The catwalks are abuzz with rumors about which designer will dress Kate Middleton, while an Alexander McQueen retrospective is reviving London's reputation as a cauldron of creativity, writes Robin Givhan. Plus, all the details on the royal wedding.
A royal wedding, a political kerfuffle, human tragedy, and pure commercial savvy have resulted in London-based designers—some of whom are still wet behind the ears—suddenly becoming the focus of our popular culture's fascination. And thanks to more than a decade of nurturing by the British Fashion Council and tough love from the international fashion industry, they're ready for the white-hot spotlight.
Gallery: London Fashion Week
Alas, nothing. Not even a crumb.
After five days of shows in London, during which designers' eye-popping digital prints, dreamscape silhouettes, and confident tailoring were well-received by some 5,000 retailers and press, Sarah Mower, chairwoman of the BFC's New Generation committee, breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God," said Mower, whose group provides advice and financial support for emerging designers. "They're like my children."
For more than a decade, designers here have been steadily building their brands, improving their production and striving to be more serious and considered in their approach to business. More recently, the shift in the economy, which has made the dollar, the euro, and the pound more sympathetic to each other, has helped London-based designers more readily compete in the global marketplace. And they seem more eager than ever to do so. "There's always been creativity, but there hasn't been consistency with commercial clothes. They never felt the need or desire to do a lot of business," says Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. "Now there's a balance of the commercial and creative."
The catwalk shows have become more professional endeavors—interminable waits are a rarity; clunky models are an exception. The shows were smoothly orchestrated affairs that spirited an audience into a futuristic reverie in a Gothic house of justice, conjured a mood of romantic poetry in the dark recesses of a university hall, and created a magical snowstorm in a black tent constructed in Kensington Gardens. Designers here have a vision and they've learned how to sell it.
But the real reasons this cultural moment belongs to London-based designers are both joyous and bittersweet. Anticipation of the April wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has brought a sizzle to London like nothing else. And May's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, celebrating the work of the late designer Alexander McQueen, has resurrected conversation about London as a cauldron of creativity that resembles no other place. (It also hasn't hurt that first lady Michelle Obama created a tempest in a thimble by wearing a McQueen gown for the state dinner honoring China, as well as a daytime ensemble by London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic.)
The scene backstage at Issa London included an insistent scrum of high-heeled editors and news-starved reporters attempting to get designer Daniella Helayel to comment—just say her name, for God's sake—about Kate Middleton.
With folks on wedding watch, the scene backstage at the Issa London presentation Saturday evening—think jersey dresses with pheasant prints and fluid gowns in sunny Brazilian colors—included an insistent scrum of high-heeled editors, international camera crews, and news-starved reporters all attempting to get the brand's designer, Daniella Helayel, to offer a comment, a few words—just say her name, for God's sake—about Middleton, her most famous client. She, of the sapphire-blue Issa London dress.
But that did not prevent the rumors from swirling around the shows about Middleton selecting a traditional wedding gown from Bruce Oldfield, or perhaps something modern and fresh from the young Erdem Moralioglu. This was nothing more than buzz and blather, but Moralioglu made a strong case for both his vision and skill with a collection that showcased his signature lush prints that transformed bathrobe coats and easy sheaths into wearable homages to Impressionism.
If there is anything that links the designers who presented their work over the last few days, it has been their affection for prints. The focus on optic extravagance reflects the youthfulness of many of these designers and their ease with technology, as many of the prints are computer-generated. Christopher Kane merged elegantly cut sheaths and hand-knit skirts in graphic patterns with insets of rubber in a medley of stained-glass hues. The juxtaposition of homey knits with the forbidden allure of latex made for a provocative collection that made one reconsider what is transgressive and what, exactly, is old-fashioned. Mary Katrantzou's Technicolor prints were distinguished by her audacious silhouettes that encased her models' hips in bell-shaped, sculpted skirts that exaggerated the models' girth. It's the sort of theatrical design flourish that, in a culture that glorifies a long, lean female form, startles the eye but also raises the question: Why did wide hips become so taboo in contemporary society?
Jonathan Saunders filled his runway with simple sheaths in blocks of deep color and contrasting prints. And at Peter Pilotto, designers Peter Pilotto and Christopher De Vos used sober shades of taupe, ivory and black—with bursts of merlot—to create ghostly patterns that evoked blurred X-rays and dusty fossils.
Giles Deacon offered a palate-cleansing collection of black-and-white tailoring, along with dramatic dressmaking, for a collection that was controlled yet filled with grand gestures like full skirts cinched with black leather corsets. And of course, Christopher Bailey, the creative director of Burberry, made the grandest statement of all in support of the traditions of British design as well as its sleek digital future. Under a monumental tent in the shadow of the Albert Memorial and with live-streaming going out over the Internet, Bailey showed a Burberry Prorsum collection inspired by Jean Shrimpton: a mix of '60s-style car coats in hues of pumpkin and cherry, tweed trousers that hugged the derriere, mink newsboy caps, chunky ivory knit dresses and silvery white jackets that called to mind intergalactic snow princesses. "I love the idea of both old and new simultaneously," Bailey said.
Might Middleton choose any of these designers for her wedding trousseau? Or perhaps Alice Temperley? Hers is another name churning through the Middleton rumor mill. Temperley unveiled a glittering collection at the British Museum of Champagne dresses with flourishes of crystals.
Young British designers have been getting official nods of support from both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. Last March, the queen hosted a reception for the British fashion industry, receiving a host of designers—and editors—for Champagne and hors d'oeuvres. And over the last week, British first lady Samantha Cameron hosted receptions for the international fashion industry at 10 Downing Street. Mrs. Cameron, who was creative director of the luxury leather company Smythson, also attended several shows during the week in support of the hometown fashion team.
She also lent her support to the Met's Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty with an appearance and brief remarks at a breakfast reception previewing the show. McQueen was one of the most creative designers to emerge from London in the last generation; his work was certainly the most emotionally evocative. His suicide last year followed that of his early patron, Isabella Blow, one of the industry's great eccentrics. Their deaths shocked the fashion industry and the ensuing ruminations—in books, new stories and blogs—about their often dark, public expressions of their imagination captivated a culture that feeds on celebrity, flamboyance, and the macabre.
What is it about British fashion that stirs such creativity? Andrew Bolton, the curator of the upcoming exhibition, suggests that for McQueen it came, in part, from the way in which class strictures permeate British life—the struggle against them, the embrace of their traditions.
But for London's young whiz kids of prints and patterns, it may be that the economic downturn brought out their tenacity, seriousness and inventiveness. Surely Christopher Raeburn's coats and windbreakers made of repurposed flight suits and parachutes speak to that theory.
Or as Downing of Neiman Marcus suggests, the electricity this season, in particular, is coming from "a young role model who is positive. There's a lovely, elegant chic to Kate Middleton. She's attractive with her own spirit and ideas," he says. "She combines fantasy and reality."
And, just look at "all the cobalt-blue energy on the runways."
Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers . She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady . In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, DC.