Given London's reputation for cat-amongst-the-pigeons rebellion, it's unusual that we seem so intent on pigeon-holing our designers. Young upstarts, old establishment, tailors, printers, the conceptualists. We attach a lot of labels to our fashion – more so, even, than the 50-plus shows packed into five days.
Which is a pity, because the truly great thing about London fashion is how difficult it is to define. Whereas designers in other cities work collectively to define a trend – everyone seemed to get the memo about Nineties reductionism being back in New York, for instance, even if Marc Jacobs chose to ignore it – London is a veritable variety show.
So it would be nice if we could shrug off the urge to so readily compartmentalise our talents. Take Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou. Both have been earmarked as print specialists, despite their collections containing much more than just print. Each of them pushed their looks on this season, while staying within their respective aesthetic oeuvre. Peter Pilotto and partner Christopher de Vos experimented with shape, flaring crinolines out dramatically or tugging skirts taut against the body, an hourglass shape delineated with ruffles. Print was there, but the visual impression as likely to be created by orchid lace or embroideries, giving the clothes a three-dimensional quality. Just like those crinolines.
Mary Katrantzou is another “printer” who shows you much more than mere print. Her kick is maximalism – it's impossible not to see the frilled and furbellowed Eighties extravagance of Christian Lacroix in her brief evening dresses, embroidered by French couture house Lesage. But unlike Lacroix, Katrantzou has built up a formidable business. Women want to wear these clothes. There's something fascinating about the objectification of women, by a woman. Katrantzou was inspired by shoes and turned her models into giant walking embodiments of the footwear, rife for fetishism. And women are buying into this, turning themselves into ostentatious objects of desire.
London loves print, but it can become an albatross. “Print designer” was an epithet that dogged Erdem and Jonathan Saunders, too, until recently. Saunders, incidentally, is celebrating his 10th year in business – he was on fine form, with a collection scrolled with spidery embroidered chrysanthemums, wrapped with pellucid satin and chiffons in shades of taupe, sky-blue and blush pink, ample display of Saunders' deft hand in mixing unexpected hues. Granted, there was a purposeful ugliness to many of the clothes but it somehow managed to work. Erdem, by contrast, never goes for ugly. His monochrome magpie-feathered skirt suits and fluttering Miss Havisham trains were girly-girly pretty, despite the idea of “flawed androgyny” inspiring the show. Maybe it should be skewed: you'd never mistake the Erdem woman for a bloke, no matter how dark the night.
Erdem's show was refreshing because it delivered precisely what we didn't expect. If there's one thing to anticipate in London, it's that. Burberry Prorsum was strong for exactly the same reason. Over the past few seasons, the slickness of Christopher Bailey's shows has negated any real emotion. The clothes have been overworked, the technology overpowering. They've seemed a bit sterile and soulless. This outing had heart, and was delicately played. The pastel colour-palette was ravishing: sugar-almond shades of mint, lavender and ivory whipped into slender columns of Nottingham lace, or double face knit trench-coats with floral-encrusted handbags. It was a saccharine blast of girliness, but after collections that have played to the back with loud fashions, accompanied by blaring music and loadsamoney spin-off accessories, it felt as though Bailey was finally re-engaging with fashion design, and with an informed fashion consumer.
The thinking fashion consumer has always come to Christopher Kane. Quite simply, he is the man in London who rings in the changes. This season he was on a florist kick. Florals, for spring? Groundbreaking? Yes, actually, they were. Kane dissected his foliate motif – in fact, dissection and perforation were key ideas, with biological diagrams embroidered onto evening dresses, laser-cut into pleated satin skirts, or lace used to spell out the words “FLOWER” and “PETAL” on pastel sweatshirts.
Those were gimmickry, honestly, and you didn't need them to help tell the story of this collection. The breadth of Kane's imagination was awe-inspiring: a theme has never been so thoroughly worked-over before. At the end, like jasmine after enfleurage, the concept was spent, exhausted. Kane had thoroughly captured its essence, fixed it and preserved for all time. With new backing from the Kering Group, the most satisfying element of this show was watching as Kane shrugged off his “Young Designer” mantle once and for all. It was the most mature of all the shows we saw.
For many, the next Kane, and equally able, is JW Anderson. He sometimes gets too caught up in eye-catching intellectual shenanigans – the bunches of fabric attached to latex sheaths that opened the show seemed like “conceptual clothing” in the true meaning of the word.
Namely, they couldn't be worn – were just an idea. But he has an astute eye, and a refined taste level.
The sliced and diced sweaters he offered, looping intriguingly round the body like a knitted möbius strip, managed to perfectly marry concept with commerce, as did a trio of jellybean-bright sequinned dirndls and long pleated dresses knotted at the hip. You know these will be the core of the commercial collection that bolsters his profits. Rumour has it LVMH is sniffing about his business. Anderson has raw talent and an ever rawer urge to succeed. He's a wise investment. And so, to Meadham Kirchhoff, buckers of all trends, breakers of all rules. This season, they did exactly as they pleased once again, repurposing the palette of Elizabeth I, adding a touch of The Shining, and sending out a wicked, witchy show of over-embroidered, hyper-embellished garments.
There were simpler pieces, granted – Chanel-esque bouclé suits, fragile lace dresses – but they sat alongside such delights as bugle-beaded slip dresses and a brief, pleated dress adorned with blackwork, a 16th- century embroidery technique that scrolled flowers across and inside the pleats with a complexity that boggled the mind (and almost detached the retinas). The work in the pieces was extraordinary, but they didn't look overwrought, nor over-worked.
Edward Meadham once commented to me: “It used to be that things were expensive because they were actually lovely, now half the time it doesn't seem to be lovely anymore.”
These clothes will, no doubt, be very, very expensive. But they're also so very, very lovely. And, as with the very best of London, and indeed of fashion generally, they defy any labelling.