On a whim, a colleague and I stopped by Claridge’s for tea on Sunday afternoon. Everyone says this is the thing to do in London. So we marched right into that hotel, put our pinkies up, and asked very nicely for a table.
It hadn’t occurred to us that the BAFTA awards were also happening that night, and as we sipped our fancy teas made of white pine needles and rare chai, and stuffed our faces with still-warm scones and clotted cream and jams, we watched a parade of celebrities walk by in their black gowns as they queued up and waited for their cars to head over to the ceremony. Haley Bennett, with a blonde bob and a complicated Chloé dress cut open in the back, looked radiant in a darkened hallway by the side exit. I was fascinated by the corset and skirt combination of a Burberry dress worn by Lily James, who looked fantastic. Greta Gerwig, in a Jonathan Cohen dress with some type of floral appliqué, was striking, her hair pulled loosely up with several locks dangling around her eyes. On our way out, as I caught a glimpse of Timothée Chalamet in a Saint Laurent tuxedo, I have to admit I was a little star struck.
And this wasn’t even the best runway show in town.
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While a few promising names have dropped off the designer roster here, London Fashion Week has regained its status as nurturing home for young, inventive creators, a place to experiment without fear. Some of their work is great, and some exceptionally derivative, but the shows remain engaging overall. The leading talents of the city – Jonathan Anderson, Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou, Erdem Moralioglu, and Simone Rocha, in particular – have been around long enough now to demonstrate maturity without yet becoming jaded. Anderson, whose J.W. Anderson label is 10 years old, showed a high-energy collection that combined sophisticated jersey dresses with playful Converse sneakers (part of an ongoing collaboration), and added some quirky touches that bordered on the surreal – one men’s look included a plush rabbit affixed to a sweater and a donut keychain attached to a cool pair of army pants. It all looked very fashion, and also very wearable, something I never would have said when he started out.
For statement pieces, there were loose paisley blouses with a neckline that layered a scarf over a ruffle, and skirts weighted with metal trims, but the overall vibe was one of utilitarian sportswear. There were skirts, trousers, and jackets made of green khakis, lumpy sweaters, and clever cableknits, and a military man portrayed in intarsia on a sweater. And the glittering rainbow sneakers were super cute.
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Simone Rocha also hewed closely to her signature voluminous lace dresses that suggest the formality of ceremonial attire – weddings, funerals, or proms, depending on the angle you look at them. These were affixed with ribbons, crystal sashes, or floral embroideries that also convey nostalgia for keepsakes. Rocha has a great mind for pushing this look forward each season, and some new styles in red tartan offered a more contemporized aesthetic. Best yet was a shiny and seductive red coat-dress constructed to look as if it were slung low on the shoulders.
The London shows have again been the target of aggressive protests against the use of fur, including disruptive displays at Burberry on Saturday and at Katrantzou’s show on Sunday. Ironically, both shows included only fake furs (as did Marc Jacobs in New York). The point of harassing editors as they enter and exit shows eludes me. And yet the activists became so threatening that police had to be called to Katrantzou’s venue, where guests were barricaded inside for some minutes after the show, before eventually escaping through another door via the backstage.
The designer kept her cool, anyway, and her fall collection displayed a sense of humor and wit once seen in her early collections, beginning in 2009. With a Bauhaus-meets-Victoriana theme, she designed dresses and coats as if they were made from discarded furniture, like tufted leather coats or dresses made of tapestries. Some pieces were sculpted like lampshades for a bit of comic relief.
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Erdem’s love of English history has often informed the romantic nature of his dresses, the sort of ruffled, bow-trimmed things Keira Knightley might wear in a Jane Austen period flick, or well, today. This season, he brought his collection to the National Portrait Gallery, where bygone dukes and duchesses, generals, kings, and queens looked down upon the flowing procession wearing clothes that looked contemporary to the Downton Abbey set. If I’m making this sound dreary, then let me correct the impression, because the dresses were fabulous, frothy, and floating on air. Some were trimmed with crystals and big beaded jewels, others came in long golden brocades and velvets, topped with men’s coats. And bringing this period piece into the modern era, he smartly added olive-toned corduroy separates that looked fresher and easy to wear.
Christopher Kane’s show was also targeted by protesters on Sunday afternoon, but his show, at the enormous Tate Britain gallery, offered plenty of options for egress that rendered them moot. His collection wasn’t about fur, but sex, a subject the designer has often approached with a severe vision, which sometimes reads as cold. Here, a computerized soundtrack called to mind a books-on-tape reading of The Joy of Sex with narration by Apple’s Siri, and the thought occurred that he might be commenting on how desensitized people have become to sex thanks to the pervasiveness of online pornography.
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Kane showed revealing dresses, indeed, but without the cynicism of certain Instagram celebrities. Black and red lace body con dresses, and a red turtleneck sweater that said “Special,” worn over a translucent skirt, were hardly obscene. His final looks included erotic prints based on illustrations from the original sex manuals from the 1970s, which were oddly delightful and not at all vulgar. In fact, they had a sense of innocence to them, which was perhaps the most daring expression of real fashion seen in London all week.