Legendary fashion writer and BoF contributing editor Colin McDowell has been attending and reviewing fashion shows for more than 30 years. Who better to give us the lowdown on one of the best London Fashion Weeks in recent memory?
LONDON, United Kingdom — Each season, despite challenges, London continues to raise the stakes, in terms of both creativity and, dare I say it, commercial potential. Here, I’ve assembled my top choices of London Fashion Week.
We were all rather shocked at the colours that first came down the runway. “Is it Spring-Summer or Fall-Winter?” my neighbour on the sardine-packed benches asked. But within seconds winter green and maroon seemed not only the most natural colours in the world for Spring, but the only colours. The conviction and strength of what was Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey’s most powerful collection for a few seasons suddenly had the same sort of rightness that Christian Dior’s New Look collection did. Women were so convinced that they came out of the show desperately trying to lower their hemlines. At Burberry there was a version of that overwhelming sense of something not just totally right for now, but also presaging the future. I loved the shapes, textures and scale of just about everything — and people who know me are well aware of how rarely I say that about a collection. No wonder this chap is where he is — he is truly exceptional.
There is talent and there is sophistication. Of the first, there is a good pool in London. Of the second, there is less than would fill an egg cup, let alone a pool. Schwab has both, of course, and like Christopher Bailey, he brought them both together in a collection which again set a new bar for this label. Like quite a few of the London shows this season there were echoes of the great Hitchcock blondes such as Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak — all sexy elegance and lady-like. From the very first moment this show had total confidence, reminiscent of the uptown girls I used to see in New York when I was very young — the ones who gave me, and Frank Sinatra, a fetish about clean bouncy hair and legs like a gazelle’s. If there was any lingering doubts about the stature of this designer, this delicate and very focused collection blew them away — and me!
There was a time when Berardi was working in Italy when I used to groan and say, “Oh, no, Antonio, no.” But that was before his friend and colleague Sophia Neophitou began to work with him as his stylist. The change has been dramatic and now we have a soignée approach to dress that most English designers find hard to carry off. So perhaps all those dreadful days in Italy were necessary to clear the decks for Berardi’s talent. Ice white and glamorous, this was a confident collection that was almost pitch-perfect. Although I do wonder how the pants with heavy three inch ribbon running down the seams sneaked past the taste police. What was all that about, my boy? And I must add, I do think we can do without quotes from Milton to help us understand the clothes, Antonio, thank you very much — pretentious, moi?
After an opulently rich plum pudding of a show last season, Erdem was all lightness and air this time around. I was so impressed by what he showed and what it said of his approach to dress that I went home and wrote to Sidney Toledano, chief executive of Dior, suggesting that he look at this young talent that dresses the wives of presidents and prime ministers — not for that, but because this show was about all the things concerning femininity and allure that Christian Dior believed in and taught to Yves Saint Laurent. I even thought that when he came out for a bow, Erdem looked rather like Yves as I remember him when young, with a slightly bemused, “where did all these people come from?” look, doing a quick smile and scurrying backstage as soon as possible. Does fashion history repeat itself? Who knows. But with thirties colours and fifties cuts, this was simply brilliant. I frankly never thought I would see such purity on a London runway, but I was wrong.
For my generation (Neolithic, since you ask), nothing raises the spirits at the end of a long day quicker than a sharp blast of Shirley Bassey and a bit of mirror shine. We had both at Acne and felt all the better for it. Shirley’s top hits, a mirrored runway and a posse of hand-picked guys proferring drinks all put me in a good mood. And the show augmented it as marvellous shapes — wide pants and great parkas — came confidently swinging (the only word) down the catwalk in clever combinations of blue, white, tan and some great shiny surfaces a bit like a yacht. There was something so clean, wholesome and rain-washed fresh about this show that it sent me out into the raucous London night dreaming that I was on a heathery Scandinavian hilltop surrounded by apple-cheeked healthiness. A great experience.
I have had my problems with the Temperley aesthetic in the past and have been struck off her guest list a few times for saying so. Hey ho, that’s the fashion life. But her show at the British Museum this season made it all clear. Alice Temperley has her market down to a fine art. She knows the rich. She is rich — at least by London designer standards. And she has had ten years to refine her look which is, well, rich, I guess. The whole collection consisted of evening wear, all long and minimal, in delicate colours and with enough glitter to keep the customers happy. They are, I would imagine, the West Coast Americans and the Middle Eastern princesses whose natural setting is a shiny yacht or a cunningly lit poolside at night. Nothing original, no great fashion breakthrough, that’s for sure, but I loved these clothes because they know where they are going. And so do we. Straight onto the backs of the wealthy ones, who will love them very much.
ANTONI AND ALISON
Fashion does not go in for national treasures very much, unfortunately. Often overlooked by the fashpack, Antoni and Alison are jewels in the crown of London Fashion. The trouble is, they are modest, thinking people with a totally unique aesthetic which modern fashion doesn’t quite know what to do with. They are not chasing the front cover of Vogue and have no need for the approval of the Americans. They are as English and as natural as a russet apple. And, above all, they have a wit that puts them up there with Peter Blake, The Beatles, Larry Grayson and all the Blackpool pier comedians who were our natural treasures before ‘stand-up’ comedians changed everything. But Antoni Burakowski (how English is that?) and Alison Roberts are so much a part of the English dress continuum that goes back to Hogarth that they could almost be the parents of Christopher Bailey, who is also in that special historic line.
Originality is the soul of wit, in my book, and these two designers are both original and witty. This was a great show of the sort that only London-based designers are capable. And I mean SHOW. Extraordinary clothes can come from the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier — intended to make us laugh and totally succeeding — but these guys are different. They give us not only a complete look but a world. This season it was all about ballet, but not quite as Covent Garden knows it. And like Antoni and Alison, the mood and fun were a Merrie England mix of traditional music hall, fairground and carefully orchestrated chaos that made even the most frigid fashionista smile. I loved the sugared almond colours and the sharply strident primaries, but most of all, I loved the character of this show. You don’t find that anywhere but London.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion