LONDON, United Kingdom — "It’s so hard to respond as a designer because our job is the future,” said Phoebe English, reflecting on the situation that some of London’s most creative young minds found themselves in this season as their industry confronted the greatest challenge it’s ever faced. “We’re thinking forward all the time, but at the moment we don’t even know what’s happening in the present. It’s so chaotic and confusing and really brutal. How do you respond in a pragmatic and useful and beautiful and moving way?”
Over the past six days, London has delivered all those responses, and more. It’s been a remarkable thing. Appropriate too, because these months have been so remarkable, riven by the pandemic, fired by activism, that it would have been a bitter disappointment if fashion, always the mirror of its time, hadn’t managed to reflect a full emotional spectrum, from the profound to the playful.
Michael Halpern bridged the distance to spectacular effect with the film that accompanied his Spring/Summer 2021 collection. His clothes have always celebrated disco glamour, but the celebration took on a joyous edge when he cast eight women from the pandemic frontline — “The heroes, the people who have been keeping us safe,” he called them — to wear his clothes. None of them would consider for a second the idea that what they were doing was heroic, but their humility garbed in the sizzle and flash of Halpern’s clothes provided the week’s peak moment. “That contrast was so important to me,” the designer said. “I wanted them to look and feel like themselves, not like they were getting into costume.” He acknowledged he was nervous that people mightn’t understand, but his mind was eased when his models gleefully fell right into the rituals – the styling by Patti Wilson, the hair by Sam McKnight, the dazzling manicures by Marian Newman. And the clothes! Latifah the tube driver was immediately drawn to a huge feather puffball. Odiri the train manager, was carried away in an aerodynamic swathe of gilded green plisse.
Despite the gala extravagance of their gear, all eight women looked remarkably at ease, none more so than Sarah, an Irish cleaner from an ICU unit, and living proof of the adage, “When you look good, you feel good.” The models’ thrill was contagious, which is surely one reason why everyone from Vogue to London’s mayor Sadiq Khan was so seduced by Halpern’s initiative.
He thought his clothes needed to be “more gorgeous, more fantastical than ever, because of how terrible things got this year,” and he wasn’t alone in that spirit of defiance. Molly Goddard initially imagined coming out of lockdown with a relatively sombre collection, slightly raw, pared-back, black and white, but she found herself stewing over how badly behaved some of her retailers and suppliers were. “There was a slight feeling of looking out for themselves and we rely so heavily on our supply chain, so the balance of how we made things changed. And I felt very frustrated.” By the time Goddard and her team were allowed back to her studio, she felt less sombre, more like exorcising her anger in an explosion of colour. It worked, although she did offer a sombre — but sexy —appetiser in a hand-smocked black dress with a bib front and a bare back (“People don’t think I like sexy, but I do,” Goddard insisted with a raised eyebrow, daring me to disagree.) She also claimed that a fountain of pale frills was a “frustrated” dress. And maybe the clashing colours were a burst of fuck-you. But they were a joy too: the exuberant flounce of her signature tulle matched with patchworked knits, or an orange poncho thrown over pink stripes. There was also a buzzy, fuzzy collab with Ugg – Cousin It slippers and platform mules.
What has at other times struck me as a little one-note and flighty in Halpern and Goddard’s work took on substance this season. Maybe I’m just a sucker for defiant glamour in hard times. Or maybe it was the notion that these designers are in close enough touch with their customers that their confident affirmation of their place in the New Abnormal can also be read as a vote of confidence in fashion's future. Same thing with Lucinda Chambers and Molly Malloy at Colville. “People are really wanting to know where to put their hard-earned money,” said Chambers. “They’re looking for meaning, longevity, love, attention…and a backstory.” Colville’s comes in the shape of the project in Mexico that produces their ponchos, the women in Colombia who make their bags, the blankets and rugs made in Turkey, but also the label’s carefully curated upcycled pieces: jeans, t-shirts, tracksuits. But Chambers and Molloy’s years at Marni also mean they know fashion as a private pleasure. There were sensuous tango dresses in their new collection. You imagined seeing a woman dancing through a window during next summer’s lockdown (I never said I was an optimist.)
Christopher Kane is a past master of the private pleasure, perversely so in clothes that occasionally had his audiences paging Doctor Freud. He called his new season “a collaboration with myself.” When lockdown started, a discombobulated Kane realised he needed a hobby so he sat out in his back garden, in his pyjamas, making pictures with glitter and glue. Hundreds of them. “It was the best thing I could have done,” he said. Some were portraits — his sister Tammy, for instance, looking demonic, or so he said — others were what might be best described as internal landscapes. In one self-portrait, it looked like Kane had gouged out his eyes and filled the empty sockets with blue glitter. Maybe Sigmund would have loved that too!
For his spring “show” in his store in Mount Street, he mounted a selection of the paintings on easels. Ten of them were printed on textiles, including Tyvek, the paper used in the 60s to make swinging little gogo dresses. The prints had the same messy AbEx vigour as the pictures. Particularly striking was a pattern made of furiously dabbed fingerprints. Scary, that one. There were another 15 pieces in the collection, patchwork, crystal mesh. “The silhouettes are simple, I didn’t want to take away from the paintings,” Kane said. “The clothes seeming secondary felt right.” So secondary, in fact, that he’s not sure whether he’ll even sell them. The pandemic has brought on a reappraisal of his business. “My mental health is more important,” he clarified. “You know how hardcore it was.” But, he added, he’ll be back with “two strong seasons a year.”
“I refused to change the way I worked,” insisted Kane’s close friend Erdem, “though obviously I had to. It was an act of defiance to create something beautiful in a time that is really ugly.” In lockdown, he’d been some reading about some other ugly times: the years of the Spanish flu and the AIDS pandemic, and revolutions in France and Naples, the setting for Susan Sontag’s single novel, “The Volcano Lover”. Its scandalous heroine Emma Hamilton joined Erdem’s repertoire of ladylike yet unhinged inspirations. Her 18th- century Empire-lined dresses, accessorised with her lover Lord Nelson’s medals and military jackets, provided the hybrid spine of Erdem’s collection, which was gorgeously filmed in Epping Forest. Emma had a sideline with an eccentric act called The Attitudes, where she would perform scenarios from Ancient Greek and Roman vases while becoming increasingly more dishabille. Erdem trailed long ribbons over his looks, with the hint that they too might come undone.
The most telling presence in the collection was actually Sontag’s. You could imagine her hiking up Vesuvius in pursuit of her volcano lover, in the parka or the big slouchy cardigan that Erdem paired with his cotton voiles. You could also feel the presence of the brilliant young stylist Ib Kamara, with whom Erdem has been working for just over a year. “I’ve always been wound, and something about that dance with Ibrahim makes me unwound,” he said. All to the good.
And so, with unwinding in mind, to Matty Bovan. Plague, floods, fires, the raw meat of history has always drawn him. He called his collection Future.Olde.England. Who goes there? Friend or F.O.E.? Who even knows anymore? Unable to stage his usual show in London, Bovan mounted his 20-look collection on eerie mannequins which he then photographed in an old chapel in his hometown York. “They’re not meant to be ghoulish, they’re meant to be strong, stoic, rising up.” It all felt very Shakespearian, especially with the pink floral extravagance which was dipped in clay but looked drenched in blood, and – Bovan’s own favourite – the composition of blue heraldic shields. There was also a symphony of tie-dyed draping suspended from curtain rods that was reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s classic spoof of “Gone With the Wind”. “There’s always a fine line between ‘Is it ridiculous or is it great?’” said Bovan.
Working in isolation with his static mannequins, he’d got into making stuff bigger, because he didn’t have to allow for models moving in the clothes. He’d also enjoyed the dyeing, the embroidering, the over-printing as his own reaction to what he sees as most fashion’s slickness. And, like many of his peers, he’d been questioning fashion’s relevance in the bleak light of current events. He’d decided it lay in story-telling. “You take from narrative in my work, it gives people something else.”
You could distil Bovan’s compositions into commercial pieces: sweatshirts, twisted rugby shirts, Liberty print items, and plenty of made-to-order knitwear. “I like making clothes you can wear and sell,” he insisted. But the collection left its strongest mark with the imperial drapes of cloth that looked like warrior wear from one of Bovan’s fantasies of Olde England. He wondered if he’d subconsciously upped the drama. “Times are intense. This is almost battle-like with the shields and the heraldry.” Future England?
Future London, at least, was visible amidst the doom and gloom with the newer names that made an impression this season. Lulu Kennedy celebrated the 20th anniversary of her Fashion East initiative by launching the fully-formed Maximilian Davis on the fashion world. His synthesis of pin-sharp elegance and his family’s Trinidadian roots yielded a wildly sensual sophistication. So no surprise to see Ib Kamara on his team.
Showing again at Fashion East was Saul Nash. As much a choreographer as a designer, his clothes pushed the high-octane sportswear that has been fundamental to British menswear throughout this century into a new hyperzone of deliriously transportive movement. Nash staged the movement for Bianca Saunders film of her collection, called “The Ideal Man”. Saunders was inspired by footage of the House of Montana at a ball in 1993, where men and women “navigated between masculinity and femininity”. Her own work on drape, “narrative through construction”, was thoughtful and precise. And the print in her collection - a photo of her mum at 18 on a beach in Jamaica – was a reminder of how personal so much of the work I’ve seen over the past week has been. Supriya Lele combined her cultures by spray-painting a traditional Indian print on tops (and the back of a coat cut from deadstock suede) to echo a faded old band t-shirt from her metalhead youth. The 33-year-old said lockdown had reconnected her with her inner moody teen, but the seemingly careless slouch of the clothes was deceptive. There was an subtle, easy artfulness in the pull-on draped jersey skirts or the stretch tailored pants with a visible thong (detachable if discretion dictated), or the subtle flash of handpainted sequins. “Hot, elegant and comfortable” was the in-a-nutshell manifesto.
But maybe the most intensely personal presentation of the season was Paria Farzeneh’s, in a lush green field under a bright blue sky an hour outside London. From an Iranian family, Farzeneh doesn’t shy away from confrontation. Her men – and, this time, women too – always look dressed to meet it in the most head-on way. So when Farzeneh blew up that green field under that blue sky in a farrago of fire, it felt like she had consummated her most pessimistic inclinations. But then you read her notes on the importance of preserving innocence and wonder, and you realised that her models had actually walked through the fire, out into the sunlight, and you were reminded that hope will always thrive in young hearts.