What women want: A unique approach to women's fashion

Whether they're inspired by skyscrapers, schoolgirls or Joan Collins, London Fashion Week's female designers have a unique approach to women's wardrobes. Harriet Walker finds out why

Monday 19 July 2010 00:00

Holly Fulton

Last month Holly Fulton was named Young Designer of the Year at the Scottish Fashion Awards, soon afterwards she was given a slot on the crammed Fashion Week schedule – and it's only her third season of showing in London.

The 32-year-old has been an antiques dealer and bank clerk in her time, taking five years out after finishing her MA at the Royal College of Art. But since her first collection at Fashion East for autumn/winter 2009 (where she showed alongside Natascha Stolle), her trajectory has been impressive. This season sees the launch of a beautifully decorative and detailed own-label collection, with a focus on Art Deco motifs and Chrysler Building-esque skyline graphics.

It also includes a selection of chunky enamel jewellery pieces and clutch bags – all of which are designed and made by Fulton herself. "It's so good to find out how to make something new," she says. "I've really picked up a lot of techniques to further my ideas for next season; it'll be the strongest thing I've ever done."

Strength is key to Fulton's angular pieces. Her style icon is none other than Joan Collins, a "grande dame" who inspires much of Fulton's work. "I wanted to create an all-encompassing wardrobe – from swimwear to eveningwear and everything in between. With my pieces, you get a complete look that works across the board; something quite individual. Also, it's basically what I want to wear. Is that selfish?"

Fulton has also worked with the stationers Smythson to produce a capsule range of leather goods and jewellery, based on a similar aesthetic to her latest collection. "It's not what I usually do though. It's definitely not as graphic," she explains. "It has such a refined, finished look, and of course it's very high-end. I've come at everything from a different angle."

Where Fulton's image of femininity is certainly chic, it isn't necessarily classic, with heavy embellishment atop bright but simply cut dresses made from unusual and iridescent fabrics, and monochrome Metropolis prints sprawling across leggings, harem pants and even jumpsuits. "I think the sheer amount of work and processes involved in producing my work makes it slightly unique," she says. "The scope for future exploration of materials pushes me forward."

Despite her inclination towards Art Deco, Pop Art and Bauhaus, Fulton is an essentially modern designer, taking the shapes of the past and fusing them into something that looks to the future.

Natascha Stolle

Natascha Stolle's debut collection at London Fashion Week for spring/summer 2009 was for "women who wished they had been sluts in high school". Her show as part of the support scheme Fashion East featured pin-tucked grey marl jersey separates teamed with pencil skirts that were embellished with pairs of googly eyes.

Stolle's aesthetic speaks to the vagaries of modern femininity, whether you had a rough adolescence or not. "My customer is dorky and a bit naïve, but vulnerable," she adds. "School is an important theme for me – it's where I really developed my identity."

The autumn offerings from the 32-year-old Saint Martins graduate this season lacked none of the verve and wittiness that have characterised her collections so far, further developing her chosen theme of ladylike-with-a-twist. "She might not work in an office," she says of her imagined customer, "she's more likely to be in a creative role."

Stolle's eclecticism no doubts springs from her heritage: she's half German, a quarter Italian and a quarter Japanese. She's also of American birth, but now lives in London. Such cultural references come into play constantly in her clothes. She grew up in Honolulu, and her winter clothes exude a vibrancy usually associated with summer collections, though graphic splodge prints sit atop warm woollen-knit skirts, ensuring practicality and ease.

Stolle is working this season on a capsule range for the boutique B-Store, describing it as "more urban" than her usual look; it will be shown as a presentation at London Fashion Week in September. Having remained with Fashion East for a second season and received much sought after NEWGEN backing from Topshop, she is no stranger to the city's fashion scene.

She says, "I came to London with the intention of not staying very long, but there are no rules and it's so much freer."

"It's reassuring to see so many women in the fashion industry now," she says on the subject of autumn's crop of female designers (fellow Brits Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Hannah MacGibbon are scaling the heights in Paris). "Although it's traditionally been geared towards gay male designers – I'm complaining about it to them! – the focus is changing. It's OK to want a family and to have that double life." This duality is something Stolle succeeds in weaving into her garments: practical modern updates on timelessly elegant pieces.

Louise Gray

From circuit boards and crocodile clips to springs and wiring – you name it, Louise Gray has stuck it to a T-shirt. The Glaswegian former textiles student is yet another alumna of the Fashion MA course at Central Saint Martins College, and has also been promoted by the Fashion East scheme, which has been so instrumental in the rise of London's leading ladies.

Gray's autumn collection was inspired by Eighties London, and was rendered in vivid Technicolor in a variety of unusual and textures and fabrics. "There's a lot of patchwork, some layering of textiles and collaging," Gray, 28, explains. "It's a fusion of London street style from the Eighties and a more traditional mini winter wardrobe of key pieces."

Key pieces they may be – there's a winter coat, a range of knits and jumper dresses – but they're far from traditional, in fuchsia fun fur, watered silk and geometric print drapery. "My customers range from 13 to 50," Gray laughs. "Some people wear colour, some people want a winter coat. My aim is to make everything wearable. Older buyers might go for the trousers, younger ones maybe the cut-out T-shirts."

Gray once believed that her time in London would be temporary, but she has now lived in the city for seven years, and feeds off its vibrancy, its club scene, and its exotic and eccentric streetwear. Having shown with Fashion East and held three presentations so far at London Fashion Week, as well as launching a capsule collaboration range with ASOS, Gray will stage a fully fledged catwalk show with support from the NEWGEN scheme at Fashion Week in September.

"My plan is to carry on being me and working by myself, always adding more and more," she says passionately, before declaring that her spring/summer 2011 collection will be something "completely different".

Gray has always been different – her colour choices and sense for adornment have consistently marked her out as an innovative and imaginative young force on the London schedule. Delicate but simple shift dresses in citrus-hued silk, satin and tulle, toughened up with whirled zips and additions such as curled telephone wire, became her trademark after her debut in spring/summer 2008.

"It isn't really about statement clothes any more," she admits, having softened her aesthetic somewhat for autumn. "We need things that are wearable now; women make designs work for them, and you know what works for you."

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