London Fashion Week is known for showcasing and celebrating emerging designers. The city’s youth game is unmatched in the competing capitals, but there is also a brilliant tension between the experimental side of London Fashion Week and the establishment. Great British heritage brands, such as Burberry, sit alongside young upstarts, including Fashion East’s graduates. And, of course, there are the gatekeepers. The likes of Erdem, Christopher Kane and Roksanda, who are still holding down the fort at London Fashion Week, and consistently keeping the world’s eye watching the London fashion scene.

This season the London shows got fancier than ever. Call it the Valentino effect, or indeed the Richard Quinn influence: everywhere you looked volumes were expanding and surface decoration intensifying. A month before Brexit, London’s multiculturally-minded designers dressed to the nines, put on their bravest faces and their biggest, most romantic dreams. That’s been Quinn’s territory for some time now.
“With the uncertainty of Brexit in London and the UK, I think for me, now it’s more about business as usual,” he said, minutes before he presented an entire collection of savoir-faire eveningwear with live piano and violins, a singer and confetti canons in tow. “If anything, it’s pushing us further into the glamour and the fantasy world of Richard Quinn.” He heightened the dramatic creations that spiralled him into the spotlight only a few seasons ago and landed him the first-ever Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design last February. Through a staggering 41 looks, Quinn amplified the effect of his wildly patterned flou and tailoring, opening the show with a sculpted heritage tartan coat delicately adorned in sparkly embellishment, and skirt suit rigidly covered in beads that formed the pattern of heritage houndstooth. This was a distinctly British take on haute couture.
Riccardo Tisci declined to comment on Brexit – “everyone has a different opinion” – but did put forward the interesting theory that the young social media generation isn’t as free to speak out as we all think. “I observe the environment I live in. Now I’m in London but it’s very different from when I was a kid here twenty years and had no money. It’s a very special moment for Britain because of what’s happening,” he said. “The young generation is a little bit scared of expressing themselves. When I was here you could go out and scream whatever you wanted to scream. Now the world is very generic. This was a collection all about contrasts, about including and not excluding things. It was the cultures from the aristocracy and the Queen to the street and the edgy kids.”
His Burberry show portrayed the segments of British society the way Tisci sees it, in sports and streetwear aimed at “the girl, the boy” and bourgeois tailoring and skirt suits for “the lady, the gentleman”. Confronted with that word backstage – bourgeois – Tisci objected. “It’s not bourgeois. It’s aristocratic.” Indeed, the London season aspired towards a kind of dressing reserved for the fortunate few, but the sense of haute couture majesty that sieved through these collections is increasingly desired by consumers in a time where individuality, self-expression and diversity are everything.
“I wanted to go back to drama,” Michel Halpern said, emphasising his point: “I wanted this collection to be really dramatic.” Since day one, Halpern has been cheerleading sparkly, flamboyant eveningwear in the London fashion landscape and made those audacious enough wear it in broad daylight. After trying his hand at accessibility last season, he decided it wasn’t for him – or his customer – and reverted to what he does best: theatrical eveningwear rooted in dramatic draping, shiny surfaces and lustrous embroidery.
Presented in the Art Deco ballroom of the Sheraton Grand on Park Lane, Halpern captured the decadence of the Interwar era. “For so many seasons I talked about escapism and doing this type of clothing that allows people to forget about the horrible things that are happening, and I feel like decadence is an appropriate way of saying that now,” he said of the ominous sense of exuberance that defines our time. “Keep on dancing ‘til the world ends,” as Britney Spears would have it. Ever the escapist, Erdem Moraliouglu delved into his own decadent reference: Princess Donna Orietta Doria-Pamphilj-Landi, an Italian princess who lived in the vast Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome and moved to London in the 1960s.
The last in a dynastic line that originated in the 13th century, her family opposed Mussolini and the blonde princess had to dye her hair blonde and go into hiding. Before she left Rome for London, she tore the old master paintings off the walls of her palazzo and wore them as kilts, and sewed her jewels into her clothes. How’s that for decadent? “I became obsessed with her; with the weight of her carrying this heritage,” Erdem said. “Her leaving Rome and coming to London: the contrast between the aristocracy and the social changes happening in the sixties. You went from these nipped, controlled silhouettes below the knee to things that became shorter and covered in feathers,” he reflected, describing a collection that was typical Erdemism: the transformation from one page of a history book to another, two contrasting narratives meeting in silhouette, and all the fictional fluff he dreams up around those factual events in that swooning beauty-addict mind of his.
Paradoxically, in a London season that drew on the romanticism that’s always present in Erdem’s work, his collection seemed positively restrained. That wasn’t the case for Matty BovanMolly GoddardMary KatrantzouEmilia Wickstead and David Koma, who all got their couture game on and made a case for the new volumes.
But leave it to Christopher Kane to find a way of expressing fashion’s appetite for haute couture in a decidedly London way. His subversive collection paid tribute to the fetishists of the world, declaring their innermost fantasies in slogans like ‘rubberist’ and ‘looner’ (the terms for people, who get sexually aroused by rubber gloves and balloons) on jaunty evening silhouettes. You couldn’t help but smile at Kane’s irreverent combinations between those declarations and the “pronounced cupcake skirts” on which they featured, as he called his glamorous peplumed volumes, constructed in the plush fabrics native to high dressmaking.

“Really pronounced. Lots of crinoline to make them more exaggerated. That shape is so good. That cupcake felt really good. That elevation, almost like a balloon,” Kane continued, with equal parts seriousness and cheek. “Looners, sploshers, rubbertists: it’s a serious operation. It should be taken seriously, too,” he noted. If being taken seriously was once the aspiration for Victoria Beckham in the fashion industry, things have certainly changed. The former popstar’s collection was the biggest revelation of London Fashion Week, the kind of show that keeps expanding in your mind after you’ve reviewed it, making you wish you could go back and gush some more.

Thank god for roundups, then. Beckham didn’t approach the haute couture zeitgeist in majestic volumes and clusters of beads the way many other designers went about it. She refined and refined and refined her silhouette and technique, and then she refined them some more. How ravishing were those sculpted blazers with cape sleeves – an haute couture trademark – or Beckham’s open-toe dominatrix boots in poppy red or leopard? “It’s the first time I’ve worked with a narrative,” she said.
“There’s something quite cinematic about this collection. It’s as if throughout the show each look is a different scene of her life. The A to Z of her life.” The silhouette was strict with an undertone of boss lady mischief that could be attributed to the cinema Beckham grew up with as a child of 1970s and 80s: Annie Hall tailoring, The Eyes of Laura Mars shirting, and at least one Desperately Seeking Susan trouser. The 1950s Hepburn-esque ideal Beckham clad herself in early in her career – the old-school glamour, those little black dresses, the bob – materialised in new and more directional interpretations: sophisticated elongated trapeze skirts, crisp white shirts, and an embroidered dress that had taken 22 hours by hand.
“She’s a lady but she’s not ladylike. She’s proper but she’s not prim,” the designer said, gesturing at tailored skirt suits in heritage fabrics, little argyle jumpers, those check and poppy red cape-sleeved coats with magnified lapels, and super structured dresses in the chain motifs you’d find on silk scarves. This was Beckham’s best collection to date – that’s ten years of work – and proof that attention to technique and fabrication really is the only true way of creating excellent fashion. (A point no less proven by the MA students of Central Saint Martins in their graduate show on Friday evening.) On a London fashion scene that sometimes gets too caught up in framing its shows with razzmatazz, the influence of haute couture – which can only be achieved through craftsmanship and courage – was a good colour on the British runways.

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