September 19, 2012 7:01 pm

London burnishes its reputation

Following the Olympics and diamond jubilee, London Fashion Week could have felt like a protracted afterparty, delaying the return to reality. But while there was an upbeat atmosphere this week, the fashion industry avoided the temptation to fan the flames of patriotic glory, enjoying instead the glow of knowing the capital’s reputation is at an all-time high.

So it was back to business, and the quest to prove that London can hold its own as a fashion capital that is not only creative but also commercial.

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From January, the British Fashion Council will have a new ace up its sleeve in this mission, namely new chairman Natalie Massenet, founder and executive chairman of online retailer Net-a-Porter. At Tuesday’s closing party, current chairman Harold Tillman handed over to Massenet, an impeccably groomed ambassador for British fashion in a purple Christopher Kane dress. She said that she has “a very clear and specific three-year plan starting from January” and would be using the intervening months to take stock of the industry.

Thus, this week was a time to examine what British fashion has to offer: with fewer distracting sideshows and gimmicks, just a long hard look at the clothes. Well almost. Milliner Philip Treacy staged a bizarre show-come-tribute to Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow and Michael Jackson, featuring Lady Gaga in a hot pink veil.

Burberry’s show in a huge Hyde Park marquee had the requisite celebrity front row (Andy Murray included), and was live-streamed on screens in its new Regent Street store, but the brand stopped short of closing ceremony special effects (last year’s finale featured a fake rainstorm). Perhaps that particular budget has been frozen after Burberry’s share price fell by a fifth last week.

The brand’s “Corsets and Capes” show was, as ever, an ode to the coat. Mainly the garment popped up as a cropped capelet in satin, worn over 1940s-shaped pencil dresses and skirts, some with corset tops. Bra-cup detailing appeared on several trenches: original but not entirely successful.

In addition, there were voluminous belted, dip-dyed evening coats. Rich fabrics included satin, metallic leather, metallic lace and plastic. Jewel-tone colours, especially in the final parade of metallic leather trenches, could have come from a box of Quality Street chocolates.

Mulberry might not be as big a business as Burberry – pre-tax profits of £36m in the year to March 31 were one-tenth of Burberry’s – but it is one of London Fashion Week’s biggest brands. There was also an emphasis on outerwear, much of it in leather. As designer Emma Hill said: “After all, we are a leather goods house.”

Biker jackets, peacoats and housecoats came in plain leather, canvas, and frayed tweed; in 1970s shades of peach, apricot, mint, black and white; and graphic prints mixing florals and geckos. They were inspired, said Hill, by “taking the English country garden to the tropics”.

There was a looseness and ease to Mulberry’s long silk dresses that was also visible at fellow big-hitter Paul Smith, although in contrast to sweet, English florals, he chose block colours. Silk shirt and tunic dresses, some with pleated skirts, fell to the lower calf, and came with V-necks, sporty striped trims and diagonal panels of colour. This was combined with signature tailoring, with twists such as lace cuffs on a white shirt, or print and plain fabric merged on a blouse.

This juxtaposition of different fabrics– call it blocking, panelling or collaging – was widespread. It appeared at the Preen show, the first in London since decamping to New York in 2007, where loose chiffon dresses, A-line skirts, blouses and boxy biker jackets featured contrasting panels of reptile-print chiffon, animal-print sequins, rose print, and snakeskin. It was also at Antonio Berardi, where athletic tailoring featured contrasting panels, and Michael van der Ham, who juxtaposed hairy jacquards with flock-printed tulle on layered and pleated dresses. Although there was print on display at Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou, mixing fabric and texture seems to have taken over as London’s new movement.

Simple shapes in luxe fabrics was a popular aesthetic. Jonathan Saunders showed wearable knee-length A-line skirts – a recurrent shape – in holographic silver and gold, and dresses striped with metallic leather or covered in plastic teardrops. At Topshop Unique, tailored trousers came in silver lamé and silver minis and shift dresses in silver sequins with sheer hems.

A play on opacity and transparency threaded through the week, especially at Erdem and Christopher Kane. These designers, dubbed new establishment by the British Fashion Council, are emblematic of how up and coming talents can convert a newcomer’s buzz into international recognition, in part thanks to funding from the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund. Kane merged the “sickly sweet” with Frankenstein, for a collection shown on a holographic silver catwalk that combined the ultra feminine with 1960s silhouettes and futurism. Bows and bolts were the main motifs, and knee-length dresses in candy pink, primrose, white and black featured flat, ribbon-like loops, rows of ruched shower cap-like ruffles, clear plastic bolts, plastic bows linked together like a girlish chain mail, and a dresses overlaid with sheer organza printed with bows.

At Erdem, slim shifts and full-skirted dresses made from contrasting panels of lace, sheer organza, and embroidery came with cutaways, sheer sections, and nude organza overskirts inlaid with costume jewels. In addition to sunshine yellow and pale blue, he used “toxic pastels” such as neon orange, which added a slightly off-kilter twist to otherwise demure shapes. He said the show had been inspired by sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson: “I loved the idea of these women landing on earth and trying to blend in with this 1950s silhouette.” Other sources of inspiration throughout the week included Carrara marble at Nicole Farhi and India at Matthew Williamson.

Ultimately though, what matters most is the verdict from retailers. Joan Burstein, founder of London boutique Browns said: “Everyone has grown up a bit. They have the real woman in mind.”

Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director and senior vice-president, said: “It’s been a joyous season, with flattering shapes and silhouettes . . . I love the dream of the runway, but I also love it when that translates to a woman’s wardrobe.”

For London designers, it was back to reality, but in the best possible way.

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