To Anglophiles abroad, the lure of many an established British brand is a heritage rooted in a stoic attitude to unpredictable weather conditions. Showing yesterday at London Fashion Week, the rainwear company Aquascutum developed a more feminine, richly decorated sensibility for its signature trench coats and tweed tailoring.
Founded in 1851, by John Emary, Aquascutum has a long history of patronage by both British and Hollywood royalty. Its tailoring was the power-suit of choice for Margaret Thatcher and it also developed the weatherproof fabric "d711" for the first ascent of Mount Everest, by Edmund Hillary and Norgay Tenzing.
But the once-conservative company has a new fashion-conscious image its sights. At its autumn/winter show, held in a warehouse in the Trocadero Centre, the brand sent out black organza puff-ball skirts, cable-knit sweaters with shaggy fringing and strapless salt-and-pepper tweed dresses. Details such as gold military frogging on a woollen coat or giant cord buttons were inspired by a "toy soldier" theme. Although beautifully made, these were clothes that did not break new ground. Since the introduction of a new ready-to-wear collection in 2005, presumably intended to revamp the brand in a manner similar to the successful makeovers at Burberry and Pringle, Aquascutum has enjoyed a raised profile.
But the best pieces produced yesterday by the brand's joint heads of design Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler were, predictably, the coats. Wet-look, slightly crumpled trenches and parkas bisected with panels of mustard-yellow and dark brown colour were a cool update on a classic, as was a funnel-collared trenchcoat in navy blue and black that was denuded of any obvious fastenings.
An entirely theatrical look prevailed at the show staged in the morning by young Serbian-born designer Roksanda Ilincic, who commandeered Terence Conran's Piccadilly restaurant Quaglino's for her catwalk. "I was thinking about the movement of waves and water," said the designer backstage after her show, in which she used crin, the flexible netting usually reserved for mother-of-the-bride hats, to make curvy sculptural details that coiled around her quirky cocktail dresses cut from black, silver and eau de nil satin. Also engagingly sweet were short black dresses sprinkled with giant shards of jet beading or pale-pink capes with a peplum.
Like Ilincic, the South African designer Hamish Morrow has an independent label that survives despite the tough conditions of London's fashion industry, which has none of the infrastructure of Milan or Paris. Back in 2000, Morrow launched his own label to critical acclaim but was later forced to withdraw from the fashion week calendar for four seasons, before recently making a low-key return.
However, yesterday, at the official fashion-week headquarters, a marquee near the Natural History Museum, Morrow displayed some hard-won commercial sense with a confident all-black collection that used unexpected fabrics such as Chantilly lace, nylon quilting and even rubber for sporty jumpsuits and belted coats.