New Romantics: A London Valentine

There is, really, no ideal way to spend a day like February 14th. Embrace it and you’re resigning yourself to a night in an overcrowded restaurant, fighting for attention from waiters rushed off their feet; ignore it and you’re still assaulted at every turn by people declaring undying love with last-minute roses and wilting helium-heart balloons. The coincidence of Valentine’s Day falling at the beginning of London Fashion Week, however, offered an alternative way to spend the day. But even here, there was little escape, with a day of shows which — for a variety of different reasons — kept turning the audience’s minds to romance.

Take Kiko Kostadinov, for example. Or to be precise, take Deanna Fanning, his girlfriend, and her sister Laura. Since joining his label four seasons ago and with the launch of a womenswear line running alongside Kostadinov’s tautly minimal menswear, the duo has introduced a startlingly distinctive, increasingly wayward point of view to London’s fashion scene. Staged against a swirling Op Art background, the 27-look collection took straightforward womenswear archetypes — the tailored topcoat, the slip dress, the cropped bomber jacket — and refracted them with warped cuts, complex fabrications and startling clashes of colour and texture. ‘Garments questioning garments’ was the opening line of their show-notes — a neat description of the way the Fannings sliced and contoured each piece, whether streaking slim tailoring with splashes of colourful faux fur or coaxing intricate knits into bubbling 3D forms. There’s always been a sense of wayward intensity about the way the Fannings make clothes, but the explicitly experimental nature of previous collections felt as though it was replaced this time out with a newly confident exuberance. The applause that rang around the room at the end reflected the audience’s clear enjoyment and brought welcome noise to what had been an uncharacteristically quiet first day.

There were reasons for that quiet, of course; Friday’s schedule came pock-marked with changes and cancellations. Asai was forced to cancel last week when the Shanghai factory where the collection is produced was closed as part of the Coronavirus epidemic. Supriya Lele, originally due to show in Friday’s lunchtime slot, announced on Instagram that her work would be unveiled as a capsule collection instead later in the month. Lele and A Sai Ta both featured in Fashion East’s new designer showcase two years ago, the same season the Fannings made their debut — but in their absence, only Charlotte Knowles remained to fly the flag for the Class of AW18. 

Knowles, who designs with her boyfriend and fellow CSM alumnus Alexandre Arsenault, has quietly grown an international following over the past few years — although recently, thanks to endorsements from Bella Hadid and Solange, her success isn’t so quiet any more. Shown under jittering neon lights in the BFC’s long, corridor-like show space, AW20’s collection stayed true to Knowles’ interest in underwear-as-outerwear, from clinging chiffon overlaid with crossover satin bras to trousers that came slashed from ankle to thigh. There was a new sense of range on show, from evocatively tailored tweed coat-dresses to flowing, retro-printed separates. But it was in the moments where Knowles indulged herself fully, like the caramel leather biker jacket and trousers, cropped and contoured and eyeletted and laced to the hilt, that the show came to compelling life.

Two hours before Knowles, showing in the same space, Irish designer Richard Malone walked the same tightrope line between strength and vulnerability to markedly different effect. His early collections were dominated by exuberantly evocative retro prints — but of late, as he’s pared-back on pattern, his label’s sophisticated verve has come into full focus. There was a sumptuousness sensuality about faux fur coats, slashed at the shoulder to pool gracefully along the wearer’s arms, and sleek leather trenches in rich berry shades. And the show’s focus on corseting — a nod back to the influence of Malone’s late, much-loved seamstress grandmother — resulted in standout moments like ruched bodices erupting from contoured two-piece suits, or the final parade of boldly sculptural gracefully boned pieces that swooned away from the body in splashes of olive, saffron, mulberry and powder blue.

Another granny was on the mind of Shrimps' designer Hannah Weiland, who showed off-pitch in the aristocratic enclave of St James. In this case, though, it was the nation’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, who recently announced — at the age of 93 — that she would no longer wear fur. That provided the perfect cue for Weiland’s joyfully faux label to indulge in a spot of royalty-gazing. Opera gloves, sturdy-yet-sparkly handbags, plush coats and floral-sprigged ballgowns all paid knowing tribute to the woman whose refusal to change course has made her an enduring fashion icon. Weiland’s knack for throwing in curveballs, meanwhile, from novelty knits and jodhpurs to cosy robes and chunky footwear among them, kept the reference points engagingly fresh. Gleefully prim? Reassuringly regal? It was hard to know how best to sum things up — other than the fact it felt right, closing out the day, with such a comforting love letter to British style.

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