LONDON — In the week leading up to London Fashion Week, the city’s fashion scene was already bustling with the opening of two major fashion exhibitions and the spectacle that was Vogue World London, a glossy fashion-infused pop-theatre show at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End that drew plenty of high-wattage names from the worlds of fashion, film, music and more. “It’s good for London,” said one editor, the subtext being that the British capital’s fashion week needs the razzmatazz of high octane events to stay buoyant.
On Wednesday afternoon, the UK government said it would inject £2 million into the British Fashion Council’s NewGen programme, a welcome boost for the original young designer support scheme that famously helped Lee McQueen get his start. But beyond grants and red carpets, can London’s designers stand on their own two feet?
Harris Reed once again provided the unofficial start to London Fashion Week on Wednesday night with an ode to Old Hollywood, infused with 1930s glamour and Adrian (Adolph Greenburg)-inspired lines. His gowns cast dramatic shadows in the concrete underbelly of the Tate Modern. But under the harsh lights, the poor construction of some of the pieces was hard to hide. In Reed’s defence, it’s hard helming two labels in two cities.
A sense of community is vital to many of London’s young labels, and as the shows officially got going on Friday, editors were forced to choose between Mowalola Ogunlesi’s dark chaos in the depths of East London or Chopova Lowena’s bricolage hi-jinx in a West London skate park. Mowalola got attendees (including Kanye) going with bumster-cut dirty denim and battered leathers as well as twin track tops and pants on models made up with bruises and scars.
My compass pointed to Chopova Lowena for its merrier vibe. This time around, Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena flexed their muscles with bags and shoes, and delved deeper into folkloric influences, blending references to Chopova’s Bulgarian roots and the Cornish Flora Day festival. Against the din of Central Line tube trains, their coming-of-age girlish sensibility mixed with a teen skater-boy vibe succeeded in slaying the crowd of CL cheerleaders.
Meanwhile, at Fashion East, following outings by Olly Shinder, Standing Ground and Johanna Parv, Asai made a special guest appearance with a rambunctious cacophony of vibrant hot wok dresses. Alum Ashley Williams also returned to the catwalk and I realised I had missed her signature graphics, slogan-wear and kawaii wit. The next day, Feben offered another comeback: iconic model Debra Shaw closed a show that continued the Ethiopian designer’s exploration of twisted thread and beaded dresses made with artisans from Accra.
After a four year hiatus, British rapper Skepta also returned to fashion week to debut his apparel brand Mains. A weirdly staid soundtrack (Phil Collins? The Rolling Stones?), an out-of-place tennis court set and an offering of bland sportswear made for a show that fell flat. And yet it was hard to resist the charm of Big Smoke himself running down for his bow with his daughter in tow.
The first half of London Fashion Week was also heaving with freshers. Showing for his first time on a runway, Harikrishnan “Harri” Keezhathil Surendran Pillai demonstrated he had a handle on things with a dance performance featuring his now signature inflatable pieces. He’ll find it difficult to shed the latex couture label, but for now, he’s putting all that rubber, talc and baby oil to good use. Dimitra Petsa, too, is onto a good thing: her wet look dresses have sisterhood currency. But maybe it’s time she evolve from water nymphs and break new ground.
Elsewhere, Stefan Cooke’s bleached stadium foam-hand tops, ribbon sash knits and taut erican football jersey tops put a new lens on sporting glory. Meanwhile, Sinead O’Dwyer invited us to her alma mater, the Royal College of Art, to talk us through her labour-intensive technique of shirred body stockings and the realities of size-grading. All the better to see her body-inclusive craft up-close, which is also why Matty Bovan opted for a novel backstage dinner to showcase his tactile confections. Guests got to see Bovan’s Lynchian prom princesses getting ready, trussed up in his frenetic rainbow frocks — a feast of chaotic craft.
Priya Ahluwalia opted to show at the British Library, where her signature patchwork and wavy geometric knits came infused with the work of under-acknowledged artists like Algerian painter Baya Mahieddine. You could also see Bollywood 60s legend Madhubala in ensembles of fuschia and burnt orange. Painterly prints gave the collection a newfound dimension, whilst sticking to Ahluwalia’s ethos of using recycled materials.
Molly Goddard took to the light-flooded galleries of Christie’s on King Street to stage a show that examined the layered underpinnings of vintage gowns and the faded familiarity of old fashioned bedding. Dresses with their open hook-and-eye backs and flailing grosgrain ribbons were convincing. So were the deliberately scrunched up pleats of fabric at the back of skirts. In concentrating on “just making clothes,” Goddard added more dimension to the elegance of messy dressing that she has undeniably made her own.
Roksanda Ilincic’s show in the Sculpture Court of the Barbican was a sight to behold. Her sculptural silhouettes are made to be set against iconic architecture, especially when weighted with this season’s inspiration from Serbian monasteries and fresco paintings. Oversized tailoring screen printed with her signature bright hues stood out against the concrete surroundings, but there was plenty of space for softness, too, in printed flou and handcrushed pleated tunics. Indeed, there was something for everyone in Ilincic’s coterie of art, stage and literary clients.
At Richard Quinn, there was little in the way of design innovation, but the show — mostly monochrome save for a dash of English red rose and a smattering of the label’s signature florals — was a moving tribute to the designer’s late father. The finale, set to a choral rendition of “The Mighty Quinn,” brought tears to the eyes of more than a few guests.
Jonathan Anderson’s show at Camden’s Roundhouse was the highlight of the week thus far. How to make Plasticine hoodies and shorts injected with technique and craft look supremely effortless? Have it stomp out to a Fred Again banger. Ditto the rigid crochet dresses, the puffed out coated nylon tops and bomber jackets stuffed with feathers like pillows that have exploded. But Anderson’s burst of ideas, despite being rendered in the maddest of materials, looked rooted in reality, and I mean that in the best possible way.