Music and fashion have always had a close bond. Musicians inspire designers, while designers enable musicians to express themselves through their creative collections. James Bay is now both. With his smash-hit collection for Topman, the British singer-songwriter follows in the footsteps of many established names before him to create an offering that focuses on his own signature appearance.
Collaborating with Topman felt like a well-matched pairing and a style journey coming full circle for James: “When they came to me, that felt very nice and weirdly sort of serendipitous and a bit sentimental almost.” Like most of us, the British high-street giant was – and still is – a constant fixture in James’s wardrobe, especially when he started finding his own look.
“When you get into bands you start getting on stage and you start thinking a bit more like ‘I want to look like something’, and then Topman became relevant. I remember the first time wandering into Topman 10 years ago now and choosing what my first stage clothes were going to be, the first clothes I wasn’t going to destroy skateboarding.”
Topman also felt relevant when thinking of the fan base that is eagerly awaiting his second album. “It was initially like this is very sentimental because Topman is the first place I went to that felt cool to buy clothes, and then obviously it was important to me because my fans aren’t just people who buy Burberry. My fans aren’t just people who buy Saint Laurent. My fans live around things like Topman.”
Just like James is involved in the full journey of a song, he was involved in every element of the collection design process – even down to handwriting the lookbook credits, creating the illustrations and handdrawing the prints seen on the collection centrepiece bomber jacket. “I was still on tour a lot when I was designing so I had a sketchbook for the clothes and a lot came from coming off stage and thinking about what I was wearing that night and what I’d do differently to it.”
“A huge part of my actual job is writing songs, to the extent of putting my own pen to paper and writing the lyrics. It’s how I go about anything creative. It has to have so much of me directly in it. A lot of people write songs and tap them into their phones, which is totally valid, but I don’t get the same out of it from doing that. I generally handwrite more, so I can express myself in that way more so.”
Now with experience in writing songs and creating a collection, what does James find harder? “It’s not to say that designing clothes [is easy],” he explains. “It depends what you want out of designing clothes. It’s a little bit more up for grabs, whereas there’s something understandably brutal about when you play someone a song and it’s not good enough and they don’t like it. You can’t change that, you have got to work harder to write a great one. So, it’s more rewarding in the end.”
In the way that James looks to his own experiences for song inspiration, the same came to play for the collection. It was mainly his own tastes and preferences that dictated the end result, viewed through the lenses of his musical influences.
“When you’re making music you’re thinking ‘what would Michael Jackson do, what would Bruce Springsteen do, what would Kings Of Leon do?.’ So, it was more thinking what would those people wear, you know? I was doing a lot of looking and research essentially.”
The number one influence? David Bowie. “Whether it shows or not, I remember looking at all different corners of his style especially the early Eighties. He’d spent the Seventies being as glam as you could be, and then he went super simple and super subtle, with the leather jackets and knit sweaters. I was looking at that version of him. It was all very straightforward, very subtle, then there were these bits that sort of popped out, like the shoulders and backs of his jackets. It was things like that that I wanted to try and explore and capture in my stuff with Topman.”
“I’ll take this opportunity to say that I would like everybody to feel like they can wear it. Clothes like this collection are for the most part feeling a bit fancy or cool. I want everybody to be able to do that and feel like they can wear them massive and baggy or too small or as a number of layers. It feeling androgynous was the most important thing.”
What you’ll be surprised to see missing from the collection is a hat. Madonna had the cone bra, Michael Jackson the glove, Harry Styles a floral suit, and for James the clothing item that has most aligned with his image has been a hat. Why was it left out from the collection? “Who’d have thought it? I just didn’t want to wear the hat all the time. And I didn’t want to think about one. For all of the shows I’ve played for my first album, touring, with a hat on, and at some moments you think, ‘I don’t want to wear that, it doesn’t go with the hat.’ That’s annoying, and I didn’t really want to spend all of this experience confined like that. That’s boring and, to that degree, it’s not for me. The collection is not for me, it’s for everybody else, and everybody else probably doesn’t want to wear a hat – so they shouldn’t have to.”
With Topman holding presence across Britain, James is bound to stumble across someone in one of his designs. Inevitably different to hearing someone humming one of his tunes, he admits it “it will be quite cool. I mean it will be a little bit odd if I’m wandering down the street and someone’s wearing something and they see me and kind of go, ‘I’m wearing your thing.’ I’m sort of embarrassed from the perspective of being the person who designed that. It’s so embarrassing. It’s very British I suppose, but you sort of immediately kind of go, ‘gosh, I hope you don’t think I’m big headed, like just coincidentally being in front of you.’”
James, we think you can be big headed on this one…