London Fashion Week is a quarter of a century old. And how it has changed. The British Fashion Council, and with it more than half the shows, are now gathered under one roof – the suitably grand Somerset House on the Strand. Then there's the by-now-well-established Topshop sponsored space at the University of Westminster just off the Marylebone Road.
Elsewhere, attendees were treated to collections at the Guildhall, no less (for House of Holland), a deconsecrated Polish church (Antonio Berardi), the Royal Opera House (Nicole Farhi) and Whitehall (Roksanda Ilincic). There were no rudely late starts, no unpleasant scrums (well, not all that unpleasant) and not one single down-at-heel East London venue on the schedule. The international press duly attended – Anna Wintour, Glenda Bailey and Carine Roitfeld all made an appearance – due, most probably, to the presence of big-budget advertiser, Burberry, but this was a happy state of affairs nonetheless. What with the generally celebratory mood, it would be all too easy to forget the point of the exercise which is, now as ever, the clothes.
And what of these? Well, they too have undergone something of an image overhaul. There was little of the extremity and raw-edged aggression of London last time the capital had such a raised profile in the mid-Nineties. Instead, even the most fresh-faced young talent boasted a reined-in sophistication, both in terms of production values and design, that seemed unprecedented, leading to a seamless relationship between more-established designers and those coming up in the ranks that would once have been unimaginable.
Of course, any new-found professionalism and even maturity has been developing for some years now. The difference this time, however, was that the best designers – and young designers in particular – in no way sacrificed creativity to commercialism, instead getting the balance just right.
A case in point was Marios Schwab's collection, which was one of the most accomplished of the week. Schwab, a conceptually–led designer, is newly installed at the New York label Halston and will show his first offering for that label next season. "Split page books, sometimes referred to as flipbooks, were designed to allow the reader to mix and match different combinations of the book's contents, giving them the ability to create a variety of personalised combinations and storylines," read the show notes. And this was the thinking behind the clothes. It was a complicated idea – not to mention process – that could very easily have tipped over into overwrought territory but it never did. Unlikely fabrics were pieced together creating new textures and proportions but any cleverness – and this was very clever – never got in the way of either beauty or ease.
In a similar vein, Louise Goldin patchworked pale and interesting fabrics around the body, duly enhanced by a conical bra, to ever-more technically advanced effect, giving historic reference – Baroque in its original incarnation as well as seen through the eyes of Gianni Versace – a futuristic overhaul that all those interested in body-conscious designs that are rather more elevated than the requisite Lycra tube might love to wear. Goldin is also now responsible for a capsule collection for Ballantyne.
There are very few designers who are able to change their look each season and there are also very few designers whose work doesn't look like anyone else's. Christopher Kane is one such. Here is a designer who could so easily have failed to live up to the hype that surrounds his name, but who continues to offer up inspired and fresh collections each season. This time the designer said he had a young woman's nascent and repressed sexuality in mind. Suffice to say that gingham has rarely looked so rude. In fondant hues – these are big for spring/summer 2010 – pleated and panelled and with underwear detailing incorporated into the surface of clothes – this is also big for spring/summer – out came one look after another on the same theme but always slightly developed and finished to an impeccable standard. This was light, pretty and highly flirtatious in flavour – and all with barely a flash of naked flesh on display. Kane, like Schwab, has a consultancy with a big brand, in this instance, the Versace spin-off, Versus. Donatella Versace, perching front row, must have been pleased with her choice.
Peter Pilotto, a design duo who met while studying at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, further established themselves as a fashion insider's favourite. Known in particular for innovative print, Pilotto and the label's other half, Christopher De Vos – they are Austrian and Libyan-born respectively – were inspired by fireworks or, more precisely and indeed poetically, "the reflection of fireworks on a rippling ocean, mimicking the iridescent ring around a midnight moon". These looked brilliant making their way across the surface of softly structured, small but perfectly-formed draped silk dresses and relaxed but equally fine-tuned tailoring.
A strong showing too came from Erdem whose floral print dresses were appliquéd with more flowers that fluttered when models walked. The structured torso and exaggerated hip line that was here, there and everywhere in London was all present and correct in this collection but this time was very discreet and with an overriding softness that made a rather more viable sartorial option.
Luella Bartley's collection was quintessentially London girl in spirit. This is a designer who knows her market and sweet, Fifties-line pieces – Hitchcock heroine shifts only shorter and rounder, more that were indebted to the New Look and sauced-up day suits from the same period – came in the brightest, deepest colours, including hacienda yellow, for just the right amount of knowing street-inspired cool to give the whole an edge.
Paul Smith's womenswear line has often struggled to compete with the more established menswear collection he was originally famous for. This time around, however, it came into its own. Predominantly masculine but in vibrant summer shades – forget-me-not blue, rose, sunshine yellow – his tailoring was just as expertly thought-out as one might expect, and pretty silk dresses with painterly stripes running across them were just as desirable.
Grande dame Vivienne Westwood's collection may have been an opportunity for the designer to raise a rebel cry against global warming – bizarrely, stuffed frogs and a real puppy appeared sprouting from models' waistlines – but it was basically another bright, breezy and suitably sassy take on old favourites. Striped dresses in men's shirting, in particular, were great. Not a dame but a much-loved British fashion institution, Betty Jackson also had a strong season, mixing among the most wearable lingerie-inspired looks on the circuit with ultra-chic navy dresses and the broad-shouldered loose-fitting jackets that she rose to fame with in the Eighties.
And so to Burberry, showing in London for the first time in more than a decade and a bigger, more perfectly-produced collection than any other on the schedule. Of course, that is only to be expected given the brand's global status and the budget that would surely dwarf any other in the British capital. Even with this in mind, creative director Christopher Bailey's talent shone. This was a lovely show including, naturally, the iconic trench coat – in the most gorgeous garden colours as well as the odd flash of silver to acknowledge British fashion's very own jubilee. "Twisted Classics" it was called, and this was literal. Coats, dresses and skirts, all cut to no longer than mid-thigh, were ruched, pleated and knotted around the body to girlish but never sickly-sweet effect. Elsewhere in London, LA-based designer Jeremy Scott gave The Flintstones a make-over with short, sexy animal-print pieces in neon-bright colours. Henry Holland stamped his "house" across everything from easy tailoring to tights and added nasty (in a good way) stretch lace dresses in candy colours to his repertoire.
Hats off too to the three designers featured at the Fashion East show. Holly Fulton's beautifully hand-worked skyscrapers on Courrèges-line shifts were nothing if not demonstrative of the increased sophistication of London's young designers. Heikki Salonen's monochromatic separates exemplified a more minimal and coolly metropolitan approach. Michael Van Der Ham, meanwhile, offered deconstructed pieces inspired by three 1970s dress designs by Andy Warhol who himself deconstructed dresses of that era by Diane Von Furstenberg, Halston, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino.