It was apposite that Vivienne Westwood showed her Red Label collection in London last week for the first time in more than a decade. If anything gives coherence to a jam-packed schedule of entirely disparate aesthetics, it is the debt owed to this designer.
Today, Westwood is as much a part of the establishment as her title – it's Dame Vivienne Westwood, please – might suggest. Yet the procession of models gathered from all walks of life and bearing political messages – "Fair Trial, My Arse" on a pair of orange Latex knickers, for example – also proved that this designer remains both original and more than a little rebellious. Small wonder, then, that she is so influential. On the international stage, the audacity of John Galliano, the assertiveness of McQueen and everything about Marc Jacobs, from his "it"-appeal ankle boots upwards, are all informed by this designer. And a new generation of London-based talent is, too.
Westwood said in this newspaper last week: "Punk was just a marketing tool in the end, which is fine, but it's absolutely not right that we were destroying the establishment or even really attacking it in any way." And so, more than a few designers offered up clothing that paid lip service to her archive, from the mini-crini (Luella) to tartan (House of Holland) and from bondage trousers and skirts (Noki) to the type of overblown, demi-couture gowns that may have their roots in times long gone, but which have been upheld by this designer more consistently than any other (Giles).
More broadly, the proudly individual spirit that characterises Westwood's work – and is as quintessentially British as the garments themselves – was very much in evidence. The best of London Fashion Week saw the welcome return of clothes for heroes, for young people – and not just skinny, blonde young people – who would rather stand out in the crowd than disappear into it.
At times, it was all about energy. There was really nothing more to Henry Holland's offering than that. Here were the simplest clothes – mini-kilts, signature sloganeering T-shirts and leggings made from the sort of material that is more often the preserve of Fifties bedspreads, only in jewel-bright colours – all styled by a group of close friends who live, work and play together, and it felt that way. It sounds obvious, but the fact that fashion is supposed to be fun is too often ignored, and this Highland Fling seen through the eyes of East London's bright young things was a riot from start to finish.
Luella Bartley was another designer who started out making clothes with her mates in mind; in particular, re-working traditional garments such as jodhpurs and riding jackets to incorporate a punky edge. This time, crimped, waist-length hair, black lipstick and scary fairy dresses were the order of the day for Luella and co. The ultra-short, full skirts looked sweet and sassy in gingham, denim, Lurex and lace, and teamed with relentlessly brown, if not entirely sensible, shoes.
Ann-Sofie Back's collection was lovely, almost in spite of the designer's love affair with the fashion faux pas – from nasty fabrics to visible panty lines. Here, a perfectly pretty vest was finished with lacy sleeves that turned out to be gussets, and entire skirts were made out of the type of underwear that is usually found at Ann Summers. Idiosyncrasies aside, great denim, elegant oversized overcoats and a red silk dress that could find its way on to a red carpet (Ann-Sofie Back In Red Carpet Shock!) made for impressive viewing.
Of all the girl gangs on the schedule this season, it was Emma Cook and her team that truly shone. Cook, who names her collections after a fantasy friend called Susan, created Lonesome Susie for autumn/winter '08. She looked brilliant in country-and-western style fringing, tie-dyed latex and hand-made lace indebted, as always, to the Art Deco style. Cook hails from Glossop, which is also Vivienne Westwood's home town; one can only assume there must be something in the water. A nostalgic interest in hand-worked embellishment and the reinvention of old-fashioned craft forms, often from the Seventies, is fused with an ultra-confident and sexy aesthetic which any young woman worth her fashion credentials would love to wear.
Over three seasons, Christopher Kane has proved himself man enough to live up to the hype that sprung up around his name even before his first collection was shown. Part of the appeal of his work has been the clarity of vision – his ability to take a single idea and explore it to the full. This time, he had moved on, presenting everything from knitwear to gauzy flapper dresses decorated with paillettes – the new sequins – and even, given that this is the prince of body-conscious dressing, a comparatively austere cape. The superb attention to hand-finishing that characterised previous collections was still there, but this was a collection with a broader commercial appeal.
That other king-of-cling, Marios Schwab, changed direction, too – although a sequence of mid-length layered sheath dresses patterned with everything from cracked glass to William Morris wallpaper looked somewhat tortured, albeit technically accomplished. This was intentional; Schwab was inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", "the story of a nameless woman driven mad by enforced confinement in an attic".
Giles Deacon, meanwhile, remains the most polished designer on the London schedule and one whose talent is most likely to hold its own on a world stage. For A/W '08, summer's saccharine-sweet palette and adornment had given way to a more hard-edged glamour that harked back to the glory days of Studio 54. For the woman with a yearning to dress to impress, this is the place to shop. Beautifully crafted demi-couture gowns looked dramatic in rich brocades, silks, satins and suede in Valentino red – perhaps Mr Deacon has identified a gap in the market? – and more subtle hues of plum, grey and a medley of deep greens.
No one could ever accuse Gareth Pugh of understatement, although here, too, amid the fetish-inspired pieces and armoured shoulders – for which we can again thank Westwood – were real clothes. This is a designer who thinks nothing of sending out larger-than-lifesize black-rubber rabbit suits, and for whom the gimp mask appears to be more integral to the metropolitan wardrobe than, say, a pair of well-cut jeans. Yet Pugh offered up fine, more obviously wearable pieces for the first time.
Also at London Fashion Week, Louise Goldin developed her intricately crafted knitwear, this time giving the world a suitably glamorous "futuristic Eskimo". Noki's wildly deconstructed vision looked better than ever, albeit less subversive – shown as it was this time on women as opposed to transvestites. Meanwhile, Peter Jensen dedicated his collection to Candice-Marie, Alison Steadman's character in Mike Leigh's Nuts In May – think copious knitwear and outdoorsy fabrics, including waxed cotton, moleskin and a particularly fetching skirt made out of a survival blanket.