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London’s Cauldron for Creativity

London Fashion Week was a more regional affair this season, but the city’s young talents held the fort, punching well above their weight, reports Susanna Lau.
Models walk at the finale of the Supriya Lele Autumn/Winter 2022 show.
The finale of Supriya Lele’s Autumn/Winter 2022 show. (Getty Images)

LONDON — With Storm Eunice raging, London Fashion Week forged ahead, a metaphor for the steely determination of the capital’s new guard of designers.

British Vogue editor Edward Enninful’s birthday celebrations brought the likes of John Galliano and Marc Jacobs to town, but fewer international editors and buyers made the trip, held back by budget cuts, Covid restrictions and the absence of anchors like Burberry and Victoria Beckham. The result was a more regional affair. And yet London’s young talents once again held the fort, punching well above their weight.

“We’re this wealth of creativity,” said British Fashion Council chief executive Caroline Rush. But it was first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from places like West Africa and India, along with transplants from the US, that were amongst the most vibrant in London’s line-up, a testament to what sets the city apart: a globally-minded openness and some of the world’s top fashion schools. The result is a cauldron for creativity.

What was on and off the official schedule was even more blurry this season. The unofficial action began last week, when Craig Green staged a post-pandemic comeback show in a cavernous space near his studio in Silvertown right under the flightpath of London City Airport. “It’s about feeling things again and touching things for comfort and for suffocation. Pleasure and pain. What looks good but doesn’t feel good and vice versa,” said Green. This was a show of new ideas aplenty with blown-up accoutrements, experimental textures of inside-out mohair and chenille, and sculptural knitwear shapes. The flood of newness was almost overwhelming, and it set a high bar for those who followed.

The idea of suffocation was also afoot at Richard Quinn as PVC-clad American drag queen Violet Chachki walked a human pup on a leash. This articulation of high fashion claustrophobia was far more literal, but the scores of floral-printed hooded silhouettes made for potent imagery when viewed online by this writer.

Christopher Kane again opted to reveal his Autumn/Winter 2022 collection, a nod to “sexual selection” in the animal kingdom, online. His febrile creativity, a highlight on runways past, was missed IRL. And you wondered how his latex wobble dresses and chiffon trappings of bird of paradise mating call plumage would move on a catwalk.

At Harris Reed, the contrast between heartache and pleasure rang “pure and true.” The American designer’s assembly of demi-couture pieces, created out of upholstery fabrics hand-sourced from Villa Bussandri and placed in a mise-en-scène in the clouds, was soundtracked by Sam Smith’s performance of the Des’ree classic “I’m Kissing You.” The effect was spine-tingling. If Reed’s repurposed bridalwear set a singular tone last season, this time around was more playful, with flared volumes and shots of sumptuous colour.

At the improved New Gen space at the Old Selfridges Hotel, 25-year-old Conner Ives — on the back of dressing Adwoa Aboah for the 2019 Met Gala and being tapped to work on Fenty — showed no fear when it came to re-interpreting his American girl archetypes for his runway debut. There was Andrea from “The Devil Wears Prada,” Jackie O and “America’s Next Top Model.” The result was wit and irony, but worked into flawless bias-cut dresses made out of piano shawls and second-hand silks. Ives could have held off on showing at this stage in his career, but he showed up and it paid off.

Irish menswear designer Robyn Lynch also took to the catwalk for the first time, making her case for outdoor gear deadstock, repurposed into energetically proportioned sportswear. Other debuts included social media-fuelled hot-girl brand Poster Girl, which fared less well on the runway mainly due to the tricksy styling of their skin-tight knits. It’s interesting that the idea of a show still holds weight for designers who have come of age on the internet, when a TikTok star wearing their wares would arguably do more to propel the business.

S.S. Daley, confident from his London debut last season, continued to strengthen a homoerotic English narrative in his mens and newly introduced womenswear, where love triangles and trysts played out through a turn of the 20th century garde robe underscored by stately home interiors. You could see Daley’s clothes sitting in both the context of a Merchant Ivory film and looking contemporary on up-and-coming actor Nabhaan Rizwan. The sweetness of Yuhan Wang’s ultra-feminine ruched dresses had some bite this time around with printed leathers and frayed tweed outerwear. Whimsical isn’t a word that runs through many of London’s collections so the presence of a long-haired cat in the arms of a model wearing a faux fur shag coat was a welcome dose of kitsch.

Although Priya Ahluwalia has shown before in London, when the city had a dedicated men’s schedule, it’s during the pandemic that she has shored up her identity through films and meaningful collaborations. And her return to the catwalk felt like a real triumph. It’s a changed world after all. “When I was assisting/interning it was a Euro-centric world. It’s now diverse in the best way possible. It feels safe and comfortable to put myself out there.” So, the British Nigerian-Indian Ahluwalia came roaring back with a Bollywood meets Nollywood theme. The clashes of pink and orange with the psychedelic tie-dye and her signature printed denim and colourblocked suiting made for a joyous trip.

Saul Nash, too, took his audience to his community safe space — Gee’s barber shop in Kensal Rise — and showcased more of his made-for-movement inflected sportswear. A major sportswear brand could probably use Nash’s “saulful” creative hand, a tie-up which he more than deserves.

Elsewhere, all eyes were on LVMH Prize winner Nensi Dojaka to broaden the appeal of her lingerie-rooted aesthetic. Her casting strategy certainly drove home the point, with more rounded body types, including a pregnant Maggie Maurer. It’s tough to make Dojaka’s pulley-hoisted dresses and bodywear work for a wider range of bodies, but the designer was up to the challenge. “The knowledge is there and it was just about finding the right time,” said Dojaka backstage. If she can make it work, so can others.

Supriya Lele faces a similar challenge and also casted girls with a wider range of body types, wrapping them up in sinuous slinky tops and sari-nodding skirts, as well as oversized outerwear. After all, those wearing her skimpy outfits for a night out need something to keep them warm for those cold walks home. The Supriya Lele girl in a blouson over-the-knee leather bomber with pajama-like bottoms was a convincing proposition. Victoria Beckham, a surprise attendee, seemed pleased with what she saw.

The rambunctious Central Saint Martins MA show was a fountain of ideas hailing from all over the world. You could pick out more than ten names, who could keep London Fashion Week fuelled well into the future.

Fashion East would be their first port of call. This season, the accelerator held its show deep in Wapping, where Jawara Alleyne debuted his safety-pinned Caribbean ease and Chet Lo showed ski bunny spiky knit ensembles. Maximilian was ready to fly the Fashion East coop with his more mature offering of precise tailoring and surprising knee-length dresses, inspired by equestrian dressing. One to watch from this year’s LVMH Prize crop for sure.

With the emphasis on younger largely East London-based designers, what of traditional society dressing? Huishan Zhang was one of the few to adopt an old school salon show for his candy confectionery cocktail attire.

And repping South London? Halpern took us down to Brixton, near his new studio for a 20s-refracted-through-the-70s outing in zesty colour combos, curved gowns and mega-fringed dresses. The contrast between a local leisure centre and the hyper accomplished glamour of Halpern’s world sums up the dichotomies of London’s fashion landscape where you can unearth the unexpected in every dodgy warehouse studio building.

Harking back to London fashion weeks of yore, Roksanda Ilinčić opted to show at the Tate Britain museum amidst an installation by artist Eva Rothschild. The designer broke new ground with an unexpected Fila collaboration as her luminous colour palette and couture-inspired volumes were reimagined as outerwear for braving the elements, adding a new dynamism to Ilinčić’s sophisticated art world attire.

Molly Goddard returned to showing after a pandemic hiatus and whilst she repeatedly emphasised backstage how much of a collective effort it takes to put on a show, she was more than up for it — up being the operative word as we tilted our gazes skywards towards the bottom-heavy skirts, scruffed up with hardy knitwear and coats that came down a raised runway. Upending the Zoom dressing narrative, where it’s party on top and PJ’s on the bottom, made for a sturdy return for Goddard.

In the luxurious surroundings of new Knightsbridge spot The Aubrey, Rejina Pyo’s down-to-earth tailoring made for a welcome contrast to the cocktails and canapés, somehow summing up our times: we’re going out again but still need to stay grounded.

Reflecting on the world’s present discombobulation yielded entrancing results from the designers with more than a decade under their belts. Erdem took us into a dramatically lit black box in Sadler’s Wells to light up his 1930s underground female cross-dressing characters, whose attire oscillated from boxy masculine overcoats to feminine dropped waisted godet dresses. When the eveningwear started glinting and shimmering, it was tempered with sheaths of black lace or tulle. From darkness comes light, or is that the reverse?

At the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, Simone Rocha’s wild swans came charging forth inspired by the Irish myth of the Children of Lir. Swan wings splayed at the hips, ruched tiers pushed the overall length upwards and textural delights such as blue velvet added murky richness. The manipulation of the body from human to swan was rendered in Rocha’s language but with a more youthful proportion, ending with the bloodshed of a dying swan rendered in red patent leather. Beauty from the macabre isn’t new territory for Rocha, but you couldn’t fault the conviction.

Real tears were shed at 16 Arlington as Marco Capaldo struck out on his own after the untimely passing of his partner Kikka Cavenati in November. “Tears” also fell on crystal quasi eveningwear in muddy muted tones. Aren’t we all a bit muddled as to where we are in the world? The Roaring 2020s as hailed by the industry haven‘t quite materialised, but London’s designers have definitely ruminated on the new normal with nuance.

London’s menswear designers also pondered the return to going out, and not without a hint of kink. See Stefan Cooke’s accomplished chainmail, devil-may-care tulle belts and theatre costume-borrowed constructions. Or Daniel Fletcher’s made-in-the-UK drainpipe satin suiting and collegiate-inspired patchworking for his front row of new wave indie bands. Or Edward Crutchley’s study of the queering of the Gothic aesthetic, which made for a fantastical romp.

At Bethany Williams, there was a “keep calm and carry on” mentality even under difficult circumstances. Williams, winner of Vogue’s Designer Fund has been unwell but her team were on hand to talk us through her latest collection at the Design Museum. The socially-conscious designer’s work is a reminder that whilst industry-wide change has yet to happen, she along with many of her London peers, are making step-by-step advances, most often with their unspoken use of deadstock materials and upcycling techniques. Returning to the runway, Matty Bovan also took his exaggerated upcycling to new territory with a dystopian American fever dream of cut up old Calvin Klein jeans and Alpha Industries flight jackets.

“Back to life, back to reality,” sang the raucous choir that closed Ozwald Boateng’s Savoy Theatre extravaganza celebrating British black excellence and the designer’s return to London Fashion Week after a 12-year hiatus. Boateng, of course, laid the path for the likes of Ahluwalia, Grace Wales Bonner and Nicholas Daley to speak their truths. Bolstered by sassy turns by Goldie and Idris Elba, the unofficial closer to the week spoke to both the winds of change and the power of endurance.

Whatever storms come their way, London’s creative class has what it takes to weather through.

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