London fashion week: how London lightened up
Debbie Harry once said that the reason her records were filed under Pop and Elvis Costello’s under Alternative was that she was pretty and he wasn’t. For a long time, London fashion week was divided in a similar way. Designers faced a stark choice. If your clothes were pretty, then by definition, they weren’t interesting, so critical acclaim and commercial success were two alternative career paths.
Slowly but surely, over the course of a few seasons, London has thrown off its self-imposed too-cool-for-school shackles. Designers such as Christopher Kane, who were born in the 1980s, seem to have a less angsty relationship with commercialism than their predecessors. A post-Warhol breed of fashion designer has a natural affinity with Andy’s dictum that “the best art is business art”, and has cut its cloth to suit.
This London fashion week, change is definitely in the air. It is there in the grownup silhouettes and the colours that make you smile rather than making you feel cool, and in the bodies and complexions of the models on the catwalk, and in the clothes on the front row. Dress hemlines have descended sharply, from crotch-level to knee, making the clothes we are watching hugely more relevant to most women’s real lives. Casting directors have grown out of their narrow obsession with angular, wan, teenage beauties and made small but significant steps towards a wider definition of catwalk model. And the wardrobe of the audience has changed, too. Looking at the fashion-going troops a year ago, you would have formed an impression of zips and buckles and hardware flashing from bags and shoes: an unspoken visual threat that was the fashion army’s equivalent of the bulge of a gun under a jacket. And then there were the shoulder pads, mindlessly squaring up to each other in the front row like lads outside a pub on a Saturday night. This week, the shoes and bags and clothes I see all around me suddenly look a lot less angry.
Take Kane. Hot young London designer takes inspiration from Japanese gangsters’ tattoos for new collection, stages show in concrete warehouse: sounds scary, right? But no. These were gorgeous dresses for grownups. Slim but not tight at the torso, softly flared over the hips and ending at the knee, in pintucked lace, the edges bound with spaghetti-slender ribbons of silk. There were dresses with sleeves, and sleeveless ones with coordinating cardigan-jackets. Backstage after the show Kane and his sister and collaborator Tammy talked about how they had commissioned a tattoo artist to create original prints for them, but had borrowed silhouettes from Norman Hartnell’s dresses for Princess Margaret to create something “young but luxurious”. Neon colours – fuschia, lime, tangerine – gave what could have been just pretty a have-to-have-it urgency.
Giles Deacon, like Kane, has that whole so-hip-it-hurts Dalston mafia thing going on, but this season his sights were clearly set on a wider world. The wide-ranging casting – from silver-haired veteran model Veruschka to busty tabloid babes Kelly Brook and Abbey Clancy – sent a clear message that this is not just a label for art students to swoon over. The makeup and hair were chorus-girl loud but the clothes were surprisingly understated, with floral-print knee-length dresses, button-through skirts to mid-calf and sheer long-sleeve blouses layered under fitted, feminine waistcoats.
The topline reference of this week is undoubtedly the 1970s. There was a posthumous Yves Saint Laurent retrospective staged in Paris recently, the 70s section of which has been namechecked by many designers, so I suppose this is part of the reason; but we are also seeing the emergence of the first generation who have no memories of that decade, and therefore don’t find it embarrassing. This is not the hazy, bohemian version we had a few years ago but a more glamorous, brightly lit ideal of that decade. (Marc Bolan and Angie Bowie are names that keep cropping up.)
The 70s gets a bad press style-wise but the mid-calf-length button-through sundress sells it to me. Anyway, I am writing this on the last day of the womenswear part of London fashion week, and I am already wearing purple flares. This may seem to be jumping in at the deep end, but after a week of flares (long and floor-sweeping, or a kick-flare cropped above the ankle) it feels perfectly normal. By the end of the Richard Nicoll show on Sunday evening, I was resolved to buy a chiffon evening cape. The 70s angle adds a little spice to next season: just when you think things are getting a bit too sensible, a pair of chiffon cropped flares stalks past and livens things up again. And Nicoll’s collection was a reminder of the elegant side of that decade. His silk, belted jumpsuit reminded us that the 70s, in turn, borrowed shapes and fabrics from the 40s.
For the last few seasons I have hugely admired Antonio Berardi’s immaculately cut, severe-but-sexy clothes, but they have had a look-but-don’t-touch quality: dresses for a woman with a more streamlined life (and a stricter attitude towards breadbaskets) than mine. This time, I wanted the clothes just as much, but I could also see myself wearing them. Dresses, while still fitted, had softer edges, and the shrunken, glamorous evening jackets in black or silver seemed more relevant to how a living, breathing woman might go out of an evening in London. (There were fewer bare shoulders this season – the spring/summer shows – than there were six months ago for the last round of autumn/winter shows.)
The most-overheard new fashion terminology of the week? BTK. That stands for below-the-knee. That such a hemline is a frequent enough sight to warrant abbreviating is cause for rejoicing, since those of us who prefer not to have the world judge us on our thighs have been sidelined by fashion for several years now. Peter Pilotto is a smart young label that has emerged from the “promising” bracket to the serious-contender stakes. This collection made the new longer-length look more modern than anything else I saw this week. Calf-length skirts are not the easy option the miniskirt-allergic might fondly imagine, you see. Fitted ones hobble you, but if you have hips, an A-line one that goes on too long is not flattering. Pilotto’s solution was soft skirts with pleats, panels and subtle splits so that you get an elegant length and an easy stride without bulk. A print of shards of duck-egg blue, navy, orange and white looked like the view through a very chic kaleidoscope.
That the catwalks have burst into colour seems to express the confidence and positivity of these collections. Colours that “make your heart race”, as Kane put it, are very 2011. Roksanda Ilincic has modern elegance pretty much nailed this season, with her divine silk gazar dresses, weightless but with a kind of delicate poise to them, like egg white whipped into stiff peaks. Her catwalk glowed with neon pink and electric blue, while at Matthew Williamson, mimosa yellow, rich lime and blue brought to life a deeply wearable collection of cropped evening trousers, waterfall jackets and shift dresses.
Erdem has made his name with prim, ever-so-slightly subversive blurry florals and precise, sculptural shapes. Under the old logic of London fashion, he would now have had to ditch that and do the opposite. Instead, this was a collection that was recognisably Erdem (no bad thing, surely, if you’re expecting people to pay designer prices) but from a new angle; the wistful swallow-prints have been replaced by black-and-red Russian doll patterns. Betty Jackson delivered exactly the kind of sensible-length dresses, elegant trousers and chic-casual summer jackets in gutsy prints and tactile fabrics that her customer will love. Twenty8Twelve ditched last summer’s micro-hotpants for sensible length shorts; designers Savannah and Sienna Miller excitedly told backstage visitors that they had just discovered their current collection was the best seller on Selfridges’s third floor. “We know where we’re at now, and who the Twenty8Twelve customer is,” Sienna said. “We’re quite commercial. And that feels like a good place to be.”
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