London Fashion Comes Back to Life

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It began amid the raging winds of Storm Eunice, the extratropical cyclone that hit parts of Britain and Northern Europe last week, as if nature herself were offering up a metaphor for just where the battered fashion industry stands these days.

There was no celebratory cocktail at Downing Street, as there has been in the past. (The shadow of Boris Johnson’s “Partygate” still looms.) The big names — Burberry, Victoria Beckham, JW Anderson — were mostly absent, doing their own, off-schedule thing. Rumors flew, later confirmed, that Queen Elizabeth had tested positive for Covid.

Yet despite it all, and even for those like me, still watching from afar through a digital lens, this London Fashion Week was the opposite of a damp squib.

Perhaps that’s because it was the first real physical season since the pandemic began or perhaps because the lack of big kahunas let the littler fish shine (or even perhaps because New York was so low energy), the shows were fizzing with ideas and local heroes refusing to play it safe. With gleeful rewriting not just of expectations, but the norm. How? Let us count the ways.

This was, perhaps, the most predictable development. This is the year of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee — a.k.a., the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne — with all sort of celebrations (the Platinum Pudding Competition!) marking her status as the country’s longest reigning monarch. Not that her decades of influence and image-making percolated through in any overtly obvious way (read: head-to-toe monochrome plus a black handbag). Rather it was the idea of royalty, its most obvious semiotics and the way they have been appropriated and re-appropriated by subcultures, that made runway news.

That was apparent in Richard Quinn’s maxi and micro blooms on swing coats with matching hats and midcentury molded silhouettes; his swathes of taffeta wrapping the body from hooded head to tailored trousers. In Roksanda’s mix of utility sportswear and graphic grandeur, with giant opera puffers and anoraks sweeping over explosive layers. In the capes that trailed from the shoulders of otherwise minimal tea dresses at Emilia Wickstead.

And in Edward Crutchley’s treatise on queer culture and the Goth, with its crushed velvets slipping down the torso, hole-poked cobweb knits — and reading list. (Sample: “The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthaeus and Veit Konrad Schwarz of Augsburg,” Bloomsbury, 2015.) Much of it was worn by brawny men to underscore the point about gender, power and who gets to say what bodies, exactly, deserve to wear a crown.

Harris Reed summed up the theme with a characteristic parade of demi-couture silhouettes entitled — yup — “Sixty Years a Queen,” after an 1897 book published in honor of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee and featuring exaggerated mermaid skirts and a tuxedo wrapped in an enormous yellow satin bow.

The vaunted (or excoriated, depending on your point of view) relationship between the United States and Britain may have its ups and downs, but this season it was creative fodder for Matty Bovan, whose controlled sartorial chaos came in the form of stars, stripes, denim and prairie dresses — the clichés shredded, layered and otherwise subverted. Connor Ives, an American in London, peopled his first show with female archetypes of his native land, including Kennedys (Jackie in the opera gloves and trapeze gown of her Paris tour; Carolyn Bessette in her bias wedding gown) and tailgating collegians — all built on a deadstock base.

No longer a niche experiment, upcycling is increasingly an approach to building a collection. In that vein, Priya Ahluwalia offered up a “Nollywood to Bollywood” mix of cultural and material piecework in plaid, sari silk, argyle and denim. And Chopova Lowena extended the label’s magpie found fabric and hardware aesthetic to miniskirt suits and fuzzy, tactile knits.

For all the big volumes and sweeping silhouettes on view, there were also stripped down body-con lines — most notably at Nensi Dojaka, who continued to play peekaboo with the underneath in velvet, sequins and even stretchy knits. But also at Simone Rocha, who, inspired by the Irish myth of the Children of Lir, added sheer inserts and slip dresses to her trademark layers upon layers of mood and material, ruffles and feathers, to create a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t dose of alluring tension.

Not a celebrity but rather, Raf Simons. The Belgian designer swapped his usual slot on the Paris schedule to unveil his joint men’s and women’s video. Opening with the glitching words, “The Ghost will let you in soon,” the presentation was set in an abandoned ballroom with an ornate crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling and assorted chairs covered in crimson slipovers scattered about the space, through which models wound their way in vinyl and latex shifts dresses and bodysuits under fuzzy alpaca overcoats and ruched nylon evening jackets. Faces were shielded by fuzzy caps that looked like either a cross between a baseball cap and a nun’s habit or a military helmet and a pelican; feet were encased in patent wellies.

Backpacks and bags were swathed in bright satin bows and wraps, the ends left trailing like a train. Little skeletons dangled from ears and bony hands clasped wrists. (Mr. Simons is turning out to have a dab hand with accessories.) The reference was the painting “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

It was haunted and kinky at the same time, as was Erdem Moralioglu’s collection, a shredded ode to the decadent underground of Europe in the 1930s via jacquard, lace and beaded silk. It was edgier than his usual romantic historicism and more interesting for it.

Ozwald Boateng, who founded his tailoring brand in 1989, became the first Black designer on Savile Row and then one of the very few Black designers to head a French heritage brand when he was named creative director of Givenchy Homme in 2003 (he left in 2007), returned to the London catwalk for the first time in 12 years.

He did it with a runway show of made-to-order suiting that mixed jewel tones and African diaspora prints, his Ghanaian heritage and his master cutting. It was a celebration of “Black excellence” complete with 100 models and pop culture figures strutting and schmoozing at the Savoy Theater, including Idris Elba, Goldie and the rapper Pa Salieu. The result was a reminder of just how much he moved the needle, one stitch at a time.


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