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The insider's guide to London Fashion Week

As the style set take over, Harriet Walker sets the scene for what to expect – from front-row faces to after-show parties

The venues

Venues during Fashion Week are paradoxically grand and imposing, while remaining cloistered and unexpected; many designers choose to show in churches, restaurants and civic buildings, and several this season have opted for smaller, more intimate and more couture-oriented salon shows. Either way, if you see a gaggle of cold-looking, over-dressed people in a side street, chances are you've happened upon a show.

This season sees Vivienne Westwood installing herself at the Royal Courts of Justice – hers is a show that is always oversubscribed, with even the sleekest of fashion editors punching ageing punks and rowdy students in the face to ensure their seats do not get taken.

Old Billingsgate Market will be taken over as the Topshop-sponsored NEWGEN venue, where many of the younger designers, including Michael van der Ham and Richard Nicoll, will stage their collections; last season saw the fashion pack sitting on the platforms at Waterloo's old Eurostar terminals to watch the NEWGEN shows.

But the main agora is, of course, at Somerset House on the Strand, which is the headquarters of the British Fashion Council. This is where the biggest marquee is, and it plays host to an exhibition of brands throughout the week. Over 5,000 visitors are expected, including press and buyers – once again, it's invite-only, as the exhibition is essentially a trade show for those in the industry.

The people

It's always fun to do a little people-watching at the shows, whether it's stunned silent gawping at, say, Jude Law – who last season turned up to support his girlfriend Sienna Miller at her Twenty8Twelve catwalk presentation – or sniggering at the hangers-on who get bumped off the front row when someone more important turns up.

There's a whole host of London faces that frequent the shows, from the bright young art college things who turn out season after season, whether they have tickets or not, to the front-row stalwarts at Betty Jackson, who include Victoria Wood and Jennifer Saunders. Last season saw Kerry Katona on the front row at Giles, a collection full of kitschy, glamorous pink. She was overhead telling wolfish press afterwards that she thought the collection was "really nice". British fashion doyenne Twiggy is often in attendance, and this season will doubtless see Samantha Cameron under the spotlights, perhaps alongside her sister, who works for Vogue.

Alexa Chung, Daisy Lowe and Pixie Geldof will be in front of the paps at Henry Holland's show on Saturday, as will his erstwhile muse Nicola Roberts of Girls Aloud. Holland's tickets this season come in the guise of a bingo card, the exclusive party invitation is a bingo pen – three guesses for the inspiration behind this collection...

The shows

The style press fly in from all over, be they from the upper echelons of an American glossy magazine or down-on-their-luck fashion bloggers from the back of beyond. All are welcome – as long as you can blag a ticket.

The pavements outside the pavilions crawl with street style snappers, such as Scott Schuman aka The Sartorialist and his wife Garance Doré, ready to pounce on anyone who has managed to assemble even the least coherent of new-season outfits. Ensembles range from the chic and modish to the eye-catching and macabre: previous favourites include the man who was dressed as a desk fan (complete with metal grill across his face) and his friend, who came as Robin Hood – yes, he had a bow and arrow.

Meanwhile, magazine editors such as Anna Wintour, Glenda Bailey of US Harper's Bazaar and American Elle's Kate Lanphear rub shoulders with their British counterparts, as their assistants rush around behind them, clutching BlackBerrys and schedules, and shouting into phones.

And then there are the online press and newspaper teams, who look a bit stressed because they have to file stories while everyone else is having fun.

The men

The final day of Fashion Week is devoted to menswear – it's about time someone paid attention to the blokes, after all, and the day is now into its fifth season. The 14 shows and seven presentations range from the Topman Design show, to Cassette Playa's quirky, cartoonish street- and clubwear and E. Tautz's modern take on Savile Row luxury.

It's a quieter scene than the womenswear days, but there's plenty going on, including Cassette Playa's homage to Ken (of Barbie fame) who turns 50 this year, and an almighty Topman party at exclusive club Bungalow 8 on Wednesday night.

The parties

Fashion Week wouldn't be fashion week without the parties that take place in and around the main schedule. These range from quiet afternoon teas (where Champagne is compulsory) in swanky hotel lounges – Markus Lupfer is holding a wonderland-themed tea at The Sanderson – to more raucous late-night extravaganzas.

The style set will be elbowing to get into the Mulberry party at Claridges on Sunday, where Bloc Party's Kele Okereke will be DJing – but if your name's not down, you won't be going. Flash your new season satchel perhaps, or hope against hope that the doorman mistakes you for Nicholas Hoult or Fearne Cotton, who have already RSVPed.

Fashion week parties are generally held at tightly guarded locations – members' clubs, for instance, or new nightclubs and bars. Monday night will be busy for the footsore and footloose alike, with Katie Grand's LOVE magazine and Jefferson Hack's AnOther thrashing it out. Grand is hosting an evening at Liberty with designer Alexander Wang, while Hack is taking over new Soho hotspot The Box to celebrate the magazine's 10th birthday.

And for those whose invites (ahem) haven't yet arrived, the bar at The May Fair Hotel is serving fashion week-inspired cocktails, including the 'i-Martini' – created in homage to The Independent. Anyone can have one.

The press

London Fashion Week's 65 catwalk shows are, of course, the centrepiece of the event, with press and buyers gathering as designers unveil their autumn/winter 2011 collections. But there are also 45 salon shows and presentations, which take place over six days. This season, for the first time, highlights will be shown on screens in some London Underground stations, so you can gen up during your commute.

Clothes shown this week won't hit the shops until early September but Fashion Week is where editors and high street designers find their inspirations for the next season.

Hot tickets include Burberry, Giles and Christopher Kane, all on Monday. Burberry will be showing in Kensington Park Gardens, a new venue for this season, and the show will be live-streamed onto the Coca-Cola screen in Piccadilly Circus, as well as 40 stores across the world. Previous shows have taken place inside enormous marquees, one season memorably with projected indoor rain, the next with the interior covered in the label's famous checks.

Giles Deacon, meanwhile, eschews a vast and corporate image, choosing something more light-hearted: his shows have previously been inspired by Pacman and Celebrity Squares, and last season his catwalk featured turns from Kelly Brooke, Abby Clancy and Seventies supermodel Veruschka.

All eyes will no doubt be on tomorrow's Issa show, too. The uptown label is a favourite with Kate Middleton and designer Daniella Helayel is slated to feature heavily in the royal bride's honeymoon wardrobe. Other names to look out for include the vibrant punkish duo Meadham Kirchhoff and the hip Swedish label Acne.