London calling: Fashion Week is here to entertain us

Magnificent. Irrelevant. Spectacular. Inferior. Throughout its 25-year history London Fashion Week, which starts today, has been called many things – when entertaining is the only word necessary, says Susannah Frankel
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Indy Lifestyle Online

This evening, 200 of the fashion industry's great and good will descend upon Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street to attend a reception hosted by Sarah Brown and Maggie Darling, the wives of the Prime Minister and Chancellor, respectively. The occasion in question: a celebration of the opening of the 25th London Fashion Week –or "25 years of Emerging Talent" as the spin doctors have duly re-branded it, presumably in a bid to elevate the proceedings to rather more utopian heights than, say, a birthday bash in honour of a check-lined gabardine trench coat.

Coinciding with the general festivities and the requisite quaffing of champagne and canapés (Atkins-inspired, if the powers that be know what's good for them) will be an exhibition courtesy of the veteran catwalk photographer Chris Moore, a selection of whose images will be on display in the state rooms for the duration to remind all present just how spectacular/idiosyncratic/chequered (call it what you will) the past quarter of a century spent show-casing British fashion has been.

Amidst all the excitement and, indeed, genuine desire to be seen as equal to the big three – that's New York, Paris and Milan, for the uninitiated – it is perhaps only to be expected that any coverage is destined to spill over into the realms of hyperbole. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the entire shebang will therefore be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism by at least some fashion insiders and any half-interested onlooker alike. After all, over the period in question, London Fashion Week and its main protagonists have been hyped to the point of madness, or maligned in a manner that says more about the quixotic nature of the mainstream media than the subject matter itself, with only very little reasonable commentary in-between.

London Fashion Week, we are all told, with an intensity and regularity that is indeed nothing short of suspicious, is bigger, better and more breathtakingly creative than ever before. International attendance levels have never been so healthy, there are more shows than ever and so forth. Or, London Fashion Week is facing extinction, squeezed into oblivion by the more commercially powerful fashion capitals, no one can afford to show in this country and even those who can may not be able to produce their collections. As for international attendance levels: Anna Wintour and her ilk would rather spend the weekend in the Hamptons than extend their European travels to take in our impoverished, half-baked attempt to design clothes... etc, etc.

In reality, the nature of the beast in question has, almost invariably, fallen somewhere in-between. London Fashion Week, now as always, is an erratic and eclectic creature. For every bright young thing, there's a heritage-infused brand that shows in this country (this season Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab rub shoulders with Burberry and Pringle). For every big new name on the schedule, yet another has defected to more far-reaching economic climes (this time Matthew Williamson and the aforementioned Burberry return, while Giles Deacon is moving his show to Paris – as Gareth Pugh did two seasons ago). And for every bold and brilliant gesture courtesy of names that by now include Vivienne Westwood (who could forget her inspirational "Pirates" collection with its oversized shirts and gold foil stuck to models' teeth?), John Galliano (the designer once threw water over his models just as they were about to hit the catwalk, ensuring their organdy clothing was soaked through) and Alexander McQueen (showering rain, circles of flame and a larger-than-life-size snowstorm have all made an appearance), there is a ridiculous stunt that would never be entertained on an international runway. Andrew Groves's jacket that fell apart to release swarms of bluebottles in the late 1990s is just one memorable example; Julien Macdonald employing a professional Michael Jackson lookalike for his front row at around the same period, another.

The London Designers Collection (as they were originally known) were, in fact, launched in 1975 and took place in various locations scattered around the British capital before being gathered under one roof – Olympia in West Kensington – and being renamed the British Designer Show in 1984. Westwood, the grande dame of punk, was already a fashion force to be reckoned with. Galliano graduated from Central Saint Martins in a blaze of glory that same year. PR supremo Lynne Franks, who began her working day chanting with her team, apparently oblivious to the corporate nature of the surroundings, was soon to inspire the character of Edina in Absolutely Fabulous.

During the latter part of the 1980s, British fashion thrived. As well as Galliano and Westwood, über-cool names including Betty Jackson, Jasper Conran, Rifat Ozbek, Bodymap, Antony Price, Katharine Hamnett and Ghost ensured there was considerable buzz surrounding the collections, not to mention the club culture that was then an integral part of the story. International buyers and press were happy to attend.

The dawn of the supermodel at the end of that period only added to the glamour as the likes of Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell modelled for celebrated names. Often waiving their famously inflated fees, they were paid instead with clothes.

Such halcyon days were not to last. Recession hit at the end of the 1980s and, unbridled creativity aside, the deflated dollar, coupled with production difficulties that decreed oversees orders were rarely met on time, led to London being overlooked. Galliano upped sticks for Paris in 1989 and was quickly followed by Westwood, Ozbek and Hamnett, all of whom believed an international stage would ensure their businesses were taken more seriously.

By the mid- to late-1990s, London Fashion Week, as it had by then come to be known, had returned to form. The departure of Galliano and Westwood provided the opportunity for a new generation of designers to set the world alight, among them Antonio Berardi, Clements Ribeiro and, in particular, Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen. These were the glory days. Britannia was cool – it said so in Vanity Fair – and even the most elevated fashion editor couldn't afford to miss the London collections for fear of appearing outmoded – not something even the most elevated fashion editor ever wants to be.

At about the same time, the "Designers for Debenhams" collaboration was launched, spawning a healthy and unique relationship between the British high street and cash-strapped talent. This was followed by Marks and Spencer, which started up the "New Generation" initiative to support up-and-coming talent and is now the preserve of Topshop, which backs young designers' shows to this day.

Then came 9/11. Economic downturn coupled with a general reluctance to travel ensured that London was in the doldrums once more. It was McQueen, Chalayan and Stella McCartney who made the journey to Paris this time around. Luella Bartley and Roland Mouret moved their shows from London to New York. The former has now returned with an established business under her belt. Not bad for a west London girl who first showed in her own home, becoming more obviously tired and emotional as the day went on. But the story of British fashion typifies the triumph of creativity in the face of adversity. Fast-forward to the present, then, and if ever proof were needed that London Fashion Week thrives under financial pressure – our designers are used to that, after all – it comes in the form of the spring/summer 2010 season.

Beginning today and closing next Wednesday, London Fashion Week has recently moved into its new home in Somerset House along with the British Fashion Council, which oversees it. The photographer Nick Knight, who has supported this country's more avant-garde talent throughout his long and grand career, will open his first retrospective. The official schedule takes in cash-rich, globally recognised British brands (Burberry, Pringle, Mulberry), celebrity (Sienna and Savannah Miller's Twenty8Twelve and Mohamed al-Fayed's daugher Jasmine de Milo), young East End-based talent (Mark Fast, Danielle Scutt) and just about everything in-between. Then there's the prospect of blond bombshell/fashion icon Boris Johnson and his hair in the front row at Caroline Charles to look forward to – something of a witty twist by any stretch of the imagination.

Neither is recession-hit London bereft where any associated nightlife is concerned. Philip Green is reaching into the coffers and treating no less than 140 people to a sit-down dinner at The Ivy, followed by drinks and dancing for the less entitled. Burberry is hosting a party at its impressively swanky headquarters in Westminster, next door to MI5. One could be forgiven for forgetting that the credit crunch ever happened.

Reason decrees that, with advertising revenues deflated, record international attendance levels are in no way guaranteed. However, the legendary Ms Wintour is to pass by. If the world's buyers and press do travel to the British fashion capital this season, they will do so purely as a result of the talent on display – and that is unprecedented. If London Fashion Week has always attracted as much homegrown hyperbole as it has flak then one thing is for sure: it is rarely boring, making the world, if not a better then certainly a more entertaining place.

Diary dates: What's in store for London Fashion Week

* London Fashion Week kicks off in idiosyncratic style this evening, with a soirée co-hosted by Sarah Brown and Maggie Darling to celebrate its 25th anniversary. With editors, high street magnates and emerging design talent in attendance, it will be a uniquely British take on the body politic.

* On Sunday, Sir Philip Green will host a lavish dinner at The Ivy after Topshop's fashion show earlier that day. Photographer Nick Knight's SHOWstudio exhibition opens at Somerset House with a private view on Monday night, where the fabulous and famous will gather to appreciate his long-standing committment to British fashion, and drink champagne.

* Matthew Williamson and Jonathan Saunders are jetting back from showing in New York to grace London with their presence, while Lincolnshire lad Antonio Berardi and super-label Burberry Prorsum return from a decade in Milan to show on Tuesday night. The after-party at their gleaming new HQ in Horseferry Road will be harder to get into than a size-zero catsuit.

* Faces in the crowd will also include Vivienne Westwood and Sienna Miller, both showing collections this week, while the fashion pack are waiting with baited breath for London Wunderkind Christopher Kane's latest offering. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson will attend Caroline Charles's show in homage to the London stalwart's 25 years on the capital's catwalks. Finally, a glamorous blonde on the front row.