It’s a trying moment for British fashion. While New York designers have been buoyed by an early bounce-back in domestic spending, and European megabrands are continuing to expand their market share via exposure to China, the small- and medium-sized labels that constitute British luxury have had to battle a sharp fall-off in tourist spending (exacerbated by the expiration of VAT refunds for foreign travellers in January), weak local demand and the myriad complications of Brexit — all on top of a pandemic that resulted in months of store closures, cancelled orders and ongoing supply chain disruptions.
It’s enough to make one throw in the proverbial towel. And though many of London’s tent-pole brands did not return to the runway for the first physical fashion week in a year and a half — most notably Burberry, which will release its spring/summer 2022 collection online later this month — others went ahead, conjuring up moments of real magic in spite of trying circumstances.
Magic was certainly what one felt watching models walk the warm stone colonnade of the British Museum outfitted in Erdem’s narrow skirt suits and floor-skimming dresses in upholstery florals and head-to-toe sequins, which were offset by sensible brogues and flat, Dior-esque hats by Noel Stewart. During lockdown, designer Erdem Moralioglu celebrated his label’s 15th anniversary and moved to Bloomsbury, and his collection took as inspiration Edith Sitwell and Ottoline Morrell, two women who sat at the periphery of the famed Bloomsbury set.
These were women whose clothes “never aligned with the times they were a part of”, Moralioglu observed after his show, and the same could be said for Moralioglu himself, a designer whose work tends to have more in common with early 20th-century dress than seasonal trends. It is what makes his label wholly unique, his following devoted. “I feel so fortunate to be an independent fashion label in London,” he wrote in his show notes.
Simone Rocha is another designer who caters neither to trends nor indeed to a pandemic, and over the past year she has continued to turn out collections that adhere to her singular romantic aesthetic.
“It’s almost something physically I have to do,” Rocha said of her reason for staging a show for her now 10-year-old label, held in the cloistral dark of St Bartholomew the Great, a medieval church that is one of London’s longest-standing. “And now that we’re open, I want to have an inspiring collection in store, not just staples.”
Having given birth to her second daughter in May, Rocha’s show was an exploration of “the highs and lows of mothering”, with delicately layered and ruffled white dresses with bib collars and blouson sleeves interspersed with punkish lace-up boots and round-shouldered moto jackets in patent leather. Striking were the riffs on black morning coats with their trailing sleeves and narrow back panels, and a white sleeveless dress with a low waist and wide hips that fanned into transparent tiers of tulle on each side.
Motherhood emerged as something of a theme this week. Molly Goddard was eight months pregnant when she began designing her spring collection, which combined the vibrant, voluminous tulle dresses that are her signature with smocked blouses and an empire-waisted coat inspired by children’s clothing. Rejina Pyo took her bow at the London Aquatics Centre eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child, surrounded by the Olympic divers who made for a captivating performance during her show. Her collection of clingy, sporty, semi-sheer dresses and separates were inspired by the tighter clothing Pyo gravitated to during her pregnancy, and a desire for “complete freedom” after a period governed by “so many rules and guidelines”, she said in a preview.
True to London’s reputation for new talent, many of the week’s best moments came from young designers, led by the fashion week debut of 25-year-old menswear designer Steven Stokey-Daley. In lieu of models walking back and forth on a narrow walkway, he staged a short play written and performed by members of the National Youth Theatre. Actors dressed in bucolic knits, paisley-print silk lounge suits and high-waisted silk shorts with knee-high socks sat and spun on desks, threw rugby balls and reflected on what Stokey-Daley describes as their “torturous” school years: of the pressures of being the second black student to be head of school at Eton College, as was the case with one cast member, or the crushing despair of being romantically rejected by your (straight) best friend.
Fashion week performances can often feel forced, but this underlined the possibilities of clothes, their potential for expressing individuality, sexuality and gender — just about everything one could hope a show could do.
“Being a fashion designer [today] is not about simply designing clothes; you have to build a universe around your brand,” Stokey-Daley said when asked about his ambitions for his label. “[The British fashion industry] has a tendency to celebrate young designers for a minute, but for the last year I have been thinking about how to build a brand and a business that lasts.”
Charles Jeffrey, a young designer who was shortlisted for last year’s Vogue/BFC Fashion Fund, knows a thing or two about universe-building. His designs for his Loverboy label are distinctively punk, and attract both twenty-somethings and wealthier, middle-aged customers “who used to be punk in their youth”, one stockist told me. Staged in a former metal works redecorated as a nightclub, dancers writhed on the floor as models of both sexes stomped past in black dresses like those worn by Wednesday Addams, glittering tartan trousers and a three-piece pink leopard suit with matching beret, some wearing helmets of waxed candles lit on fire. London mayor Sadiq Khan, dressed casually in a navy hoodie and jeans, looked on unperturbed.
Harris Reed’s debut, held outdoors for an audience of 40 at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens, was another highlight. Though it was only his first show, 25-year-old Reed already has a considerable profile, having since his student days outfitted Harry Styles in looks celebrated for challenging traditional gender boundaries. He did the same here, taking wedding gowns, morning jackets and lace veils from Oxfam and “upcycling” them into voluminous, beautifully tailored skirts and dresses that would be suitable for a Styles concert.
London-based Albanian designer Nensi Dojaka, who recently snapped up the prestigious LVMH Prize for new talent, is another celebrity favourite who made her fashion week debut; her sexy, lingerie-inspired designs are frequently photographed on models Emily Ratajkowski and Hailey Bieber. She showed bodysuits and dresses delicately panelled in black semi-sheer georgette and organza, and strappy, precision-cut bra tops layered under sharp blazers and high-waisted trousers — just the thing for customers who, after a year and a half in tracksuit bottoms, are yearning to show a bit of skin.
Over the extended period that fashion weeks were mostly digital, some designers were able to think more creatively about how to present their work. Jonathan Anderson began distributing his collections via boxes of posters, paper doll cut-outs and swatches, and he continued this “show in the box” concept this season in collaboration with photographer Juergen Teller. Though still sculptural, his clothes were substantially more revealing and form-fitting than past seasons, a testament to the return of body-conscious dressing.
Emilia Wickstead too opted for digital this season: her trim, gently pleated and ruched day-to-evening dresses in orange and lime were shot beautifully among the hedges of the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire. “With my business hat on, I needed to not do it,” she explained of not hosting a live show. Wickstead saw a sharp uptick in demand for bespoke creations over lockdown — something she believes is driven by the broader trend of buying less and better.
Lovely and inventive as those digital creations can be, I suspect most designers will come back to physical shows. There tends to be something a bit too polished about an edited film; it lacks the suspense and intriguing imperfections of the real thing. As Moralioglu said, reflecting on his return to fashion week after two seasons of recorded shows: “There is something about that live event that still translates digitally.”
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