On the first morning of London Fashion Week a French visitor told me how surprised she was by the upbeat mood among the capital’s tastemakers. She’d attended the party to celebrate British fashion at 10 Downing Street, co-hosted by Theresa May, and couldn’t understand why there was no hand-wringing, nor panic, nor general gloom. After all, she said, you are a country that voted for Brexit. What have you got to cheer?
While the fashion industry was generally in favour of remaining in the EU, it has found reasons to be optimistic since the shock referendum result. The increase in retail sales in July, up 5.9 per cent on July 2015, and up 1.4 per cent on June this year, has been something to smile about — as is the growth in consumer confidence. The YouGov/Centre for Economic and Business Research Consumer Confidence Index, which asks consumers about their economic outlook on a daily basis, saw its highest monthly bounce in August since February 2013, up 3.2 points to 109.8.
“In terms of retail demand, all the deals we had on before Brexit have either gone ahead or are going ahead now,” said David Shaw, head of Regent Street Portfolio, The Crown Estate. “We opened Polo Ralph Lauren and signed a deal with Tory Burch yesterday. And, according to the New West End Company, Bond Street sales in July were 11.5 per cent higher year-on-year, while West End sales have risen 4.9 per cent. It was almost certainly currency-oriented.”
Handbag designer and UK trade ambassador Anya Hindmarch was similarly upbeat. Backstage after her space-age show — which featured a sunken catwalk of pure white concentric circles and green glittery micro-bags, camera bags and mini holdalls with tessellated circle motifs — Hindmarch said that “the Brexit vote was a bit of a shock and took a lot of regrouping and round-table discussions all summer, but now there’s a real confidence. Probably the Olympics helped, and the fact that we’ve had this bounce from the currency has made us 10 per cent less expensive to sell.”
If Hindmarch’s show had a futuristic feel, it was interesting how many other designers had delved into the iconography of English history for inspiration. At Mulberry, creative director Johnny Coca drew on the idea of Britain as a nation of uniforms, from public school to the military to debutantes.
There weren’t Union Jack dresses this season across the catwalks, but instead a more romanticised expression of our heritage, and some decidedly Shakespearean motifs. Presumably the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death had inspired designers in search of positive elements to our national identity. “I’m seeing Edwardian, Elizabethan and British heritage,” said Neiman Marcus senior vice-president and fashion director Ken Downing, who oversees the store’s buying each season. “There’s a lovely romantic, eclectic spirit at labels such as Erdem and Simone Rocha.”
The starting point for Erdem’s show was a dress that washed up recently in the Wadden sea in the Netherlands, which once belonged to a royal lady-in-waiting, Jean Kerr. In 1642, she set sail with a fleet of ships on a doomed voyage, as part of a covert mission to sell the crown jewels. Erdem reimagined her landing in Deauville in the 1930s. The result was a collection of slightly Edwardian dresses with a formal yet disheveled air. JW Anderson was also looking back in time, to Henry VIII. The much-married monarch’s influence was evident in doublet-like biker jackets in black, white and khaki, as well as knitwear with rolled cuffs and collars resembling Tudor ruffs. The show was brimming with ideas and plenty of wearable pieces, such as a loose white dress with watery pink and blue ombre sleeves.
Christopher Kane, meanwhile, combined the wartime theme of “make do and mend” with a trip back into his own archive. The designer was celebrating 10 years of his eponymous label and many of his signatures were revisited here, among them leopard print, metal loops and body-con. There was a novel collaboration, too, the Kane Croc — a controversial take on “something anti-fashion made cool”. Kane had taken the practical but inelegant rubber shoe and covered it in gobstopper-sized gems.
Reflecting on his anniversary, during which time he has gone from the toast of graduate fashion week to a designer with his own boutique and a 51 per cent stake investment from Kering, Kane said: “It’s nice to still be in business; we’ve had some tough times, although we actually grew in the recession. Sometimes a flat market is the best time to grab people’s attention.”
Time travel of a more literal nature cropped up at Burberry, where Christopher Bailey was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, and the protagonist’s transgender journey through English history. Typically for Burberry, the show (which brought men’s and women’s collections together for the first time) felt familiarly British but was worn in an offhand, modern, gender-neutral way.
Burberry was also at the centre of another big conversation in London surrounding their see-now-buy-now initiative. The British brand announced last season that they would be selling their autumn/winter collection straight off the catwalk, and the strategy has also been adopted by brands such as Topshop. Key pieces from the Topshop Unique show went on sale immediately afterwards on a pop-up stall in Spitalfields market.
Downing felt strongly in favour of this retail revolution, saying: “I applaud designers who understand the importance of changing a cycle that is no longer working. Showing in-season is the most modern, relevant way to sell clothes.”
Not everyone is convinced by see-now-buy-now. Donatella Versace, who showed her Versus line in the basement of the University of Westminster on Saturday, said: “We did [it] three years ago, and it’s OK for T-shirts. You don’t buy a jacket on the internet, you need to see it on. We prefer early delivery”.
Many see this latest development with the retail model as another reason for optimism. Justine Simons, deputy mayor for culture, who came to the launch of London Fashion Week on Friday, said: “The fashion industry is massively resilient. It’s in its character to be constantly reinventing itself.”