The international fashion circus is on the second leg of it’s four-part transatlantic tour, and one of the themes that has come to the fore is not related to a new color or a new hem length, and it’s one that’s rarely directly associated with London Fashion Week — it’s money.
The weather over the past few weeks in Western Europe has been terrible, and the UK in particular has suffered seemingly endless storms and severe flooding. The timing of London in relation to New York Fashion Week has been beyond unfortunate. It has meant that editors – including British editors – timetabled into staying in New York until Thursday evening’s last show couldn’t leave for London until Friday morning, and with the time difference not arrive until the evening. Except that London’s shows started in earnest on Friday morning. Then flights from New York, due to the reappearance of a storm, couldn’t land in London, and ended up being diverted to Newcastle in the north of England, or even to Dublin in Ireland. Major industry figures including Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Hamish Bowles and British Vogue’s Alexandra Schulman were among those affected. So that meant major people missing the whole first day and not being there for the first shows on the second. For a city that has to fight to get any significant numbers of foreign press and buyers to come, this was a major blow.
But when things properly kicked off, they did so in a big way. London, despite being the wealthiest city in Europe, does not have a fashion week to match its status. Well, not yet. But there is money to be made, and in order to make money you have to spend money. And with Topshop taking over the massive and iconic Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern museum by the Thames for its Topshop Unique show, this was kind of as big as monied statements could get. The Unique collection is a premium one, significantly more expensive than the usual collection, and sold in a handful of stores at most. But Topshop is a label of the people, and the company was smart to hold its show in such a vast space where hundreds, if not thousands, of public visitors could watch the show and all the celebrities attending it through the gigantic windows at the Tate. Smart move. And even smarter show. No stretchy t-shirts here. Instead, with a ramped-up creative team, came lots of furry textures, padding, sliced-up layers, tunics, short shorts paired with long suede boots. It was a triumph of styling and inestimable cool, but there was a lot of substance beneath the style. These weren’t lazy copies of what other designers were showing, these were real, fresh, original and excellent clothes shown in a way with real polish. It was impressive in every way.
And speaking of polish, let’s talk about Julien Macdonald. The Welsh-born designer made his name in the 90s with his lacy knits. His most recent collection was a world away. It could have been an Elie Saab haute couture collection. The day began once the sun came down and the plethora of cocktail and evening dresses were quite beautifully done. It wasn’t subtle, but it was subtly sexy. One hears he sells a truckload of clothes in Russia. Those ladies have lots of money. And, based on the flawless execution and expensive embellishment of his dresses, it seems that a lot of that money is coming his way.
Mulberry is without a creative director at the moment. It’s a strange house, one that’s sold tons of handbags and tried to parlay that success into selling clothes. That hasn’t quite worked – it certainly hasn’t worked in the way that Burberry’s expansion into fashion has – and this week’s show was shrouded in secrecy. A tiny number of guests were treated to a tableau vivant at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair, with the curtains pulling back to reveal model Cara Delevingne in a forest setting with two red-haired boys, a bunch of panting whippets – oh, and three new bags. It was the unveiling of the three bags she’s “designed” for the house as it attempts to capitalize on the success of such previous associations with boldface female names such Alexa Chung and Sienna Miller. Mulberry got the press it wanted, and the bags will undoubtedly sell, but what a weak, timid statement to make.
Not everyone with money at their disposal is making such a weak statement. Industry darling JW Anderson is intent on capturing the world’s most important editors at his shows, and the gravitas granted by the sizable investment made in his label last year by LVMH (which also hired him to head up Loewe) makes everyone pay attention. But if ever a designer seemed the embodiment of the Emperor’s New Clothes then it is he. Gathers, godets, bulbous shapes, sludgy colors and horrible fabrics — his oh-so-clever intellectual exercise produces results of such tedious pretension that one really does worry about the sanity of the fashion folk who applaud it. Back in the ’90s Miuccia Prada challenged fashion with an “ugly” collection that went on to become a landmark of fashion and paved the way to allow women to dress for themselves. Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has explored ugliness and notions of beauty and stereotypical body shape several times. Is it wrong to allow them to get away with it and to grant them extra respect because they are women? And it is wrong, in turn, to condemn Anderson as a misogynist because he is a man? I wonder. But, does it really matter? It’s very easy to design “challenging” clothes that make women look hideous. It’s a very different talent altogether to design something “challenging” that empowers them. I know which one I’d prefer.
Greek-born Mary Katrantzou knows the value in surprise. She first burst onto the scene with clothes covered in blown-up and overblown digital prints. She was responsible for a wider trend that’s endured for several seasons, and she’s been one of the few young designers showing in London to turn her business into a viable one, selling clothes in expensive stores and not just sending them out for shoots in edgy magazines. She’s a smart young woman. She knows that in order to grow you need to evolve so, on Sunday, she surprised again, this time by ditching the digital prints. She didn’t, however, suddenly go all white and nunlike, there was still a lot going on, but this time she had a different story to tell. It was a story about symbols, and she looked to everything possible — boy scout badges, heraldry, military regalia, signs — and brought them all together in a spirit of ingenious decoration, giving them fresh contexts on lean clothing and creating something new that looked luxurious and exciting. There were a few nods to work that Raf Simons is doing at Dior, but it made sense as part of her theme that tempered the embroideries and jacquards with arcs and fluid trails of pleating. The result was stupendous.
Richard Nicoll has a way of injecting his clothes with the East London ambiance of his design studio without transforming them into a pastiche of ephemeral cool. Beneath it all he’s something of a classicist at heart, and he creates clothes that women look good in and want to wear, but that are never boring. Clever cable knit panels in smooth dresses and sweaters and semi sewn-down pleats in contrast colors sometimes say more than all the outlandish tweaking of proportions and addition of embellishment put together. His controlled color story suggested further that he’s a man who knows what he’s doing
Another designer in this vein is Eudon Choi. He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, focusing on his craft and investing his energy into making beautiful clothes. He, too, has a good eye for color and an ease with knit. His clothes speak to the intelligence of women, and his coats for next season are phenomenal – to be treasured forever.
Holly Fulton has a similar way of capturing desire without going looking for it with guns blazing. Her collection was lightly-hued and joyful. Simple shapes allowed the humor they espoused to never fall into the trap of the ridiculous, and what resulted was charming. Even if some of it bore more than a comparison to a Prada/MiuMiu style, her visual story that seemed to fuse Wiener Werkstätte, Pop Art and Arte Povera was compelling and lovely.
Markus Lupfer’s collection, on the other hand, seemed surprisingly unengaging. The nods to a sexual undercurrent appeared half-hearted, and were often only alluded to through the addition of a show accessory. It was naughty in concept only.
One of the highpoints of the second day was the spectacularly serene collection from John Rocha. He has that arty vibe down pat, the conceptual shape, the deluge of black, the lack of sexual provocation, the clothes as an extension of the wearer’s personality, not of her leg. It could have been forced and over-arty. As it was there were some challenging looks, but even then they were often composed of several garments easy to edit down. It was an exploration of woman in a sense outside of fashion and trends and time and aggression and marketing. Rocha rejoiced in his own personal aesthetic – and the result was pure poetry