February 25, 2010 7:13 pm

Crystallised vision from the new guard

“Creative”, “inspiring”, and “reflective” were the three words Sarah Brown, the UK prime minister’s wife, chose to describe London Fashion Week on its opening day. While the first two stressed the importance of an event worth £30m a year to the London economy, the third was tinged with something more sombre. The death of Alexander McQueen, one of the UK’s finest fashion designers, was a reason to reflect on the past. As Mrs Brown spoke, a board in front of her filled with notes offering condolence – including one from the speaker herself. It was a solemn reminder of the shadow cast over the week.

And yet, in spite of this, London’s overriding focus was the future. Come the next set of shows, for instance, the country will have experienced a general election, and accompanying Mrs Brown on day one was Ben Bradshaw, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, trumpeting: “London Fashion Week is one of our greatest success stories. The creative industries are an integral part of our economy.”

Meanwhile, three days later, in the same venue, Ed Vaizey, shadow minister for arts and the creative industries, held a reception for key fashion industry figures. Both want a piece of the clothing and textile industry that produced £8.6bn ($13bn) worth of goods and an electorate that spent £46bn on clothing and footwear in 2008.

No wonder wooing the public vote – or rather the public spend – was also integral to Burberry’s manifesto. Not content with convincing one group of journalists and buyers of the merits of a military winter wardrobe packed with aviator jackets, shearling buckle boots and cropped khaki great coats, the British megabrand streamed its show live in 3D at simultaneous events across the globe. The first to do so, it was the clearest sign yet of fashion’s future direction.

But Burberry’s autumn/winter collection will win kudos not only for its high-tech marketing strategy but also for its clarity of vision.

The most successful shows of the week – and the way fashion seems to be going – were those with a single, utilitarian focus (blame the woman who started it, Phoebe Philo at Celine). When a concise, no-frills look appeared, not sullied by extraneous concepts that muddied the overall effect, it felt the most compelling.

At Burberry, for instance, coats were the primary leitmotif, and in case anyone didn’t get the message, light danced on the walls mimicking rain and a thunderstorm roared across the audio system.

At Antonio Berardi and Christopher Kane, by contrast, clarity came in silhouette, not theme. Berardi produced clothes that caressed the skin, slashes that reached the thigh, and lace that left little to the imagination (save the suspenders lurking beneath) in a powerful, British version of the femme fatale.

Leather and lace were also in abundance at Christopher Kane, as the young Scottish designer put all his money on one colour – black; one garment – short square dresses; and the two aforementioned fabrics. Plus a lot of floral embroidery to add some trademark irony.

And then there were Pringle of Scotland and Marios Schwab, where a single-minded austerity ruled, thanks to the stripping down of embellishment and colour. Clare Waight Keller of Pringle even professed how “refreshing it was to be pure again”, in reference to her muted, stark shades and focus on luxury knitwear, while Marios Schwab cited a childhood fascination with school mates’ dirndls as inspiration for his apparent Teutonic starkness, enticing in its acuity.

Pointedly, a radical change in the future of the hemline manifested itself at London’s most feminine labels, Matthew Williamson, Erdem and Aquascutum. The (clichéd) hemline index indicates that in times of economic plenty, miniskirts emerge, so the emergence of the maxi skirt first alarmed – is this a dismal portent of what’s to come? – and then intrigued: as a piece of clothing, it has the power to significantly transform the working wardrobe. And that’s a good thing.

A case in point being Aquascutum, where tailored jackets and crisp masculine shirts came not paired with the reliable pencil skirt but instead the ankle-skimmer. At Erdem, maxi dresses replete with prints – including a charming swallow repeat – offered a lightness of touch; while at Matthew Williamson, draped liquid silk falling from head to toe in a dress destined for the red carpet (Sienna Miller was in the front row) revealed that the winter maxi can cut it in the evening, too.

With such a crystallisation of vision from London’s new guard, when the old guard stuck to what they did best – offering a bit of something for everyone – it felt starkly at odds.

Take Paul Smith, where it was difficult to identify the girl coming down the catwalk: one minute she was in a wax jacket and flat cap; the next a floral prom dress; and at the end, decked in a red riding jacket and set for a Boxing Day hunt. Vivienne Westwood’s Red Label, premised on the bunging together of contrasting bits and bobs, was too much to take in, particularly when pink tartan was placed with a spotty cashmere cardigan and a checked blanket coat.

Although Nicole Farhi and Betty Jackson’s collections were as pretty and wearable as always, following the courage of their convictions and sticking with the strongest component – the black patent leather streamline trousers and coats at Farhi and Jackson’s printed silks and leather pieces – would have made for a more convincing argument.

“Year for change” is the Conservative party slogan; maybe politicians know more about fashion than we think.

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