There's something new afoot in London fashion.
The home of maximalism, of the grand fashion statement and the all-singing, all-dancing catwalk spectacular has suddenly gone quiet. That doesn't mean that the talent has disappeared – indeed, it's coming out faster and stronger than ever before. But rather than bellowing their message, London's newest designer names are content to whisper, creating resolutely realistic, practical and wearable clothes for modern women. Some are even eschewing the catwalk circus altogether, showing their collections in presentations, via video or static exhibitions.
The easiest label to stitch on to this brand of talent is "the new minimalism", for two reasons. Firstly, the relative youth of the designers involved – the ringleaders are Simone Rocha, Thomas Tait, J JS Lee, Palmer//Harding and Tze Goh, coincidentally or not, all names that graduated from the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion course in 2010. Perhaps it's something in the water – or maybe it's a reaction against the capital's love affair with embroidery, print and bedazzling.
The second reason for the moniker, of course, that lack of ornament. You have to choose your words carefully, however, as minimal seems to be a label these designers are itching to shirk. "Something like 'minimalism' can be so restraining. It's like you're in a box – excuse the cliché of the minimalist white box," says Simone Rocha, daughter of John and designer of an acclaimed line of deconstructed tulle-and-wool tailoring that saw its first stand-alone catwalk outing for spring 2012. "I get OCD about cleaning things up... I end up editing things a lot, and reducing things a lot," says Thomas Tait by way of explaining the evolution behind the stripped-back, sculptural forms of his cocoon coats, tunic dresses and boxy T-shirts.
Never mind getting tetchy over titles – what could be more minimal than a collection of 34 white shirts? "It's more the business that's minimal than the actual designs," says Matthew Harding with a wry smile. He and Levi Palmer are the brains behind the Palmer//Harding label, which debuted as part of NEWGEN at September's London Fashion Week with a static installation of nothing more than those cotton shirts. "Nothing more" is something of an insult – these shirts are light years away from the button-down versus spread-collar debates of the past. Palmer//Harding customers are more likely to find themselves musing the merits of nylon mesh, poplin overlays and spiral pleats when making shirting choices. "By doing a singular garment, we've stripped away the styling," explains Palmer. "So many collections have become a stylist's playground rather than a designer's playground. When you take the pieces into the showroom you realise there's a £800 T-shirt – but it's just a T-shirt."
Just as these clothes seem somewhat out of place in London fashion, so does the designers' vocabulary. "Real" isn't a word we're accustomed to hearing fashionistas utter – after all, isn't fashion about fantasy and escape, especially in troubled times? The idea of young designers grappling with the tricky idea of what women actually want sounds rather revolutionary. "I'm not trying to make a revolution – I don't think I'm that great, I think I have a lot of work to do before I can put it on that pedestal," says Tait.
Canadian Tait is 24, the youngest of this young bunch, but he already has plenty of accolades under his tightly wrapped belt: he won the inaugural Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize in 2010, and will present his collection as part of NEWGEN at February's London Fashion Week. "Thomas' pieces have a certain elegant discipline to them, which is a reflection on their designer," explains Browns' buying director Ruth Runberg. "He scrubs them down to only the necessary, with a fierce obsession with each stitch of each seam – the smallest of details."
It was only a matter of time before Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's minimalist maxim – "God is in the details" – reared its epigrammatic head. But speaking with Tait, you can't fail to think of anything else: I had trouble concentrating on anything other than how perfectly the shoulder seam on Tait's oversized, cashmere caban coat lined up with a stitched collar detail.
Others have evidently been equally besotted. The cashmere-wool mix Melton coat retails at £2,457 in Browns, putting Tait's pieces in the same price bracket as, say, Phoebe Philo's Céline or Raf Simons for Jil Sander. And much of what Tait says also finds echoes in their work: "I don't necessarily want my work to be a statement on the future. I care about the not-so-distant future. What feels modern and what triggers curiosity." There's a maturity to that kind of thinking that seems profoundly refreshing.
For spring/summer 2012, Tait focused on sportswear. The result was a collection of icy pastels and intricate, iridescent surfaces of horizontal pleats and silkscreen prints. It was about decorating without decoration – "The pieces which seem the most simple are often the pieces which are the most complicated in construction," says Runberg.
One could perceive a convenient correlation between austerity measures and a new austerity in these clothes.
Except there's nothing especially austere about them – Tait's coats may look strict, but he's striving for "a certain familiarity, where you get into the garment and feel a little bit 'at home'."
There's a similar feel to Palmer//Harding's shirting. It's also unpretentious – it may use couture techniques that originate from research into the haute-est couture of Charles James and Balenciaga, but the base of the classic white shirt brings Palmer//Harding's grand shapes back to earth.
"There is a synergy between our work and minimalism," says Harding. "Alber Elbaz called it 'controlled maximalism'. I think that's a really great phrase."
"Controlled maximalism" also chimes with the work of Simone Rocha, the third label leading London's minimal march. The elements of Rocha's breakthrough spring collection are about as maximal as it gets: tulle, bobbin lace, floral embroideries and puffy net peplums.
But somehow, by cutting her lines sleek and trapping that lace between layers of latex or transparent PVC, Rocha's show came off as an accomplished take on simplicity. "You have to complicate things to pare it back," says Rocha. "It's a much more refined way of looking at it."
Rocha has been paring back since her graduation, where she chopped out panels in tailored coats and skirts to replace them with tulle. "Quite serious in their deconstruction, but also unmistakably London, punky and sporty even," was how Lulu Kennedy of Fashion East described Rocha's 2010 MA show.
"I think you could put the tulle jacket from my MA into any one of my collections, and it could sit there," declares Rocha. "For me, that's really important: you're pushing it ahead, but it's still the same feeling."
That feeling is clean, crisp and precise, but not without femininity. It's just that Rocha's version of feminine is a simple T-shirt reworked in Chantilly lace, or her trademark brogues balanced on a wedge of transparent Perspex.
And, as with Tait and Palmer//Harding, it's about real women really wearing it: Rocha's collection was not only picked up by London's Dover Street Market for spring, they doubled their order before the collection had even been delivered.
Maybe this is just a seasonal excursion into the lean and mean for these still-budding designers, but one can't help but feel excited by their way of thinking. "In the long term, when I have the resources to do something on a grander scale... perhaps it won't be as minimal," confesses Tait. For Palmer//Harding, the Minimalist bent of their work is what singles them out.
It's that instinct to go against the razzle-dazzle not only of London fashion, but of high fashion as a whole, that is marking these designers as names to watch. "You build it up and then you pull it back," is how Rocha summarises her approach to design. Or, to borrow from Mies van der Rohe again: "Less is more."