London calling but it's first stop NYC
Sixties dresses and accessories brighten up a grey London Fashion Week, says Constance Harris
What I love about fashion weeks is the buzz. The business of fashion gets brass tacks and bare roots, and everyone mixes metaphors in their enthusiasm for the new. It's a time when collections are at their most creatively pure and people like me can view them before retailers do their edit. There is optimism and there is worry, but never banality.
However, this week, at the much-beleaguered London Fashion Week (LFW), where numbers continue to fall each year, there was more worry than usual. The exhibition, where people who are not doing catwalk presentations show their wares, was much diminished; I'd say it's about an eighth of what it was 10 years ago. There were gaps all over the place, where units had not been hired. Yet those exhibiting seemed content, and were making sales despite the lack of footfall. The press room was busy all the time with reporters filing stories all over the world.
London's latest worries began just as the shows kicked off. The New York Council of Fashion Designers, chaired by Diane von Furstenberg, announced that they were moving their slot -- yet again -- to bring it closer to Milan's Fashion Week and taking over what was traditionally London's week.
What this effectively meant was that New York was saying "F*** you London, it's all about us". (A familiar American refrain -- heavily subsidised American cotton is the reason why the developing world never gets a fair price for its cotton and denied financial power.) It also has been only a few years since New York moved from being the last stop on the fashion calendar, to being the first.
What's the importance of where they are in the fashion schedule? It boils down to trying to nab buyers, the retailers. Think about it. Buyers start off buying for a season with a fixed budget. If they overspend in one country, then they will have less to spend in the next. So New York moved to head up the schedule to have first go at the buyer's purse.
Obviously, the first move didn't help them as much as they had hoped, if they are now squeezing London Fashion Week out of the picture.
But I would argue that New York can move around as much as it wants, but that won't make up for the fact that theirs is a less than stimulating design scene. Actually, it is underwhelming. And while they may have big brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, they don't produce anything like the talent or ingenuity that London does.
The second issue to devastate London's fashion week was the financial news.
The fall of Lehman Brothers, AIG's travails and on the list goes. Newspapers in Britain were estimating a total related job loss of 500,000. Faced with those kind of figures, no wonder buyers were wondering what to do.
"To survive, you have got to keep it interesting," said Nikki Creedon of Havana. But what if those lovely, fashion educated, designer consumers no longer can afford their exquisite taste? Nikki and others believe that wives of wealthy men will be told to tighten the purses. It will fall to working women in charge of their own destinies, to direct fashion from here onwards.
Times are a changing and truly, no one knows what is going to happen. Department stores -- both in London and in Dublin -- reported great sales figures over the summer and early autumn, despite forecasts of doom and gloom. Apparently, "the Arabs" descended in their droves in London in August giving that city's designers a boost, while the Russian billionaires are keeping Park Lane car dealerships going. In all my years of going to London, I have never seen so many Ferraris and other similar expensive toy cars shooting around Kensington, so nothing can be predicted on the basis of what has gone before.
Faced with such turmoil and unknowns, you can only do what human beings have been doing since time began -- keep moving forwards. So to fashion, and what I saw there.
There were only two Irish names on the fashion schedule, Paul Costelloe and John Rocha, though several were selling there. Paul Costelloe's presentation showed a new energy at the house. It was polished, slick and far more confident in its approach to making the label younger.
John Rocha's show, always popular on the London fashion calendar, was noticeably full of Brown Thomas people. MD Nigel Blow, Stephen Sealy, Buying Director for Ladies Wear, Colette O'Leary and Shelley Corkery, of the buying office were all in attendance. "It's something we have been looking at for a long time," Stephen Sealy told me when I asked was there a significance to their appearance at Rocha's show.
Since Brown Thomas is traditionally not known for fondness of Irish labels, perhaps their involvement in Motorola Dublin Fashion Week is changing that?
Stephen didn't deny it when I suggested that there were many pieces in John's essentially very simple and sophisticated presentation, that BT's customers would tend to favour. I shall be watching their space!
Favourites on the London calendar, design duo Temperley are in baby-producing phase and the collection seems to be suffering a little, according to several buyers I spoke to, but all expect a return to form for autumn '09.
Christopher Kane, the new darling and great white hope of London's fashion scene presented a less commercial, but still worthwhile collection. I doubt it will have earned him new sales, but it was reassuring in that it shows this, only two years out, designer has a consistent something going on. Jaeger London is building a reputation for itself with stylists and older women as it always has a dash of 1960/ 70's madness thrown in with its classic tailoring. Jasper Conran was back in powerful design form. Eley Kishimoto was a breath of fresh air.
Paul Smith continued to be reliable and likeable, if not earth-shattering. Likewise, Ben de Lisi and Amanda Wakeley. Giles Deacon did more wearable and -- most welcome -- more grown-up. Between his curvy, hour-glass shift dresses to his use of young and older models, an issue I am constantly encouraging our own companies to try, it was a good show.
Essentially, what London Fashion Week was saying spring/summer 2008 will be about dresses and fabulous accessories. From lovely Sixties vibe mini dresses, often a-line and mid-thigh. The shift dress's return will be welcome news to working women, as well as women who don't wish to look five months pregnant one season more. There were stunning, ankle-length dresses. Not to be confused with Maxis, these dresses were elegant, waisted, formal, often tailored and with belts.
Accessories were diverse. There were punchy fruit colours -- green apple, raspberry, mandarin, lemon -- and then there was a pretty neutrals palate of dusty pink, taupe, dove grey and putty. Jewellery continues to be big news. Platforms were still knocking around. Making an appearance were circa Thirties round-toe shoes with Louis heels. Handbags were either vintage, beaded and patterned, or else big, showy numbers in colour blocks of leather.
All that OTT-ness and the lack of Pauric Sweeny (he is concentrating on Paris this season), made me feel a bit sick, thus I fell upon a new label to LFW's accessories section, Mimi, a Brick Lane-based designer, whose styles were unpretentious, yet felt designed. I particularly loved her slate grey matt styles, as well as woven-metal-with-leather, numbers.
Estethica, the ethical section, had some of the best fashion of the exhibition. My favourite label was Noir's new diffusion line, Noir Black. It reminded me of Katharine Hamnett at her Eighties post-punk, best. It also was very cheap. Buy it someone in Ireland, please, so I can!
I also liked the lingerie by Enamor (very Eberjey meets Betty Boo) and romantic clothing line, Lunar (Mary Grant meets Eilis Boyle), also a keenly-priced range.
I think it says a lot though about the state of a fashion week, when one of the best shows was a sports wear presentation. Stella McCartney for Adidas chose to show the clothes in action with athletes working out. Sweat and all, the gear looked fab, especially the swimwear.
Though I heartily disapprove of New York's treatment of London (and at the time of press a middle-ground solution between London and New York was being reached) London needs to do some grassroots work on itself.
Ranges that are not about original or strong design direction need to be pruned out because the catwalk is getting boring. Models need to be taught how to work the runway to create good shots for cameras -- because they aren't doing it. Exhibitors need to be helped to learn how to merchandise and present their stuff, so that the exhibition can look strong and confident again.
Or all will be lost, New York's bullying behaviour, or no.