Fashion week touched down in London on Thursday evening, despite a fresh ban on groups greater than six and murmurs of another Countrywide lockdown from 10 Downing Street.
At times, it seemed like a return to normal — if one could momentarily ignore the temperature checks, waiver forms and pools of hand sanitiser presented at every door.
There were real, live catwalk shows, from veteran designers Bora Aksu and Mark Fast, with models and guests and a photographers’ pit. Aksu’s was held in the rose garden adjoining St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, where 30 attendees sunned themselves on separate benches and watched models in sheer masks and crisp white dresses parade past in a nod to the nurse uniforms of the Spanish-flu era. Street-style photographers snapped away out front. It felt very safe. And roomy.
It also felt intimate. Seeing Simone Rocha’s Spring/Summer collection in the cloistral hush of the Hauser & Wirth gallery on Savile Row on Saturday afternoon, where no more than three editors were permitted at a time, was a little like stepping into one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms.
A dozen models were arranged in a broad circle, outfitted in looks that would be recognised as Rocha’s anywhere: a rose brocade upholstery jacket with Henry VIII sleeves and a full draped skirt; a strapless black dress cinched in front with a pair of bows that looped over the wrists and hips; white dresses with ruffles and ribbons. They weren’t exactly clothes for loafing about at home in.
“I wanted to step back and focus on what was important, necessary,” said Rocha. That meant sticking to her signatures, and “doing something that still felt feminine” — not loungewear, she said.
Indeed, designers have been divided into two camps thus far this season: those who are creating clothes to be worn at home, and those who are soldiering ahead with the kinds of collections they might have done without the intrusion of Covid-19.
Some did a bit of both. London-based Nigerian designer Duro Olowu relaxed the fit of his immaculately tailored trousers and jackets, and introduced easy-to-wear garden-party dresses in a melange of gently textured stripes (a flounced palm-print number with a removable capelet was a highlight). Michael Halpern combined the glamorous feathered and sequinned evening clothes that are his four-year-old label’s bread and butter with silky tailored separates — and shot them on front-line workers.
“I’m not sticking my head in the sand and saying we’ll wear gowns in four months,” he said, referring to the month the collection would normally land in stores.
Independent designers and their suppliers have borne the brunt of the recent luxury spending downturn, which Bain analysts say is more severe than the one brought about by the 2008-09 financial crisis. Many designers spoke of working through the restraints — financial and physical — imposed by Covid-19. Emilia Wickstead re-used patterns from earlier collections. Molly Goddard initially designed her collection entirely in white cotton — it was what she had in the studio — and layered in florals, polka dots and joyously coloured rugby jumpers as things opened back up. The pandemic was “horrible” for business, she said, and made her want to be less reliant on the third-party retailers who make up 90 per cent of her sales. “I want to be more independent,” she said.
Victoria Beckham, whose business had already downsized prior to the pandemic, admitted the period has been difficult. Knowing what she knows now, she’s not sure she would have started a fashion label 12 years ago, she said at a meeting at the Victoria Miro gallery in Hoxton on Sunday morning.
Optimistically, she imagined her 20-look collection being worn out of lockdown, when we’re all dressing up again. Trousers were cut high, narrow and extra-long — the kind that require a platform stiletto to pull off. More relaxed were the dresses, in fluid jersey and crepe with cut-outs along backs and midriffs, which would work for an evening out or entertaining at home.
Designer Erdem Moralıoğlu, whose namesake label turns 15 years old this year, said he had little interest in home dressing. “I thought it was important to be defiant,” he said. “I refuse to believe we live in a world where people wear just sweatsuits.”
Moralıoğlu’s standout collection drew on Susan Sontag’s 1992 historical novel The Volcano Lover, which chronicles the real-life adventures of Emma, Lady Hamilton, an 18th-century English beauty whose notorious affair with Lord Nelson in Naples set her on the path to scandal and poverty. Moralıoğlu deftly mixed empire-line dresses with lush cable-knit cardigans and filmed the collection, sans audience, on the outskirts of Epping Forest.
Christopher Kane was another standout. Lockdown gave the former art student an opportunity to splash out on art supplies — “I must have spent two grand”, he laughed — and return to painting. The resulting acrylic and glitter canvases were scanned and printed on to boxy, ‘60s-ish skirt suits with apron pockets and streamlined envelope dresses. He showed both the art and his clothes at his Mayfair store on Monday, most of which he’s not planning to manufacture — which is a shame, really. “After 14 years of shows, it’s nice to change things up,” he said.
Burberry, the £2.6bn revenue brand whose show is typically the week’s headline event, also changed things up. In lieu of a catwalk, designer Riccardo Tisci headed into a clearing in the woods with a gaggle of models, German choreographer and installation artist Anne Imhof, and musician Eliza Douglas to stage an eerie, live-streamed performance piece that had all the promise of an imminent witch burning or cult sacrifice — a white ring, a circle of models, pairs of performers tussling in the centre — but was, according to the show notes, about “a love affair between a mermaid and a shark”.
The concept made more sense when it came to the clothes: gabardine outerwear stencilled with fish scales, skirts gathered in the shapes of mermaid tails, totes and mules of glittering fishnet.
At such a tense moment for the business — the company’s share price has fallen 27 per cent since the beginning of the year — one might have expected Tisci to lean in to the house’s archives and bestsellers. And though the Burberry logo made itself seen on cuffs and bags, there was nary a heritage check, quilted coat or “TB” monogram in sight. It wasn’t gorgeous, but it was nice to see Tisci breaking out of the house codes a bit. There’s rarely been a better occasion for trying things differently.