Nostalgia nudges designers back to the future

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Fashion nostalgia is everywhere these days, even in museums with exhibitions such as Face of Fashion at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s curious to note just how misty eyed we can get over images taken by Corinne Day of Kate Moss at the beginning of her career in 1990; strange how such relatively recent shots can pluck at those fashion heartstrings.

So much of our relationship with fashion is, of course, purely emotional; a visual appeal that creates an internal gut reaction. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that nostalgia should also play its part, and an increasingly important part, in the creative fashion process. Designers can channel, say, a movie from the Seventies, slightly reinterpret the look, and hey presto we have a collection of nostalgia dressing; a harking back rather than a moving forward. But London designers can generally be relied upon to give a fresh fashion perspective, though they undoubtedly decade reference – this week: the Twenties, Seventies and Eighties.

London Fashion Week has been somewhat nostalgic in recent years, yearning for the days of Galliano and McQueen, when it was where fashion was at, and everything was so edgy it was shown in car parks. But it’s time to get over it.

This season, then, the buzz was about an American, Marc Jacobs, who moved his Marc by Marc Jacobs diffusion line to London to celebrate the opening of his first stand alone boutique here. His drop empire-line smock dress, chunky knit backless cardigans belted round voluminous silk dresses, and gently pleated tops and mini-skirts were feminine and upbeat. For evening, tiered evening dressers reminiscent of Paul Poiret – the subject of an upcoming retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – were snappily elegant.

But some of London’s own magic is returning – and, yes, those car park settings were back with an apparently derelict basement in Covent Garden used as the Top Shop-sponsored show space to showcase young designers such as Marios Schwab, with his inventive goose down puffer-style jackets with hexagonal panels and wide, almost hooped hems, similar to those Poiret skirts.

Here, Christopher Kane also proved he was more than a one-season wonder and notched up his sophistication levels. Leather mini-dresses with gently gathered mini-skirts were trimmed with leather in origami bows or rolled in small circles like ammunition belts. Similar treatment was given to opera-style leather coats or cropped biker jackets. For a softer feel, leather bodices merged into flowing velvet mini-skirts and long velvet sheaths were studded with crystal.

Mixing those historical (or nostalgic) references with modernity is a hard thing to get right, and some didn’t. Biba, for instance, missed the spot. The collection felt too referential, too steeped in the Biba heritage to make it relevant for today, though there were exceptions, including a fine-gauge jumper dress with cinched arm detail and a sassy, neat, closely tailored pinstripe trouser suit.

Fine suiting and a touch of androgyny was a theme for the week. Paul Smith did it elegantly with three-piece suits modernised with tight legging-style trousers, loose shorts worn with baggy knits and long strands of pearls, or baggy trousers teamed with chunky knit cardigans. It was an elegant fashion romp with a Twenties twist.

Noir went the Berlin of the Twenties route with men’s evening dress shirts worn with lace-trimmed silk skirts or baggy trousers with crystal-studded braces over chiffon shirts – though the jodhpur-style trousers could do with a re-think (they’re just not flattering on real women).

Nicole Farhi also had some fine wide-legged trouser suits, although her chunky knitted cardigans worn belted over cropped leggings or simple silk skirts were just as desirable.

Julien Macdonald, careful to remember his OBE after his name on the show invitation, showed his usual well-cut trouser suits and, naturally, his usual fur coats – long, short, panelled with python. But there was a fresh demureness to the v-necks of dresses and tops filled in with fine organza, and kaftan-style woollen tops worn over loose trousers. Yet it was a knitted Twenties-style evening dress so skilfully made that it looked as though it was all beaded that left me nostalgic for more of that inventive knitwear that originally made Macdonald’s name.

Newcomer Nathan Jenden presented a Fifties/Eighties mix with a pale pink shift dress that burst into layers of frills to prom skirts, taffeta dresses and a shoulderless all-in-one trouser suit that felt the ride side of rebellious.

But there was also an unusual level of upscaling from designers, eager to give a luxury edge to London’s street cred. There was newcomer Julian Smith with his Smithspence made-to-order cocktail dresses. And Asprey with its new creative director Hakan Rosenius showing a collection that wasn’t trend-setting stuff but was beautiful and elegant. Detail was everything, including “A” references in belt loops that met diagonally on the back of a trenchcoat to a similar effect on the inverted pleat on the rear of a short skirt. It was a refined collection with a Fifties touch that included padded jackets in silver lame, high collared loose-back jackets, pencil skirts in alligator and sumptuous evening wear from black satin shifts with rosette details to long, bustier, tulle ballgowns.

Giles Deacon, too, was about excellence, though there was an earthy and naturalistic quality to his couture-level clothes, from the opening jagged suede dress with a full skirt made up of panels of sheepskin, a long suede sheath studded with grommets, to cartoon-like exaggerated knitted coats tied with woollen ropes, snoods and giant scarves worn with scrunched leather jackets. These moved in to finely panelled patchwork dresses and ballgowns with skirts of billowing feathers. It was a triumphant collection and a unique, creative stance.

Jonathan Saunders was also stepping things up. He took blocks of Mondrian-esque colour and prints to create visual effects on simple shift dresses with panelled fronts or sides and skirts visually cut up into sections. For evening, long dresses were draped with coloured silk panels that rained down the front.

Here were clothes that were only about stepping forward.

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