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London’s Creativity Lights Up Dark Times

Five days of London’s virtual fashion week proved that hard times really can bring out the best in the city’s sharpest designers, writes Tim Blanks.
Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard and Ahluwalia Autumn/Winter 2021. Simone Rocha; Molly Goddard; Ahluwalia.
Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard and Ahluwalia Autumn/Winter 2021. Simone Rocha; Molly Goddard; Ahluwalia.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

Charles Dickens never sounded more on it. Five days online with London Fashion Week spotlighted an industry facing its demons — a pandemic kicking the guts out of the commerce that nurtures designer businesses, a toxic government which decided a £150 million worth of fish deserved more protection than £35 billion worth of fashion — and snatching small but stellar victories from the yawning maw of viral and official indifference.

“It’s fun working out new ways of doing things,” said Molly Goddard. Her teeth didn’t sound at all gritted, not like last season when she was simmering enough that one of her signature tulle confections was, she insisted, infused with fury. The wording of Goddard’s show notes still had an edgy tingle — “clashing”, “tough”, “spiky”, “sharp”, “twisted”, “crunchy”, “crisp”, “stiff” — but her first baby is due in a couple of weeks and she claimed pregnancy had calmed her.

Simone Rocha was also pregnant, her second child. She didn’t have quite the same spirit of equanimity. “I don’t enjoy this way of working at all,” meaning the whole fandango of remoteness. “The first lockdown was naïveté and novelty, but it’s worn off for everybody.” Still, Rocha acknowledged that she would probably not have created this collection, with its subtexts of protection, resilience, defiance, if she hadn’t been stuck inside for a year. For the first time, she showed leather, hard, black and biker, restraining, harnessing the trademark tulles and delicate flowers. “Caged femininity,” she mused. “Maybe reflecting my own state of mind.” But then the flowers weren’t having lockdown a moment longer. They exploded into big bosomy blooms of black satin roses or khaki waxed cotton. More subtle creeping floral tendrils insinuated their way around the leather. It was a technical triumph for Rocha. Not particularly joyous — you could sense the kickass frustration — but curiously exuberant, in a kinky way. “More visceral, unapologetic,” she agreed. “Anyway, you can’t see anyone, so you don’t have to apologise.”

Babies mean family. Shorn of her usual access to research, Molly Goddard had plucked a few of her favourite books, Tina Barney’s “Europeans” and David Douglas Gordon’s “Goodbye Picasso,” both with their visions of lunches and dinners with family and close friends, the social occasions denied us all for months. Her collection had a cross-generational flavour, party dresses, cocktail dresses, Fair Isle sweaters, classic tailored coats, jackets and pants, reflecting her own increasing yen for more structured pieces. That’s maturity (the gold platform boots were by way of Austin Powers, so Molly’s sense of irony is still intact), but it’s also reassurance.

It’s fun working out new ways of doing things

Roksanda Ilincic followed the same path, with a beautifully poignant film featuring three generations of women: Vanessa Redgrave, her daughter Joely Richardson and her granddaughter Daisy Bevan. Again, it was lockdown that was responsible. The three women would not usually have been sequestered together in a house in the country. They filmed each other with iPhones, and Redgrave chose Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 to read on the soundtrack in that unmistakeable voice. The mood was overwhelmingly melancholic, but what a way to impress your clothes on an audience! The voluminously opulent languor of Ilincic’s designs has never seemed more pertinent.

She said she’d “pushed” the clothes. Marni alums Lucinda Chambers and Molly Molloy said the same thing about their new collection for Colville: shapes pushed forward, colours more vibrant. The result underscored a striking, and probably unwitting, side-effect of a show-less London. Everything felt stronger. Instead of swishing by in a flash on a catwalk, each look now had standalone impact, vital when buyers were assessing the clothes on a Zoom call. “Without the necessity for clothes to fit the cohesion of a show, everything becomes totally individual, idiosyncratic,” said Chambers. “Not having to show something completely changes it.” Hence, Colville’s vintage blanket flower motif woven into the aptly named Motherfucker Coat, an art deco beauty sharing look book real estate with a swirly silken sheath as psychedelic as a light show at the Fillmore. The new collection continued Colville’s commitment to upcycling and outreach, with ponchos and blankets from a Colombian women’s co-op, and collars hand-knitted in Florence by an association for vulnerable people. That sensitivity is also sensible, which means Chambers and Molloy would probably agree with Ilincic that the dominant mood is “post-panic pragmatism.” Just like they’d also share her faith in the power of community.

Community spirit is something London has always managed much better than its sister fashion capitals. It’s clearest now in the young men and women of colour who are charging the industry with new energy, new responsibilities. If there is no longer the peripatetic circus that once defined a week of shows, one of the most vivid impressions over the five days of films and presentations was still the kinesis of fashion: from Matty Bovan’s glitchy chaos to Erdem’s graceful corps de ballet, Ahluwalia’s models solemnly circling the musician CKTRL as he performed, and, more than anything else, Saul Nash’s troupe of dancers.

Nash’s film took one grinding urban truth — the aggression of young males in gangs — and gave it a breathtaking twist (hence its title): the confrontation, the provocation, the mouthed “fuck off,” which turned into a long, lingering kiss between the combatants. Nash is in the frontline of young Black creatives who are currently a driving force in British fashion. Designer and choreographer, his sportswear is infused with both technical nous and poetry. And that combination is, in itself, designed to defeat stereotypes.

Priya Ahluwalia was talking about something similar last week when I asked what drew her, as a woman of colour, to menswear, like her peers Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose and Bianca Saunders. “It’s rooted deep down in fashion stereotypes,” she answered. “There are so many ideas around what Black masculinity is, we can say something else.” Brooding on how the migratory past weighs on the present, Ahluwalia, whose heritage is split between Nigeria and India, tapped some rich sources for her lush new collection of graphically banded puffas, polos, hoodies, trackies, items that will consolidate her hypebeast following. She’s created a new insignia for Team Ahluwalia, a kind of compass. Four points on a map, like the maps tracing the migration of Black people in America from South to North, which inspired the cutlines on her garments. More inspiration came from the migration of jewels out of Africa, ruby and emerald tones counterpointing the blacks and browns she’d seen in the work of artist Kerry James Marshall. At the back of her mind, she had the febrile cultural melting pot, the Renaissance, that animated Harlem during the Roaring Twenties.

On Tuesday afternoon, Ahluwalia was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Last year, she was featured as one of the young designers in Gucci Fest, the online “film festival” that Alessandro Michele put together in place of a conventional presentation. It was the highpoint of a good year for her, Covid and looming Brexit notwithstanding. “Small brands have to basically be media companies,” Ahluwalia said. “At the end of the day, it’s clothes, but you have to give people something they want to be a part of. Film pulls people in, spreads more awareness than a show.”

She has a mentor’s clarity, one more reason, alongside the social activism and the sustainable business practises, that she will go on winning awards. The power of film was reinforced in other ways over the five days of London Fashion Week: Stephen Jones’ “French Kiss,” a transcendent record of how he made his new collection, and Edward Crutchley’s deep dive into the methods and inspirations that make him one of the most fabulous technicians in all of fashion.

Small brands have to be media companies. You have to give people something they want to be a part of.

Which brings me back to Bianca Saunders: her elegant new menswear collection was captured in “Superimposed,” Daniel Sannwald’s equally elegant film made under the influence of Jean Cocteau. But there was an edge to its composure, a subtle refusal to be bowed by circumstance. At the opposite end of a similar spectrum was the furious shattered glamour of Eden Loweth’s Art School: the most diverse casting of the week, the most uncompromising in its stance, the sharpest reminder that London is where things happen that won’t — or can’t — happen anywhere else.

Matty Bovan does that too. His collection was an odyssey, a fall into the oceanic void, followed by a return to reality. But does salvation exist? Bovan lives to pose such thorny questions, like this collection lived in chaos, with its own mad beauty. If you wanted an analogy, Leigh Bowery worked quite well. The first look was a tabard of huge recycled plastic sequins on a mesh of crochet swathed in an acreage of white tulle. There were tidy Nelson jackets, and nets of recycled Swarovski crystal. There were some impressive denims created with Welsh jean genies HIUT, and a whole raft of garments in merino wool (the designer is in the running for this year’s Woolmark Prize). “It’ll be interesting to see what the reaction is,” Bovan mused. “It’s more escapist. And people are wanting something more extreme to watch.”

Erdem doesn’t get enough credit for how extreme he can be. So many of his peers have peeled away that, at the age of 43, he’s practically the Grand Old Man of the London scene. His inspirations over the past 15 years have been a gallery of glorious obsessives, his latest, the ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, the quintessence of the idea. “Like breathing,” said Erdem. “She had to dance.”

His signature is usually an elongated, embellished luxe. In present surreal circumstances, he wanted catharsis. “I refused to be dictated to by the situation.” Erdem stripped everything back, to the bare ribbing of a dancer’s rehearsal clothes, then built it back up, to an overblown opera coat, with occasional haunting combinations of costume and outerwear. In his movie, the models moved in and out of a spotlight, transformed by the glow, chiaroscuro like Hitchcock noir. The new rigour suited the designer. The best things in the collection were a double-breasted coat with a plissé cape back, and a cinched jacket, paired with cashmere leggings. There were little white feathers (gathered at Swan Lake?) stitched into the fabric. Both coat and jacket had a sense of suppressed tension that suited our volatile moment.

I refused to be dictated to by the situation.

Erdem has worked in the past with London stylist Ibrahim Kamara, last encountered elevating Virgil Abloh’s collections and here assisting Riccardo Tisci with his first show for Burberry menswear. Kamara has transformed the mood of menswear with his fearless, extravagant sensuality. When Tisci talked about young people needing release after a year of lockdown, comparing them to kids after the World Wars, he couldn’t have picked a better consigliere to help realise his vision than Kamara. The kilts, the Phrygian caps, the soft leather boots, the bullion fringing injected Burberry with a playful new dress-up spirit.

On the same day, Kamara was styling his friend Maximilian Davis’s clothes for Lulu Kennedy’s incubator Fashion East. You’d imagine that’s where he’s most excited, with the community of young Black creatives who are changing London fashion from the bottom up. How does it feel when you see the future? I started with Dickens; I’ll end with Shakespeare: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”

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