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London Designers Mine the Dark Side

From Christopher Kane to S.S. Daley, the designers showing at the tail end of London fashion week found beauty in bleak times.
A look from Christopher Kane's Autumn/Winter 2023 collection at London Fashion Week.
A look from Christopher Kane's Autumn/Winter 2023 collection at London Fashion Week. (Getty Images)

LONDON — If fashion has a knack for unearthing beauty in bleak times, London’s designers have always been particularly adept at mining the dark side.

Take Christopher Kane and his ongoing obsession with anatomy. Not many designers would have the “guts” to turn the unravelling of a human intestine into a ruffled peplum. In movement, they were meant to mimic the waddle of what Kane called his “ugly ducklings.” Plucked from his Glasgow upbringing, Kane took the uniforms of barmaids, waitresses and cleaners, and made them sexier and sharper, often contrasting the frills with “chopping board” collars that framed the upper body. Then he threw us a curveball; AI generated prints of what the designer described as “working class” animals — pigs, ducklings, rats — made into graphic, body conscious dresses. They were a curious addition to the collection, but Kane’s sensual uniform dresses are sure to be commercial catnip.

Nensi Dojaka isn’t afraid to amp up the sex factor. This season, the designer showed trademark mini negligee dresses and dare-to-bare nipple pasty tops. The inclusion of a “naked dress” (sheer and sparkly) was canny. But taut bodysuits paired with hybrid denim jeans fused with flowing georgette panels and oversized jackets offered more covered up options and felt like new territory for the designer. It would be great to see Dojaka push her intricate body mapping still further beyond red carpet fodder.

Elsewhere, London wasn’t short on sensuality with an edge. Dilara Findikoglu took us to a dilapidated church, where her troubled femmes in corsetry, stockings and macabre gowns of knives and feathers once again questioned who has ownership over women’s bodies. Yuhan Wang looked to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” to add a frisson of danger to her normally coquettish line-up as Gogo Yubari’s chain mace and The Bride’s iconic yellow motorcycle jacket toughened up lace and satin frippery. At Emilia Wickstead, the influence of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” twisted her prim and proper aesthetic — only a smidge of a twist though; Wickstead has royals to dress, afterall.


Confessional first-person perspectives were everywhere this season. Steven Stokey-Daley of S.S. Daley was openly candid about the increased anxiety he felt after winning the LVMH Prize last year. Hence why the vast digital screens at his show projected a video of a sailor’s arm flailing in open water. The legendary British actor Sir Ian McKellan was there to steady the ship though. His reading of Alfred Tennyson’s “The Coming of Arthur” introduced a collection of nautical garments fraying at the hems. A rounded navy peacoat emblazoned with a patch depicting a life drawing, as worn by McKellan, rounded out a solid seafaring journey for Daley.

Labrum founder Foday Dumbuya took us to a Brixton market to pay homage to migrants who cross oceans for a “better” life. Dumbuya’s own journey from Sierra Leone via Cyprus to the UK played out in storied textiles in muted tones: vibrancy dulled by harsh realities.

A Sai Ta, designer of Asai, has not shown a collection since February 2019. After capturing an audience with his tie-dyed “hot wok” overlocked textiles (which have since been copied to death), he has taken a pause to contemplate his place in the industry. Now, the British-born, Vietnamese designer is back with his specific take on the East-West design narrative that saw his new collection ricochet from China’s Summer Palace to the Coromandel screens of Coco Chanel.

Indian-born Harikrishnan KS has already had the most stellar of young designer starts. He already had a viral hit on his hands with his inflated latex trousers which entered the social media stratosphere when Sam Smith wore them to the Brit Awards. This season, Harri deflated his clothes. His collection featured a few pairs of bulbous trousers but mostly he wanted to lighten the silhouette and bring focus to hand knitted and hand-dyed textiles.

After winning the Woolmark Prize last year, Saul Nash is also on a high. Inspired by growing up in inner London and seeing ski-wear worn by people without the ability (or means) to ski, Nash explored a more soulful approach to activewear with slimline ski jackets and transformable gilets. It’s cold out there but you can count on Nash to keep things hot.

Central Saint Martins MA show also saw extreme outerwear take centre stage, as Yaku Stapleton took home the L’Oréal award for his cartoonish puffers made of reclaimed bedding. Something for future Moncler Genius editions perhaps? Though the Italian ski jackets giant, which staged a public performance at Olympia, seems more focused on lifestyle entertainment tie-ups with the likes of Adidas, Mercedes-Benz and Roc Nation.

Then there was Daniel Lee’s much-anticipated debut at Burberry, something of an outlier amid London’s dark musings. The setting inside a dimmed tent erected in far-flung Kennington (pointedly not Kensington, Burberry’s old show haunt) didn’t clue us in but the checked blanket seating and hot water bottles suggested warmth. Lee talked about the great outdoors, ducks in the park and roses — so far so British. Except what is Britishness these days?

All walks of life, jostling with one another, was part of Lee’s answer. Everyone from poet Kai-Isaiah Jamal to Iris Law are included in that mix, wrapped up in checks galore inspired by archive fabric books, rendered in the loudest of shades of marigold, Cadbury purple and of course the blue that Lee has made a signature of his Burberry, much the way he did with Bottega green in his past role. All eyes were on the bags – mostly slouchy, oversized and in Lee’s words, something you can “chuck on the floor.” Functionality is what Lee ultimately sees at the heart of Burberry’s remit. Overall, the optimistic vibrant layers will surely have surprised some who expected something more minimal, even abrasive, from the designer, but in tense times, maybe we need broadchurch cosy from Britain’s only megabrand.

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