2017 has been something of an annus miribilis for Cottweiler. In January, the British design duo Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty staged three presentations, first at the London men’s shows, then at Pitti Uomo in Florence, and finally at the International Woolmark Prize in Paris where they took home the winner’s trophy. “Because it’s such a prestigious prize, the huge amount of interest on a global level is incredible,” Dainty reflects. The wave of attention generated by winning the prize – one of the most prominent in fashion – hit the designers with unexpected force. “We underestimated the amount of exposure it would give us to such a wide and different audience to what we’re used to,” Dainty admits. “The amount of press it has gained has been incredible for us. It really opens up our label to a new customer. And as well as the stockists of the Woolmark Prize collection, it has opened up new opportunities for our main line, too.”
Going with the flow has been Cottweiler’s theme tune for The Woolmark Company projects, you might say. “Knitwear is not what you’d associate with our brand,” Dainty points out, “so we wanted to create something that had the appearance of what we do, but the properties of the Merino wool brief that we were given.” Looking back at their past eleven collections, the designers decided to fuse Cottweiler’s technical sportswear trademark with the properties of Merino wool. “An example is a fabric we’ve been developing with an Italian supplier that has a semi-transparency to it, which we’ve overlaid over one hundred percent Merino wool. We’ve actually just selected a Merino wool for the new spring/summer collection of our main line, which we’ll use in some soft tailoring,” Dainty says. “We also created a fitted gilet, which comprises all of the off-cuts of the collection as its filling, so no piece of fabric used in the making of the collection has gone to waste,” Cottrell adds.
It was a career-defining moment for the menswear duo, who have steadily been establishing the Cottweiler name on the London fashion scene over the past few years. To many, their show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts for spring/summer 2015 – featuring FKA Twigs – marked their bona fide debut, followed by a runway show on the London show schedule the season after. For Cottweiler, those shows were simply the culmination of a long but natural evolution into a brand.
Cottrell and Dainty met at Bristol University and graduated in 2006. Cottrell worked for the contemporary Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng, Dainty for Kim Jones before he took over as menswear designer for Louis Vuitton. In 2008, they got a studio together in London, working evenings and weekends. “We were just making clothes for each other. It was a hobby, really,” Dainty reflects. “The business side of it was miles away. We were just creating,” adds Cottrell. It was, nonetheless, the birth of Cottweiler, a portmanteau of Cottrell’s surname and Dainty’s mother’s maiden name, which set an aggressive tone for their aesthetic. Cottweiler has since earned an underground following through the pictures they’d upload to Tumblr of each other wearing their designs, heads cut off. Graduates of the Recession era, the duo’s work embodied the doom and gloom that young Londoners were often met with at the time – even if the zeitgeist also gave birth to the colourful club kids of East London. “Our network was very art based so we were rebelling against what was going on in London at the time,” Dainty says. “We wanted to make a subtle statement, which wasn’t loud but would still stand out.”
Tapping into the fetishisation of sportswear and the glamourisation of British chav culture, which was about to hit menswear at the time, the duo would wear black tracksuits and marker in the Adidas or Nike logos, making the garments all-black. “We were very anti-branding. Having also worked for other brands where branding was a real focus, we wanted to do something that was recognisable through silhouette or quality. As we developed, we started taking a more elegant approach to things, trying to fuse the aggression with a softer approach.” ‘Spiritual sportswear’, it’s been called: an intellectual meeting between Cottrell’s council estate upbringing where tribal belonging was synonymous with obtaining the right brand garments, and Dainty’s teenage years spent as a professional athlete in various team sports. Now based in a Dalston studio not far from where they live, Cottweiler’s ethos has seen a departure from what first defined it. “Everyone was shooting things on a council estate and everything was really depressing, and that wasn’t what we were trying to say,” Dainty explains.
“We prefer the idea of doing something aspirational and ethereal and dreamlike. Although our clothes are very real and wearable, we felt it important to do something more fantasy.” Expressed in a kind of otherworldly sportswear, the evolution of Cottweiler is defined in the designers’ contemplative approach to a wardrobe genre often obsessed about just as much as it is belittled. With the International Woolmark Prize behind them, Cottweiler now begins a new chapter in that evolution. “The ultimate goal is to keep growing at a steady pace. We don’t want too much, but to keep it under control, and to raise more awareness of the brand. Eventually we want to open some stores of our own,” Cottrell says. “Innovation is really important to us, and as the brand grows we have more opportunities to develop our own specialised fabrics, which is something that we’ve always wanted to do,” Dainty adds. “But also, we’re very conscious of over-exposure. For a young brand to grow slowly adds value, and that’s something that we’ve always been conscious about. It’s about longevity, to be recognised for the cut and fabrication of a garment.”