London Fashion Week: Sign of the times

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Designers looked back in anger with collections which captured the mood of the moment

'Creativity is Great', was the perfectly concise title to Vivienne Westwood's Red Label show (best read aloud with an Alan Bennett lilt) and if ever proof were needed that's the case, the London collections provided it.

If the past few seasons have been characterised by a polite conservatism – fashion is nothing if not a cultural barometer – then, for spring, the British capital's more anarchic and irreverent spirit comes to the fore. The woman in question here would not be at home at a Saturday afternoon barbecue in the Cotswolds, say – she'd still be in bed, thanks but no thanks – and the designers who dress her are of the understanding that audacity triumphs over play-safe tactics on the catwalk.

Louise Gray – a woman for whom Westwood and the movement she presided over has clearly always been an inspiration, She is interested in dressing a woman whose wardrobe is proudly distinctive and who is in no way partial to playing arm candy. Gray herself defined this season's mood as "art school" and, with newspaper headline prints and weaves colliding with zigzag stripes, triangles, circles and squares, either monochrome or in bright, unexpected colour and fabric combinations, there was certainly a sense both of experimentation and the sheer joy of making things on display. Add to the mix winklepickers in violent shades, Stephen Jones' hats and Tatty Devine's jewellery – mirrored rings the size of small saucers scrawled with words including "happy" and "good times" – and the result was joyful, witty and anything but submissive.

Gray is not the only designer looking back, if not quite in anger, then certainly with attitude just now. Maarten Van Der Horst's debut solo catwalk collection embraced the industrious spirit of punk, where bright young things transformed the everyday and banal into clothing. The designer cut shirts, shorts, dresses and trench coats out of carrier bags (Tesco, not Prada) and more in utilitarian cottons printed with sooty graffiti that nodded to Stephen Sprouse.

Sister by Sibling is not a label aimed at the shy. Here the traditionally French toile de jouy print was subverted, peopled as it was by rioters in hoodies as opposed to anything more pastoral. It looked good on pretty summer dresses and shirts that otherwise boasted a butter-wouldn't-melt modesty. Lacy knits came in neon colours, cardigans were covered in gleaming skulls and white raffia was woven into oversized puffballs. Warriors in Woolworths was the name of the collection and cobweb facemasks and pom-pom ears made for perhaps the most impressively clad young looters in fashion history.

Remember Sign of the Times, the early Nineties boutique stuffed with lurid and largely ironic trash as frequented by London clubbers and Courtney Love in equal measures? Henry Holland does. His collection represented a confident leap forward and referenced grunge, he said, and with loud checked tailoring, tie dye and acid floral separates, rave culture too.

"I'm sick of print," an editor who will remain nameless said this week. And she's not the only one. Jonathan Saunders, a fine designer known for that very discipline, chose this time to return to his more graphic roots for a collection shown underground at Tate Modern (a hell of a venue). Ihat featured sequined cardigans and skirts, chevron striped dresses, and bomber jackets in holographic leather and silk, all of which looked super-slick and glamorous but not in an even remotely well-mannered way. The backs of garments were black – shine from the front and enjoy the considerable benefits of a sartorially gifted disappearing act from behind.

A smashed-glass motif, intricately cut black leather and a looming Pegasus also lent an opposites attract loveliness to Giles Deacon's collection that demonstrated the fusion of romanticism and severity that is a signature for this designer by now. Deacon designs statement pieces for the thoroughly modern female but, for all their beauty, there is a rebellious undertow. "I like the idea of Pegasus firing lightening bolts down on to Bond Street," the designer said.

"How did it happen? It was a miracle," laughed Christopher Kane backstage at his show. And indeed it was. There was a saccharine sweetness that was, in the designer's own words, "a bit sick" to much of this collection and to narrow, fondant-coloured dresses and skirts in couture fabrics especially. These were finished with plastic bows, rubber lace and with jewels attached by black and white thermotape, however, which hardened the look up somewhat or indeed quite a lot. Perpsex nuts and bolts came in place of more traditional fastenings, merging an art-school sensibility (again) with a perfectionism that is second to none. As for full-on Frankenstein-print T-shirts – an afterthought, Kane said – don't be surprised when they sell out even before they make the stores.

With their blank gaze, pin-curled hair glittering with jewels and exquisite – truly exquisite – wardrobe, the women who walked Meadham Kirchhoff's hallucinogenic boudoir of a catwalk were miraculous too. This was the designers' most heavily referential collection. "Almost embarrasingly so," Meadham quipped. It was also their most lovely, however. The unashamedly decorative viewpoint of Christian Lacroix, the romance of Nineties John Galliano, the baroque splendour of Eighties Gianni Versace were all very much in evidence and so too was the handwriting of Vivienne Westwood, neatly enough. It almost goes without saying these are fashion heroes and heroines one and all. Given the budget that London's fledgling designers work with, the fact that tiny, elaborate Edwardian line jackets, equally diminutive full-pleated skirts and patchworked lace dresses were hand-finished to a standard that would wow the petites mains in the Paris ateliers, the end result was more impressive still.

The ghost of Isabella Blow, as played by Lady Gaga, presided over Philip Treacy's show, where Michael Jackson's wardrobe, due to be auctioned later this year, was teamed with bumsters and cropped Savile Row-inspired trousers, courtesy of Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. That's a line-up to be reckoned with and one that brings to mind London circa Sensation when courage in one's convictions triumphed over commerciality every time. It says quite something of Treacy's ability as a creator that his gravity-defying sculptural headwear was not overshadowed by the theatrical shenanigans. A floral wreath – for Gaga too – burnished gold horns and a light-up spherical circus of a headpiece all held their own and reminded those in attendance that unbridled imagination coupled with brazen bravura is a potent mix.

Also in London, Marios Schwab demonstrated the enduring appeal of a little black dress. The classic nature of this wardrobe staple was cast aside, however, trimmed as it was with shiny, spiky black raffia and leather. JW Anderson, meanwhile, mixed menswear shapes and fabrics with oversized frills to starkly modern effect.

And what of Dame Westwood herself, the woman who arguably started it all and who continues to dominate the London fashion season like no one else before or since? Her show, she said, was inspired by the English garden – and the garden party in particular – but the prettiness of dainty floral prints, striped sundresses and more was undercut by the raw energy of a live soundtrack courtesy of one-time Westwood model and muse-turned-muso, Sara Stockbridge, not to mention models' faces painted hot pink, sky blue and chartreuse and, most of all, by the designer's own appearance. She was resplendent in cotton boxers, "Climate Revolution" T-shirt and oversized helmet shrouded with a veil of bronze sequins.

Transport kindly provided by Mercedes Benz

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