feel like the overshirt has been rubber-stamped for all men. It’s fashionably safe, but also comfortable, it shows you as being style-conscious, but it isn’t loud…

The great thing [for guys] is that it’s “masculine”, you know. They’re designed to do work in, they’re "tough", so it’s easier to pull off. But I see everybody wearing them. I think that’s happening more and more with trends now, and I guess it's been to your point about “streetwear”, because it's kind of genderless. Anyone can wear it and anyone can adopt it and I feel that that's becoming more the case. Especially with designers starting to mix their runway shows with the men's and women's wear and it not being a thing anymore to have someone transgender walking down the catwalk. It’s kind of like stripping the gender boundaries out of clothing, to a certain extent.

With LEJ, I’ve got lots of girlfriends that wear the shirts and they look really great. I want everyone to wear it. I think because of my choice of fabrication, it becomes more open. I'm not using really heavy 13oz twills for a shirt, I'm using 70g cotton voiles in soft pinks, so it's not necessarily a super butch, macho fabrication. It’s hopefully something that anyone can get into.

Photo credit: A look from S/S'21 at LEJ
Photo credit: A look from S/S'21 at LEJ

Looking forward, where is LEJ heading? Would you like there to be a store? An e-comm empire?

I love the idea of a store. As soon as people see it, touch it, try it on, feel how it is… the price goes out the window. It's just a subconscious reaction to quality. That sounds really naff and cheesy, doesn't it?!

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