Eclectic dreams: From the exotic to the bucolic, London's designers forecast a brighter, prettier spring

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It should come as no great surprise that, just as a look that Vogue recently described as "the new austere" finally arrives in store, an entirely new mood emerges. And so, for spring/summer 2009, all that is strict, dark and distressed looks set to be supplanted by clothing that is just the reverse: exotic in places, bucolic in others, and owing more than a little to haute couture, if with a touch of utilitarian grounding, vintage Helmut Lang-style, to toughen things up a little.

Any minimal intentions have been left behind, then, in favour of a generally more overloaded, even maximal approach. The reasoning behind this is as clear as the crystal that sparkled on more than its fair share of catwalks. There are two time-honoured ways to deal with troubled economic times. The first is to play it safe and rely on the integrity of the fashion customer to invest in a few key pieces that will discreetly enhance their wardrobe. The second is to fly in the face of adversity and, with suitably grand gestures, transport that same customer to an entirely different – and, it is hoped, more beautiful – place.

Christopher Kane appeared to have the tropical rainforests in mind as a potential destination with his collection – albeit as channelled, according to the designer himself, through The Flintstones and Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. Thankfully, there wasn't a fur tunic in sight.

Instead, Kane gave us leather and chiffon in hot colours and appliquéd with layer upon layer of circular scales, either tracing the seams of garments or covering them entirely. Once again, this designer took a single and simple idea and developed it in myriad ways, demonstrating his considerable technical skills to maximum effect. If that sounds po-faced, the end result was anything but. Leopard-print sweaters, moody gorilla prints and stegosaurus shoes – best with a single horn rising up from models' big toes – made for thoroughly witty and pretty viewing.

For her part, Emma Cook went on safari – literally. It was off to Longleat Safari Park for this designer, who used her collection of photos documenting day-trips there over the years to create elaborate prints of zebras, lions, leopards and more. All found their way on to fluid, voluminous dresses that were ultra-feminine but never twee. It's a fine balance and one that Cook handles perfectly.

All present and correct, too, were signature Deco motifs and painstakingly hand-worked details: frills, flounces, fringing and iridescent fabrics cleverly hand-dyed to look as though highlighted with ultraviolet. Cook proposes that her designs be worn under a sheer PVC raincoat studded with rhinestones, incidentally.

If a trip to the jungle isn't everybody's Arcadian ideal, a more multi-layered form of exoticism found its way on to the catwalk of Paul Smith, where British Orientalist art was the reference du jour, meaning everything from lightweight lawn kaftans and patchworked skirts and dresses, to signature tailored jackets worn with high-waisted harem pants in neutral colours. This collection was decorative in the extreme for this designer – a sign of more busy sartorial times to come if ever there was one. Faded florals, ginghams and stripes looked like they'd been washed many times, then dried in the sunshine: make do and mend, at designer prices, of course.

Peter Jensen's spring/summer collections are generally light and spriggy, if always with a marginally perverse charm – just witness the extent of the co-ordination, as proudly exemplified by the flowery dress and matching brogue. This designer's shows are also always inspired by great women – in this instance, Jodie Foster. "I love the fact that her beauty is non-specific," says the designer, "apart from her piercing blue eyes. Also she can go to the Academy Awards ceremony dressed in an Armani suit and gloves. On anyone else that would look dreadful!"

The show notes summed up the content neatly: "The sporty good looks, the waspy attitude, the tomboy charm. The grey marl tracksuit with gold-foil spot, tailored jackets with shoulder pads... From the bouncy young girl in Freaky Friday, to the streetwise streetwalker of Taxi Driver, the feisty teen in Foxes and the precocious FBI trainee of Silence of the Lambs..."

Take away the narrative, add a fruitful collaboration with the illustrator Julie Verhoeven, and there you have it: clothing that is as sweet as it is slightly strange, and the more appealing for it.

Showing for the third time in London since her return from New York in 2007, Luella Bartley's collection – the label is just called Luella – was by far her most sophisticated to date. Here, too, were seasonally appropriate floral prints, ruffles and frills only applied with the precious precision more normally associated with bourgeois French fashion than anything the London collections have to offer.

This was Luella's spin on Chanel, then, right down to tweedy jackets – in fondant-bright colours – and quilted handbags dangling from strings of oversized pearls.

There was Balenciaga in there, too, and the jackdaw aesthetic of Marc Jacobs had

not been ignored. Still, the overall sense of youthful, determinedly girlish bravado was all this designer's own.

A more adult fashion follower is likely to buy into Giles Deacon's aesthetic, which is elegant in the extreme and about as close to statement dressing as the London catwalks are ever likely to come. This was a much larger collection than usual – proof, if any were needed, that this designer's business is growing steadily – and the casting said it all. Emma Balfour, Liberty Ross and Christina Kruse are all models associated with the 1990s. "Christina Kruse is 39, and I think she's just as beautiful as any 18-year-old," said Deacon after the show, adding that his inspirations this time around were the art director Peter Saville, the interior designer Ben Kelly, and the by now comparatively low-tech arcade game of that same period, Pac-Man.

Oversized Pac-Man pockets on trapeze dresses, and even larger Pac-Man hats courtesy of the milliner Stephen Jones, added to the audacity of this collection, which juxtaposed the brocades, silks, wools and satins of the couture ateliers with high-performance and metallic fabrics and shots of neon colour. Best of all, that rare thing, a sense of humour, was present throughout. Louise Goldin and Marios Schwab both rose to visibility at the height of fashion's most recent love affair with tight-fitting if not necessarily flesh-revealing clothing. For the forthcoming spring/summer, Goldin, who is a knitwear designer, worked with pale and interesting colours, and finished dresses in particular with white, lightly padded harnessing. If this sounds hard-edged, a feather-light veil of tulle softened the effect, and the end result was more subtly feminine for it.

Schwab's collection was broader and even somewhat disjointed by comparison, including, as it did, everything from rainbow-hued silk all-in-ones to draped jersey dresses and even the odd swimsuit, all of which suggested a move towards more commercial designs. More purely experimental was an end sequence of dresses constructed entirely out of thick spirals of rope.

For some designers, finding their particular viewpoint and sticking with it is the only way forward. That paid off this season for Roksanda Ilincic, whose modern and even avant-garde approach to the craft of dressmaking seemed more beautiful than ever. The use of silks, satins, ribbons, bows and oversized flowers appliquéd here, there and everywhere was all unashamedly romantic, but the designer's play on volume and use of a more muted colour palette meant that modernity was ensured.

Finally, only in London would a designer be brave, or, indeed, idiosyncratic enough to base an entire collection on nothing more obviously fashion-friendly than plastic surgery, which is, of course, something that more than a few fashion followers – and celebrities in particular – indulge in but are unlikely ever to brag about via their choice of attire. In Ann-Sofie Back's collection, broken frills, scarred fabrics and white plastic fastenings reminiscent of the staples used to hold skin in place while scars are healing were all in evidence. Shoes were wrapped in cling film, and models were each afforded their own little plaster, worn proudly across the bridge of their nose.

Most surprising of all, the finished garments were actually more conventionally glamorous, despite such a radically provocative twist.

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