I suppose I just like the innocent but feisty Brontë governess and the mad woman in the attic as well," the designer Giles Deacon said of his autumn collection, the high point of last week's London season.
"Austere, not austerity. I thought about the 19th-century obsession with female hysteria: buttoned up but at the same time with something completely wild lurking underneath."
In their ultra-strict, black tailoring – waists were cinched to evoke the Belle Epoque line – worn with high-collared white shirts and styled to resemble nothing more than consumptive Victorian maidens, models may indeed have stepped straight out of Jane Eyre were it not for an opulence, and even outright decadence, very much in evidence alongside. Acid-stripped peacock feathers, inky black goat fur, fine Swiss lace, crystal embroideries, and print inspired by Delaroche's unashamedly romanticised painting, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, and European Art Nouveau were all the stuff of the haute couture atelier, handled by this designer with both imagination and the perfect degree of restraint.
Over the past few seasons, there has been humour at the heart of Deacon's work but this was a more serious and indeed more complex vision. There was a sense of irony to be sure, but the overall effect was as dignified as it was exceptionally beautiful.
There's generally something if not quite wild, then certainly twisted lurking beneath the surface of Christopher Kane's woman. This designer too opted for a more severe view of femininity for the forthcoming autumn with little black dresses a librarian might like to wear were they not trimmed with the finest silk tulle and waved, plastic pockets of oil and glycerine stained with vegetable dye. Kane said the latter was inspired by school children's pencil cases and that's just what it looked like.
While compared to last season's neon lace, this collection was more sober, any frumpiness was undercut by the fact that breasts were bared and the sides of garments cut away to ensure that sex was never far from the agenda. Signature cashmere knits, meanwhile, referenced Victorian baby blankets, only they were far from the bright and breezy colours associated with that style – think instead of sludgy shades of grey, blue and green.
Marios Schwab made his name designing immaculately crafted, body-conscious clothing – principally dresses – and, while in recent seasons he has strayed from this signature somewhat, it was this time once again the show's raison d'être. Here too there was a sexual tension in narrow leather, wool and jersey designs, all finished with corsetry details and harnessing: bondage, and not of the entirely soft variety either. The colour palette was limited almost entirely to black, ox-blood and shades of green; sleeves were long and narrow and black leather gloves and spike-heeled studded sandals were part Allen Jones, part Belle de Jour.
For the past year or so, impressively executed – and gorgeous – floral prints have dominated Erdem's collections. This season 20th-century art – from watery Impressionism to more splashy Abstract Expressionism – was the starting point. Silks and velvets shot through with vivid strokes and daubs of ultra-violet, teal, scarlet, fuchsia and more were less accessible and more interesting for it. Here too the silhouette was predominantly long and narrow, cut close to the body and high at the throat. Sheer sequins were applied onto shimmering silks and fabrics morphed into one another – bouclé wool, say, and black lace – demonstrating a level of technical expertise that is rare.
Of course, hysteria and Alfred Hitchcock's heroines tend to go hand in hand. It was therefore not entirely surprising that Meadham Kirchhoff's show was played out to a soundtrack straight out of Psycho. If Giles Deacon's uptight governess is sexually wanton at heart, then here were the young protégés she would most like to teach. With witches' hats or squares of skewed black lace topping off tangled, platinum-blond ringlets, models wore oversized coats and pinafores over pleated cream blouses and petticoats and even, on the odd occasion, frilly black bloomers. Centre stage was a Mexican-style shrine to punk icons and this high-spirited and unashamedly rebellious creature suited that well: she was, in the end, mad, bad and distinctly dangerous to know.
For Kinder Aggugini, the unlikely pairing, on the face of it, of Sid Vicious and Coco Chanel as embodied by art collector Peggy Guggenheim was the order of the day. "Her father died on the Titanic and she inherited millions of dollars at 21, the perfect age to inherit money," Aggugini told journalists backstage. "You could do anything you wanted: drink, buy a gun – this woman would have done both."
This translated into bourgeois and marginally uptight tailoring only with raw edges and tacking in contrasting thread, luxe cashmere parkas with collars pleated at the neckline, T-shirts printed with "VIVE L'ART" and long black-draped jersey dresses finished with crystal-studded elasticised straps. Any eccentricity was only added to by quite the highest ponytails imaginable, exaggerated still further by witty and pretty millinery courtesy of Stephen Jones.
America was the starting point for Topshop Unique's collection too: perhaps in anticipation of the chain's US expansion, dresses were printed with the names of American cities, Miami and Hollywood to name just two. The appropriately unhinged muse on this catwalk, meanwhile, was Cruella de Vil, in Dalmation-spotted fun furs and black and white dotted shoes. Add to the mix oversized faux fox wraps with orange teddy bear eyes and hair moulded into Mickey Mouse ears and it's safe to say that there was nothing much sane about any of this, which, given the store's youthful and (it is hoped) irreverent customer, is just as it should be.
These days, perhaps thankfully, any madness is not locked behind closed doors and Louise Gray's handwriting is as joyfully strung out and spun out as it is inspiring. "Up Your Look" was the title of this show – and then some. "I took a spot, a stripe and a check and then played around," Gray said, and if that sounds childish, the end result was more sophisticated than that. There may be a homespun quality to gold foil dots, neon paper chains and more Lurex than is strictly tasteful but this is a designer who is pushing at the boundaries of textile technology like few others working in fashion today. Lurid, high-shine boots (sometimes mis-matched) and head pieces designed by Nasir Mazhar that wouldn't be out of place at an alien kindergarten tea party only added to the prettily crazed, technicoloured chaos of it all.
Coromandel screens, Fabergé eggs, Qianlong Dynasty China and Meissen porcelain were the precious inspiration behind Mary Katrantzou's equally precious designs, where the most unlikely print combinations of the week made a dazzling appearance. The richness of koi karp, tiny garlands of leaves, delicate blossom and more were engineered and applied to the surface of perfectly formed little dresses with a lightness of touch that was unprecedented. The designer was thinking of the legendary socialite Marchesa Luisa Casati, who once said: "I want to be a living work of art", and so porcelain bowls were transformed into rounded skirts and curves referenced the lines of antique vases.
Jonathan Saunders is a designer who has made his name with innovative print design and here too this was the story, that and some of the most unlikely colour juxtapositions: turquoise blue and flame; petrol blue and lime. Underpinning such flamboyancy, though, was a rigorous silhouette that was stripped back to the point of minimal: a buttoned-up shirt, teamed with straight, ankle-length skirt; a smart, knee-length coat with round-necked silk blouse and pencil skirt. It made for the designer's strongest collection to date.
Also in London, Paul Smith Women this time concerned itself almost entirely with masculine-inspired clothing (boyfriend blazers, cropped trousers, grandad cardigans and brogues) and looked all the more desirable for it; Burberry focussed on ultra-luxe outerwear showering its glamorous catwalk with snow at the end of the show; Betty Jackson came up with oversized coats, jackets, dresses and knits in rich shades of red; and Vivienne Westwood's collection was as joyfully touched as ever. There's a method to the grande dame of British fashion's madness, it almost goes without saying, which is why her signature voluptuous tartans, tweeds and knitwear are loved by women the world over.