September 21, 2011 10:31 pm

Fresh style with commercial allure

It began with telling detail: London mayor Boris Johnson officially opened London Fashion Week on Friday with an anecdote about a young girl who wanted to work in fashion.

Making the point that the British Fashion industry employs more than 800,000 people and is worth almost £21bn ($33bn), he mused that the girl in question could be the next Stella McCartney, or Alexander McQueen . . . or . . . he struggled to think of another name.

Of course, Boris Johnson is not exactly renowned as a style icon. Asked what he was wearing – ie what label – he replied “a suit”. But that’s the point: London Fashion Week, and Britain in general, often feels chock full of names no one really knows, mixed in with a few old stalwarts and the occasional hyper-buzzy talent.

What was clear by the end of the week, however, is that such may not be the case much longer. Finally, a number of designers have succeeded in converting raw creativity into something women want to buy, not just admire from a distance and wish they had the guts or figure to pull off.

“If people have been paying attention, they will see there is a new crop of extraordinary talent, which is young and dynamic and have learnt commercialism is not a dirty word,” said Natalie Massenet, founder of luxury fashion site Net-a-Porter. The word that most often cropped up to characterise this was “fresh”.

Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys, the US department store, for example, said: “When women have a lot of stuff at different price points, they want something that feels like a new, fresh statement, that says ‘my style is evolving’.”

Then Scottish-born designer Christopher Kane said he chose to swap his model’s high heels for flat, jewelled pool shoes at the last minute because “they felt fresher”, and Erdem Moralioglu announced he wanted to convey “the idea of freshness”.

Mary Katrantzou, who specialises in print, exemplified the trend with a vivid fantasia of saturated colour and texture, featuring both abstracted and hyper-real imagery that involved everything from tin cans and car parts to fish scales, bird’s plumage and, most arresting of all, coral reefs. Fresh!

While her designs were unusual, fitted silk dresses with no straps or asymmetric necklines and cut-out shoulders, and silk trousers covered in rows of coloured flowers managed to mix freshness and commercial appeal, something the new crop of British designers need in order to build strong brands.

Erdem also looked to the natural world for his prints, which featured flowers and swallows in cool blues and greys, with splashes of sunshine yellow. They were mingled with appliqué, coming on silk trenches, shift dresses and off the shoulder dresses with fan pleated skirts.

Flowers also cropped up at Christopher Kane, where the designer was inspired, he said, by girls in council houses wrecking the wallpaper in their bedrooms with stickers, and he encased cut-out flowers inside layers of a gauzy silvery fabric. Short A-line dresses with revealing cut away darts, boxy tops and jackets, and little skirts in a variety of unusual fabrics, such as lurex brocade or a ghost fabric made with aluminium in silver and mint, or silver and pink, and an electric blue floral.

And so it went: neons came as part of a fluro-tribal theme at Sass and Bide; there were spearmint and cobalt cropped trousers at Paul Smith; and in addition to more traditional black and white tailoring, lemon yellow popped up at several labels, such as Jaeger, where it came on a cotton dress and culotte suit; Mulberry, where it appeared on patent bags; and Nicole Farhi, who used it on sporty cotton dresses, tunics and summer coats.

The week’s most accomplished colourist was Jonathan Saunders, however, whose degrade baby blue and lemon paisley dress was a standout, along with combinations of apricot, pale pistachio, lime and bubblegum pink, occasionally in metallic paisleys. Richard Nicoll came up with the most specific shade of the week in “Laura Palmer blue”.

At British heritage brand Mulberry, which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary (along with the fact that in the last financial year, profits leapt 358 per cent, with like-for-like sales up 43 per cent), designer Emma Hill offered what she called a lollipop dress, with stripes of brown, pale yellow and green, as part of a seaside theme. Such heritage brands are London Fashion Week’s other strength, and Burberry, the king of the genre, staged its first so called “Tweetwalk” show as part of its enthusiasm for digital innovation.

Every look was posted from backstage before appearing on the runway, and consumers could buy straight from the catwalk via the Burberry website. To offset all this technological innovation, designer Christopher Bailey emphasised craft, with raffia, beaded and tribal detailing decorating clothes and accessories. Trenches in natural shades of damson, sage, spice and orange ochre came with raffia collars and trims, and thin knits with flat beads, and many looks were accessorised with a straw cap with a pom-pom.

At other heritage brands, Pringle’s sleek patterned knits, tailored trousers and draped silk dresses reflected new designer Alistair Carr’s previous post at Balenciaga, while Aquascutum focused on loose tailoring with a sporty edge.

With the Olympics on the horizon, the British Fashion Council is keen to see fashion week bask in the reflected glory of the upcoming event. At the twice yearly party for the fashion industry at 10 Downing Street, hosted by British Fashion Council ambassador Samantha Cameron, the director of the Cultural Olympiad, Ruth Mackenzie, reminded guests that the UK’s creative industries “punch way above their weight”.

Put another way: these are actually the names to know.

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