Earlier this week, British Fashion Council chief executive Caroline Rush posted a picture on Instagram from London Fashion Week in 2009, showing a slice of the starry front row (Liv Tyler, Emma Watson, Gwyneth Paltrow) at Burberry’s SS2010 show. For the brand and its designer, Christopher Bailey, the show marked a triumphant homecoming – and for British fashion, it signalled the start of a golden age. It was the moment when the city’s commercial power finally caught up with its creative fireworks (Burberry entered the FTSE 100 index for the first time that month). ‘London’s where it’s at,’ Paltrow declared. ‘It inspires the world.’
Much has changed since then. The schedule is smaller – or more streamlined, depending on your point of view. The BFC’s runway space is stripped back, and purposefully slimline. There’s less noise, fewer crowds, less street style dramatics. Even the show tickets are smaller than they used to be. And fluid attitudes reign when it comes to how, or where, or when designers show – if they show at all. ‘As someone who has worked in the industry for more than two decades,’ Roland Mouret mused in his presentation notes, ‘I want to question why fashion shows still exist.’
It’s a fair point. Why are we still doing this? These days, brands are scattered across London's menswear and womenswear weeks, showing the same season’s clothes months apart. ‘Is it fashion week AGAIN?’ friends now ask. ‘Wasn’t there one last month?’ Some show off-calendar (Berthold last week, Daks two days before LFW started). Some aren’t showing at all; Eudon Choi, Gareth Pugh, and Christopher Raeburn are all sitting the season out. And some seem to have simply evaporated; it took the sight of another showgoer’s Faustine Steinmetz-logoed jacket to remind me that the designer hasn’t shown for well over a year.
In business terms, though, fashion isn’t fond of looking back; there’s already too much at stake in the present, for an industry that brings in some £32 billion per annum and employs close to a million people. And in a time when Britishness is increasingly defined by a culture of inwardness and insularity, this season’s schedule displays an inclusiveness that feels far from accidental. Day 1 featured designers from Canada (Mark Fast), Korea (Gayeon Lee), China (Jamie Wei Huang), Estonia (Roberta Einer), Poland (Marta Jakubowski), Turkey (Bora Aksu), Germany (Paula Knorr) and Italy (16Arlington’s Marco Capaldo & Kikka Cavenati). This, the calendar seemed to say, is what London fashion is about: an industry built on openness, engagement, and diversity.
It’s also built on sound business sense. Take Hazzys – a Korean casualwear label making its London debut, curated by a Chinese designer (Haizhen Wang), and supported by JD.com (the Chinese e-tailer who took over from Topshop as LFW’s main sponsor). It was an ode to the iconography of British style; trenchcoats and pinafores, schoolboy shorts and boiler suits, within a red, white, and royal-blue palette that echoed the Union Jack-striped light show above the catwalk. And at its core, the show demonstrated the enduring, exportable appeal of the
London look – and declared the city’s openness to incoming talent, Brexit or not.
There were homegrown talents on the roster too, of course. On paper, Matty Bovan fits the template of fashion week darling to a tee; CSM-trained, LVMH Graduate Prize-garlanded, and in possession of an audacious, highly individual aesthetic. But after graduation, Bovan swapped the capital for his native (and far more affordable) York, where he’s slowly building a production base. What London gives him is a showcase to bring his wares to market, and to connect with press and industry leaders (BFC chair Stephanie Phair wore one of Bovan's ruffled blouses at the opening day’s launch; Anna Wintour sat front row at his show).
Things were, as usual, far quieter at Bora Aksu – not a designer you’d look to, in normal times, to take London fashion’s temperature. His wistfully romantic pieces draw on what are, by and large, small stories; love notes, found postcards, family letters. But Aksu’s forged a distinct space for himself here – whilst internationally, he’s quietly built up a network of almost forty stores. And showing here puts his clothes in the sightline (and on the backs) of the women who’ve worn his label for the past 17 years – a number that’s all the more impressive when you consider how many of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside since then. ‘Look, growing up,’ Aksu explained backstage, ‘this career wasn’t even a possibility. So, to be able to do it for as long as I have is wonderful.’ For the future, the plan is to simply keep going – ‘as long,’ he qualified, ‘as I keep finding joy in it.’
Three very different designers, at three very different stages in their trajectories – but all operating in and around a London show schedule that feels relevant, and resonant, for their audiences. And as long as designers feel that way, it’s likely that the schedule, in some form, will persist. But amidst all the air-kisses and show-to-show dashing, the huddles of gossip and the downplayed dressing-up (‘What, THIS? Just my Sunday schlepping gear.’), it was hard to avoid the thought that what goes on in fashion week’s giddy bubble may matter far more to those within it than to anyone outside.
Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier