Over the last few seasons, something inevitable - and yet, till recently, unthinkable - has happened. London’s position as the fashion system’s unruly, volatile youngest sibling, bursting with energy and ideas, has been challenged. And, accustomed as the city is to defining itself against American commerce, Italian glitz, or French sophistication, the shift has provoked something of an identity crisis.
It started with a tremor; the launch of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements in 2014, its sex club-set debut exploding onto a Parisian fashion scene that had no idea how staid it had become. Much as Hedi Slimane had done during his Saint Laurent revival, Gvasalia confronted the conventions of elegance and desire head-on, creating provocatively staged collections that proposed a radically different language for luxury. Since then, the label has gone from quirky outsider to star player, with Gvasalia taking on the mantle at the house of Balenciaga, and gearing up for his own label’s entry into this season’s couture shows. Alongside contemporaries like Simon Porte Jacquemus, the rise of Vetements has spawned a thousand headlines, as the industry’s focus zooms in on the French capital’s new designers. And as the spotlight turns towards Paris, it inevitably swivels away from London - to the point where it’s hard not to feel that British fashion’s latest golden age may well be drawing to an end.
Nothing’s ever that simple, of course. Ever since Charles Worth, a Lincolnshire-born draper, set up his dressmaking shop in 19th century Paris, the fashion destinies of these two cities have been intimately linked. Before they stormed the French runways in the early Eighties, a young couple named Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto used to travel to London to visit seminal stores like Westwood & McLaren’s SEX: a decade later, Westwood herself would blossom from punk provocateur into fully-fledged design icon status with collections that riffed on the lavish femininity of Versailles. Galliano’s early shows were inspired by radical aesthetics of the French Revolution, while the rise of the Parisian luxury system in the Nineties saw a conga-line of new British names (Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Julien Macdonald) take on lead roles at houses like Dior, Givenchy, and Céline. And of course in his Dior Homme years, Slimane drew his inspiration - and many of his nudes - from the mosh pits, dive bars, and nightclubs of Noughties Hoxton.
And while that may all be (relatively) ancient history now, there are plenty of current connections. Take J.W. Anderson at Loewe or Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton, both exemplars of the fine art of reinvigorating classic labels for the 21st century. Or take Lotta Volkova, the Russian-born stylist behind Vetements, who started out in post-millennium London designing menswear collections under the name Lotta Skeletrix. (Volkova is back in town this weekend for LC:M, as is Paul Hameline - the model who’s become the de facto poster boy for New-New Wave Paris.)
Or take Edward Crutchley, who back in 2004 shared a stage at London’s Alternative Fashion Week with a fellow young designer named Gareth Pugh. Where Pugh went on to instant stardom, showing in Paris for several seasons before his recent return to London, Crutchley took the quieter route - working in-house on textiles for Louis Vuitton for a decade, before launching his menswear label in 2014. Shown yesterday, his sumptuous embroideries, rich berry colours, and languorous fin-de-siecle prints speak of a very French (if not downright un-English) sense of decadence; an opulence echoed at Astrid Andersen, whose luxe sportswear has long embraced opulent delicacy alongside its hyper masculine silhouettes. Austrian-born designer Raymond Berthold, meanwhile, drew a more subtle connection, building his collection around the outsized proportions of an old French cavalry coat. His clothes - always thoughtful, often introverted, usually shown in static presentations - took on a new sense of lightness when seen in motion, their translucent layers injected with staccato graphic collisions.
Of course, the whole topic of connections and interplay is especially fraught this month, with the looming referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU dominating headlines. Eleven days from voting day, the country seems to be walking a tightrope between fear-driven isolationism and a hesitant preference for the status quo. But in fashion, at least, the desire to connect remains. At the end of today’s show, E. Tautz’s Patrick Grant took his bow in a t-shirt stamped with an unequivocal "IN." Outside the official LC:M venue on Aldwych, meanwhile, the young designer Daniel Fletcher (who, like Crutchley, divides his time between London and Louis Vuitton in Paris) staged his own contribution to the debate - his flag-waving models wearing tracksuits bearing the pleading message: STAY.