“The fashion industry is beginning to be taken seriously by the wider business community” – so said UK business secretary Vince Cable at the opening of the latest round of London shows at Somerset House last Friday, adding enthusiastically: “London Fashion Week has an incredible energy.”
It was, apparently, infectious; Mr Cable, not known for his fashion-forward dressing, was sporting a discreet print tie by none other than Alexander McQueen, thus acknowledging the importance of a sector estimated to be worth £21bn to the British economy. “The next step is making entrepreneurs out of designers,” he announced. “Creativity is the key.”
Harnessing all that creative energy and making it a viable commercial proposition has been the underlying conversation at this week’s spring/summer 2014 collections.
McQueen, of course, is the perfect case in point: founded by the man once known as the bad boy of British fashion, it is now owned by luxury goods group Kering, and reported sales of £40.67 million at the end of 2011. Presumably, Kering are hoping for the same potential from Christopher Kane, the young British designer who is their most recent acquisition: the group bought a 51 per cent stake of the fledging label last January and announced plans during this week’s shows for the first London flagship store in Mount Street, due to open by the end of next year, during the shows.
The news had obviously focused Kane’s mind this season, and his collection was full of both real clothes for shop rails, from pleated chiffon slips to cute slogan knits and draped satin evening wear in soft blush tones, and statement-making catwalk looks that pushed the brand’s vision: laminated petal cut-out tailoring and pastel dresses, “spun carbon fibre” rainbow-hued separates, and intricate appliqués on sheer organza. Everyone came away happy.
Meanwhile, that other luxury powerhouse, LVMH, is rumoured to be considering an investment in up-and-coming London star JW Anderson. But unlike Kane, the prospect of financial backing seemed to have pushed Anderson in the opposite direction. His latest offering had little to do with a commercially viable vision – indeed, at times it seemed to have only a vague connection to the female body itself – with bunched and bulky pleated leathers, elasticated sheer dresses and nude drapery that looked like folds of excess flesh.
As for the week’s other new star names? They fared rather better. Peter Pilotto, just announced as Target’s newest collaborators, conjured up more magical prints and fabric combinations, albeit on stiff A-line skirts and dresses that will hopefully be streamlined by the time they reach stores.
Mary Katrantzou was back on colourful form, with gimmicky prints based on shoes and embellished full-skirted evening frocks. Jonathan Saunders took a trip to the ’70s with sporty satin bombers embroidered with flowers and paired with easy track pants and patchworked shift dresses (something fellow designer Michael van der Ham has made his own) – followed by Holly Fulton, who embraced denim appliqués and a creative use of cork. Marios Schwab airbrushed his fitted dresses in homage to pop artist Allen Jones, stapling them together at the seams just for good measure, and Ricard Nicholl gave a convincing show with simple black and white stripes and the odd hit of blush pink. As for the Preen duo, they riffed on Miami – and a little home improvement at the designer couple’s home – to produce pastel dresses, sporty high shine and jagged hems. And if Erdem’s edgy turn, crafting black and white into a collection of dresses that moved away from his pretty, feminine signature, was a surprising new direction, he will, no doubt, take many of his loyal fans with him.
They are all, of course, hoping to follow in the footsteps of London Fashion Week’s two star attractions: Burberry Prorsum and Tom Ford. Both gave a masterclass in brand management this season, with Christopher Bailey’s ‘English Rose’ collection playing safe but pretty with pastel coloured dresses, knits and embellished coats, the better to push the new Burberry Beauty line (available to buy online in just two weeks). And Mr Ford? He went back to his roots with a show that seemed like a luxurious update of his industry-rocking time at Gucci: think tan crocodile biker jackets, monochrome belted trouser suits and crystal studded ultra short evening dresses, all paired with matching thigh boots of course.
More signature looks came from Paul Smith, who married a hippy aesthetic with his mannish tailoring; John Rocha, who produced a handcrafted collection of floral embroidery and sheer organza; and Jasper Conran, who sent out a chic collection of stripes and woodblock prints. By contrast, in her second London showing, L’Wren Scott lost her way slightly via a rather too literal look at Japan, and a collection that really worked only when it lost the cliched obi belts and parasols.
As for the Other Big British Brand, Mulberry, it bade a teary farewell to designer Emma Hill, the woman responsible for the label’s astonishing success of the last six years, with a streamlined collection of easy leather pieces and textured white dresses. It’s hard not to wonder what will happen now.
Luckily, there is yet another emerging generation to distract: Bora Aksu, Fyodor Golan, J JS Lee, Eudon Choi and Simone Rocha, all of whom showed collections that looked accomplished beyond their years.
“We are lining up the very practical business help that young designers need to break through to the international arena,” says the British Fashion Council’s new ambassador for business James McArthur, aka the chief executive of Anya Hindmarch – a British company with a £45m retail footprint – and someone who knows a thing or too about making a brand work.
“Balance is the key. Businesses flourish when the creative and business teams are in sync, so neither one really dominates excessively.”
Mr Cable would probably agree, but for some there’s no contest: “Creativity is at the forefront when I work,” says Simone Rocha. “Yes, I am designing clothes that I want women to wear, but creativity definitely comes first.”
It could be the once, and still future, motto of London Fashion Week.