Buzzing into Stefan Cooke’s studio block is a bit like playing a game of fashion bingo. Just a short walk from Dalston’s Kingsland Road, the space is like a playground for bright emerging design talent in the capital. It has big windows, pale blue floors and an exterior you wouldn’t glance twice at.
Cooke runs his eponymous label alongside his partner, Jake Burt. The pair moved into the generously sized space in January after a stint at the Sarabande Foundation, the charitable trust set up by Alexander McQueen which has been offering affordable studios to designers and artists since 2015. “We’ve been dreaming of a studio like this for years,” says Burt, whose buzzcut sits side-by-side with Cooke’s gentle blonde curls. The move came at a point of transition for the pair’s flourishing fashion business, which they established in 2017 after graduating from Central Saint Martins’ MA fashion course. They showed under Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East for three seasons after that, but it’s only over the last year or so that the design duo believe they’ve truly found their footing.
“I think we really enjoyed making avant-garde fashion but at the end of the day, making product is the most important thing to us,” says Burt.
“We try to keep the gimmicks out of it,” Cooke agrees. “Well, we kind of allow ourselves one gimmick a season!”
But if the pair stop short of wanting to reinvent fashion completely, they are serious about re-evaluating men’s everyday wardrobes. Their clothes are elevated and glamorous: jeans are decorated and skin-tight, jackets come with womanly shoulders, argyle knits are sliced into gentle diamond cutouts. “There’s actually only, like, five different types of clothing that [men] all wear constantly, so there’s really no point in looking too hard at something,” says Cooke.
“Men are creatures of habit,” Burt adds. “You can be the craziest-dressed guy but you’ll [still] want your trousers to fit the same every season.”
Weirdly, the pandemic has brought new confidence to the brand. Cooke and Burt have hired their first full-time studio assistant and, as a trio, they’ve established a formula that has produced the label’s strongest collections to date. “I feel like the brand really changed with SS21,” says Cooke. “It [just] got to a different point. Because of the way the world was working in that moment, it felt like we could control the final image a lot more.”
As other labels set about making conceptually driven fashion films to debut their collections, Cooke and Burt opted for a plain white backdrop; when the models were captured against it, they looked like they were in a real-life catwalk show. The SS21 show saw Cooke reveal the uniform for an imagined private school; for AW21, boys wore car coats, Fair Isle jumpers and skimpy, knitted skirt dresses.
“We love womenswear probably more than menswear, though I don’t think we’d rather be designing womenswear,” says Burt. Cooke explains that bringing typically feminine elements into their work isn’t a shock tactic, just a way of making their collections “more severe”. “What we always find surprising is that the ‘men in skirts’ conversation still exists in 2021,” he says. “It takes me back to a conversation I had with Walter Van Beirendonck when I was interning for him. He said, ‘When you give people the option, that’s when they get afraid.’”
During the UK’s lockdown, the pair decamped to Burt’s parents’ house in Somerset, where they launched their e-store. Despite garnering an impressive list of stockists – Browns and Dover Street Market among them – in just a few short years of trading, Cooke and Burt were surprised how well their direct-to-consumer product started selling. “It was really nice because we got to chat to people who were passionate about what we were doing, and when they couldn’t get the pieces they wanted from stores, they just bought it off us,” says Burt. Time out of London allowed the pair to reassess how they wanted the brand to progress. “[The pandemic] really gave us the time to sit down and be like, ‘What do we want from this? Where do we want to go? Who is the brand for?’”
Cooke and Burt will have been a couple for nine years this coming January, having met while they were both students at Central Saint Martins. “A friend in my class was Jake’s flatmate – when he introduced us, we really didn’t like each other,” says Cooke. It took around two months for the pair to warm up to one another, and they’ve been together ever since. “We still have very separate tastes in some respects, but we definitely appreciate a lot of the same things. I think we realised early on how we really appreciate each other’s opinions.”
The foundations of the brand today are built on Burt’s studies in womenswear and Cooke’s graduate collection, which saw the budding designer digitally plaster skin-tight, synthetic twinsets with pictures of jumpers, jeans and argyle knits. Trompe l’oeil, to this day, remains an integral code of the brand. “What fashion is to me is this constant evolution of what is valuable, what isn’t valuable, how you can create new fashion, but also not having the resources to create that fashion,” says Cooke. “We’d love to create a sequin ballgown, but actually we can’t afford that so let’s take a photograph and then print it over something else.”
Cooke’s graduate outing nabbed him the 2017 L’Oréal Professionnel Creative Award, a prize previously won by the likes of Grace Wales Bonner, Mary Katrantzou and Richard Quinn. He went on to win the H&M Design Award the following year. It didn’t take long for Lulu Kennedy to get on the blower, and Cooke and Burt made their debut as a design duo in 2018 at Fashion East’s MAN catwalk. “It was a real trust with [Lulu],” says Cooke. “She just gives you that faith in yourself to really go for it, that utter freedom.” That freedom cuts both ways, though, notes Burt: “You’re still fighting for yourself [there], you still have to be accountable for what you produce. Lulu isn’t going to save you if things go terribly wrong. That’s another part of the magic of Fashion East.”
The brand quickly made noise on the London menswear scene, Cooke and Burt’s digitally printed twinsets tricking the eye and their vests made from thousands of stitched-together buttons showcasing their sheer technical ability. They also proved they could push excellent products, too, like their lady bags for boys, which continue to sell out each season. It was a no-brainer that the pair would make it to the LVMH Prize finals in 2019.
It may come as a surprise, then, that the brand’s polished design prowess is mostly informed by the mundane. “Our first idea of fashion is actually, like, a Toni & Guy shop window,” says Cooke. “Coming from a small town in England, that’s the first fashionable thing you see.” While their contemporaries may have grown up engrossed in the pages of Vogue, the pair often channel the sort of things you’d like to forget from your adolescence – like being dragged around charity shops by your mum, or your vaguely emo teenage years. “There’s always that commitment in being a teenager. My group of friends, we had massive fringes, giant jackets and really skinny jeans – we were really intense in that way. Being British, those kinds of subcultures are so prevalent.”
At the time of writing, the pair are working on their SS22 collection, which is largely inspired by a random girl they saw outside their local Tesco. “I didn’t manage to get a photo of her, and it’s kind of great because now she’s become this emblem for next season,” says Burt. They’re planning on showing in September, aided by the fact that London Fashion Week turned gender-neutral this year, meaning designers are welcome to show whenever.
Our conversation draws to a close, and Burt pops out for a rollie. The sizzling July sun makes leaving the breezy studio particularly unappealing. Time for one last thought from Cooke, perhaps. Half a decade in, why does he think people still connect with their label? “We’ve just been in a really lucky position [because] people have seen the honesty in it,” he says. “Stefan Cooke isn’t us trying to be revolutionary or anything like that: it’s just us really enjoying the brand for what it is.”
Portrait by Joshua Tarn. Taken from Issue 54 of 10 Men – BOLD & BEAUTIFUL – is out NOW. Order your copy here.