London Fashion Week Draws the Queen and the Rabble
Posted February 21, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST
LONDON — Her Majesty was present.
London Fashion Week ended with an unusual visitation, unannounced except by the blue velvet cushion that appeared on her seat just before the final show started: Queen Elizabeth II had arrived.
She turned up at Richard Quinn, for Quinn’s second show since his graduation from Central Saint Martins, the art and fashion school here. Sitting between Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council and Dame Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, she beamed through the show of allover prints, piled atop one another — coat, dress, bag and shoe. Quinn had added some extra scarves in homage to her.
“She’s always been an icon,” Quinn said. “You see a matching bag, shoes, coat and you kind of think of her anyway.”
She ascended at its end to present Quinn with the first Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. The queen wore one of her customary Easter-egg-toned suits. Quinn wore a T-shirt and cap.
“She was saying how she really liked the florals and the colors in the collection,” Quinn said in an interview the next day. “She said that award was really appropriate, with the big flower.” (It was designed by her longtime wardrobe adviser, Angela Kelly.)
It was a fitting end to London Fashion Week, where high and low are often in proximity. There were triumphs to be found, but London is dogged as every fashion week is by the concerns of the industry: struggling retail, outdated protocols, the question of what, in fact, a fashion show is even good for.
“It’s a chaotic moment,” said Christopher Bailey, the departing president and chief creative officer of Burberry. “As an industry, I think we’re questioning our behaviors, our values, the ways we’ve historically done things. There is so much turmoil.”
Against that backdrop, and the roar of regular anti-fur protests outside many of their shows, London designers looked to reinvent even as they soldiered on.
“How do you crack the back of everything and go forward again?” Jonathan Anderson asked backstage at his J.W. Anderson show. “We’ve been going for 10 years now. We have to go forward in an optimistic way and change it, to make it exciting again.”
For optimism, he offered a collection of outdoorsy resilience, less fussy and fashionable than many of his previous ones. He had brought his men’s and women’s collections together for the first time since the early days of his career, and the combination seemed to cool and calm them both.
Anderson will probably never give up his allegiance to the odd, but here was terrific proof that he doesn’t have to: drop-waist dresses toggling between pleat and plain, mac skirts and great knits, and swoopy leather trousers that buckled at the ankle (nominally for men, although Anderson noted that women have been buying his men’s collection, too).
His changes aren’t merely cosmetic. He is streamlining and simplifying his shows and his business, combining his men’s, women’s and pre-collections, and holding an open search to find the photographer for his next ad campaign, but those will mean less to his customer. What will mean more: Here were terrific clothes.
A change is coming to Burberry, too. After 17 years — a lifetime, in fashion terms — Bailey presented his final collection, which he titled “Time.” A swan song, but not a retrospective.
“I didn’t want this collection to be some maudlin sad thing,” he said. “I wanted it to be optimistic but talking about the past as well.” (There’s that word again, “optimistic,” one that crops up when optimism is needed, rather than in ample supply.)
It’s a noble sentiment, to go off on a note of newness. But it’s also a bit of a shame. Over the course of his years at Burberry, he took what was once a trench coat supplier and pushed it to the forefront of British fashion. Even if his recent collections have fallen a bit off the mark, he has earned a victory lap.
His new collection was a thrift-shop-style mix of bits, a jumble of tracksuits, logo-fied sweats (a new/old Burberry logo retrieved from the 1980s and ‘90s archives to compete in the yet-again logo-saturated luxury market), clompy sneakers, printed shearlings and so on. He seemed to pour most of his passion into rainbow-striped pieces — rainbow even worked into the Burberry check — to telegraph support for LGBT communities. (Burberry will also make a substantial donation to LGBT charities, the Albert Kennedy Trust, the Trevor Project and the ILGA.)
When Cara Delevingne sashayed out at the end in a rainbow-striped, check-lined faux fur cape to the strains of “I Feel Love,” she brought an energy the collection generally lacked. A rainbow light show followed. Burberry, the giant of London, is capable of fireworks when it pleases.
Yet the sirens and shouts of protesters outside, who bedeviled Burberry for the second season in a row, provided an unwelcome reminder that reality waits nearby. As the shows unfolded, America was reeling from its latest episode of gun violence; Britain remains perched on the edge of leaving the European Union. And the #MeToo moment has not spared fashion: In the middle of the show week, a report published in The Boston Globe on Friday included allegations of harassment against several top fashion photographers and a top fashion stylist. (Several of the photographers named in the Globe article and Karl Templer, the stylist, have denied the accusations.)
And still fashion week keeps its mulish course, a carousel spinning madly.
What is fashion’s responsibility to, and in, a fractious world? It’s not a bad question, though few designers are explicitly wrestling with it. There was a nice visual joke in the first stand-alone runway show by Matty Bovan, one of the week’s highlights. Bovan is a young, York-based designer who has been taken up and championed by the industry’s elder statesmen, like Stephen Jones, the milliner on call at Dior, who made the fabulous net-wrapped Mylar balloon headpieces that floated above Bovan’s finale models.
“Carrying the weight of the world on your head,” Bovan said, “in a very stylish way.”
But many others insisted on fashion as a space apart, looking away from now (as did Erdem Moralioglu, whose collection felt stuck in his imagined history and not especially current) or away from the street (like Mary Katrantzou, whose showpieces are worthy of — and often best suited to — a museum, like the Dallas Contemporary, where a retrospective of them is on exhibit).
The designer Dilara Findikoglu, most extreme of all, imagined her own separate utopia, safe from the predations of the present: a “Dilaratopia,” where, as she wrote, “escaping a world of Trumps and Weinsteins, here our lives belong to us, and us only.” Or as Michael Halpern, who spares no sequin in pursuit of glamour, put it: “It is a resistance, dressing however glamorously you want.”
Maybe it is. Halpern can seem to have a one-track mind in his relentless pursuit of a disco — Taana Gardner’s “Work That Body” was thumping away on the soundtrack — though he insisted his clothes are not necessarily only for parties. The woman who wears Halpern’s half-zebra, all-sequin jumpsuit for a morning subway commute has my compliments. But personally, I don’t believe she exists.
Christopher Kane’s collection was a frisky, focused celebration of peekaboo: dresses in plasticized lace, others that zipped or gaped open or shut. Black leather, crushed velvet. It’s hard to shock a fashion week crowd at this late point in runway provocation, but Kane’s finale dresses, printed with illustrations of copulating couples from the ‘70s bible “More Joy of Sex,” managed it. Of course they came in shades of nude. Of course they were trimmed in marabou. When you’ve come this far, you go all the way.
Is all the way too far? At present, it’s hard to say. But too often the fashion industry equates boundary pushing with creativity, and provocation with inspiration. Kane insisted that he had a right to continue in his own creative vein.
“It’s not in any way about disrespecting what’s happening,” he said. “My clothes are about empowering women. It’s always about empowerment for me.” Whether women are empowered by crystal-encrusted “cage” dresses depends, one must suppose, on who is wearing them. (Kane is the only designer to show customized sneakers by Z-Coil, an orthopedic sneaker brand on whose spring-heeled, pain-reducing soles some of his models bounced.)
Kane is in no way responsible for the abuses and excesses of the industry, but neither is he exempted from them, and the designer has found himself in the unenviable position of stuck in the middle. It isn’t easy to be a lightning rod, I thought on the way out, as publicists with faces frozen in rictus grins did their best to usher showgoers past another anti-fur demonstration.
The real broke in on the fantasy. Where, it made you ask, had it been on the runway all week? You caught a glimpse of it at Anthony Symonds and Max Pearmain’s Symonds Pearmain collection, a coda at the end of the Fashion East show, a young-talent incubator.
It was simple: knotted sweats, printed shirts, a Frankensteined rugby top. It didn’t need much explanation, nor did it warrant much. In lieu of show notes, the designers offered a page of prose in high-art gibberish by video artist Ed Atkins: “We used to laboriously spaff no small amount of charmless arm meat down okay blue tubes, at work.”
Too much in fashion feels like laborious spaff. There’s a certain provocation all its own in designing clothes to throw on and take to the streets, whether the march is in protest or pride.