London Fashion Week - a sexy but strong vision for autumn: who are you calling ladylike?

Feminine with a fighting spirit: the London collections presented a sexy but strong vision for autumn 2013. Harriet Walker reports
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At 10 Downing Street on the first night of London Fashion Week there gathered a group of women who would set the tone for the shows that followed: the new British Fashion Council chair and founder of Net-a-Porter, Natalie Massenet, Italian doyenne Donatella Versace,  pop-star-turned-designer Victoria Beckham, and a host of buyers,  editors and industry grafters.  Serious women all, and not afraid to carve out a career devoted to beautiful clothing.

Fashion no longer means  frippery – the economy has seen to that. Valued at nearly £21bn last year, the British fashion industry may have its detractors, but it’s  a vital asset to the country. And  the women who work in it  mean business.

It was an idea echoed by the  capital’s catwalks. Perhaps designers  were inspired by a year in which male politicians have made repeated – and rejected – territorial claims on the  female body and female sexuality; perhaps it was simply the logical conclusion to the minimalist  stranglehold the high-end market has been in the grip of in recent seasons. Either way, clothes were unashamedly feminine – sexy and sensual, even – but they were also tough. Last season it was either/or,  but for autumn 2013, you can  have both.

Some designers went back to archetypes to make their point: Simone Rocha’s collection was inspired by her grandmothers, visible in Fifties suiting,  boxy and collarless rendered in a modern  wool and tweed with crochet detailing and presented in “Pepto-Bismol pink” and black patent leather, streamlined and strong. Decoration came in remarkably un-flouncy apron skirts  and bustle-backs on dresses in a clean collection from one of the schedule’s most-anticipated young names.

Henry Holland, too, looked to the last generation but one, entitling his collection Nana Rave and working an irreverent take on dirndl skirts, two-piece skirt suits and pieces embroidered  and embossed with martini glasses and  smoking cigarettes. There was female strength here in the idea of a role model, albeit a slightly tiddly one.

“Tits and misery” was Jonathan Saunders’s summation of his autumn offering, “and  something a bit David Lynchian.” Certainly there was a sobriety to the clothes, but they were also a celebration of the female form, proudly scooping and cupping and squeezing intricately worked brocade cut-outs inlaid on delicate and sheer lace gowns cinched in with ciré waspies. The look was hard but not austere; an opulence made these clothes feel that they were revelling in just how sexy a woman can be – not in a cartoonish way, but when she is  in control.

But Louise Gray combined the two in a show entitled Hey Crazy, which featured her own engineered prints on bolero jackets, tunics, shifts and pinafores, accessorised with, variously, a loo-roll brooch, foil pie-case earrings and carrier-bag headdresses (the work of the inimitable Stephen Jones), as if these dyspeptic housewives had turned the trappings of domesticity into their own sartorial armour. These styling effects aside, the clothes themselves were practical and – dare we say it? – pretty.

“All I care about is making perfect cakes and having a perfectly clean house,” declared Benjamin Kirchhoff backstage after the Meadham Kirchhoff show. “It was about homemakers, and about everything being perfect.” The clothes, inspired by the inside cover of Hole’s Live Through This album (Courtney Love is a  recurring muse for the pair), were articulate and precise, imaginative but wholly realistic: cream crêpe sailor suits, stand-offish black vinyl jackets, starchy broderie cotton and tea-stain-hued maxidresses printed with etchings of ballerinas were nostalgic and at times puritanical, but could again be broken down into wearable pieces that fit wholly into a vision of the “matchy-matchy” woman they had in mind.

Wearability was key this season, especially at Preen, where jewelled jumpers and slit skirts layered with lace made up an elegant but effortless wardrobe, and contrasts (blouses with beaded bibs and sheer backs; trousers with zip-off skirty peplums) scaled down the razzmatazz to everyday levels. Erdem Moralioglu, too, for all that his collection was sumptuous and complexly crafted, played with the idea of heavy front-detailing mixed with a plain rear view. He encased pink marabou skirts in black tulle to de-frothify, just as Marios Schwab used floor-length transparent skirts to play down thigh-skimming bustier dresses, and Antonio Berardi mixed planate grey tailoring with crystal-embellished sheer side panels for eveningwear.

Likewise, Christopher Kane’s deconstructed lace held together planes of velvet on dresses that revealed little but hung sinuously together. The designer called one lace number “the six-pack dress” for its abstract crochet-armour effect, inspired by fragments of antique lace that he had found and worked into a vision he had of “warrior women”, in camo jacquard mini-kilts and strong, minimal tailoring. “The shoulder is very important,” he said after the show, of luxe and broad coats that fastened with a single  electric-blue buckle.

There was a menswear aspect throughout Richard Nicoll’s show, too – perhaps to be expected after the launch of a men’s line recently and his avowal that ideas flow unconstrained between the two ranges. But this was not the usual wholesale importing of severe tailoring, so much as offering his customers, who run the pop-star-to-pragmatist gamut, the chance to chop and change given their mood. Long-line neutral-coloured blazers gave way to delicate blue and pink silk pieces, exquisitely feminine and bias-cut, followed by a myth-bustingly flattering orange hue on sensible jumpers and  languid silk skirts.

This sense of mixing and matching, of back and front and top and bottom, was present in Topshop’s Unique collection, too, which saw grungy  mohair-cropped jumpers worn with fluid circle skirts, and fluffy tops teamed with sensible brown tweed slacks. The concept here was Britpop, ancient history for some of the chain’s customers but the blurring of sass and sexiness, ladette and ladylike came in Nineties hues of baby blue and pink, toughened up on military-style  jumpsuits and pretty sequined skirts topped off with a biker jacket.

In keeping with that time period, knitwear trio Sibling’s Sister line took Paula Yates as their heroine for autumn 2013. “She was sexy and flirtatious, beautiful and clever and also a rarity, since women loved her, too,” said Cozette McCreery. “She must have been doing something right!” That rarefied mix was characterised by chintz-patterned cardigans and tube skirts,  sequined and beaded but somehow never  saccharine – the sort of twin set that seemed  knitted with a rock chick in mind.

Giles Deacon also managed to blend the  girlish with the grungy in his vision of “grubby angels”, a dark exploration of Seventies shapes in exaggerated bishops’ sleeves on fit-and-flare silk maxidresses, valance hems and gold  leather-studded fringing that seemed at  once youthful and bohemian but ultimately  terribly sophisticated.

This was a concern at Thomas Tait, too,  who made puffa coats, tracksuit bottoms  and other sportswear seem upmarket,  modern and chic thanks to single-minded cut and proportion.

And at JW Anderson, Japanese aspects in  kimono necklines and obi skirts, flat-cut and  deconstructed trousers (the legs became a wide panel each side of a skirt) felt less severe for tie-waists and ruching, and the use of parachute  silk for Nineties-style wide-leg hipster trousers. The shownotes spoke of “domestic onanism”. We’re not sure quite what this means, but we  suspect it’s what the autumn 2013 strong and serious woman does in her down time, instead of the housework.