London, Fashion and the Importance of Being … Something


LONDON — At first glance, it looked like it was back to business at London Fashion Week. A vast industrial show space was heaving on Friday, packed with public relations types and security guards in headsets, glowing floor-to-ceiling screens blasting social content (the venue was sponsored by TikTok) and tightly packed rows of fashion glitterati.

They were out in force to celebrate Nensi Dojaka, the Albanian-born, London-based creator of carefully engineered, barely there little black dresses, who earlier this month became the latest winner of the LVMH Prize.

It was her debut solo runway show and the buzz was palpable, with a sense of cautious optimism emanating from the local and largely maskless crowd following 18 long and difficult months. After all, everyone loves the ascent of bright new talents. Particularly when the fashion industry is still feeling muted and unmoored.

As during the New York collections, there was no real international audience. The result of travel restrictions, certainly, but likely also the absence of major brands like Burberry, Christopher Kane and JW Anderson. That doesn’t mean those who remained weren’t determined to put on a show — albeit on their own terms.

At the Serpentine gallery in Hyde Park, Roksanda Ilincic presented a “Women in Motion” dance recital with performers in billowing, unabashedly feminine volumes in coral, chrysanthemum, peridot and merlot swooping and spinning to capture “the kinetic vibrancy of change” according to the show notes. Osman Yousefzada, known for his sculptural tailoring and recent social activism, presented looks in a silk alternative fabric made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. And Rejina Pyo opened her show Sunday with Olympics Team GB athletes plunging from the diving board at the London Aquatics Center.

“I feel like the mood around us at this moment is about a longing for freedom, and the place where I feel most free is in the water,” said Ms. Pyo, eight months pregnant with her second child. Models walked laps around the pool in her sheer shirting, swim-inspired separates and see-through mesh dresses in photographic prints and a mood-lifting color palette of eye-popping greens, ochres and pinks.

Motherhood, new life and beginnings emerged as something of a theme. Molly Goddard, on maternity leave after the birth of her son, presented a more accessible take on her signature supersized brand vision. She ramped up wardrobe staples like wide-leg denim and neon-hued Aran-style knits, offered more men’s looks as well as shrunken versions of some of her giant tiered smocked dresses, inspired by the smaller proportions of children’s wear.

Then Simone Rocha, who had a daughter in May, offered meditations on mother-daughter relationships amid the shadowy cloisters of St. Bartholomew the Great, a medieval church in the back streets of one of the oldest parts of London. She revisited design signatures like her layered white Holy Communion gowns, pearly embellishments and vinyl biker jackets and platform boots. Also woven in were diamante-encrusted nods to nursing bras, ribboned christening shawls, and coats and button-up nightdresses in prints inspired by vintage pastel bedsheets.

“I couldn’t help but put myself into the work and be influenced by the experience,” Ms. Rocha said after her show (notably the only one of the London season in which mask-wearing was encouraged at the doors), which moved some in the audience to tears. “There have been many sleepless nights. It has been exhausting. But ultimately I felt so privileged to be back and showing in person and sharing my newest ideas.”

How, then, to nurture and encourage the next generation of designers? Names like Ms. Dojaka, whose confident and sexy creations neatly encapsulate many young women’s desire to show off their bodies after months at home. Or Supriya Lele, an LVMH prize finalist, who plays with concepts of revelation and concealment through asymmetrical shapes and bare skin.

The British accessories house Mulberry decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by asking members of the new guard to reimagine some staple handbag styles while also giving them the freedom to develop fresh ideas. After working with Priya Ahluwalia and Nicholas Daley, the brand’s current collaboration was with Richard Malone, who draped a jewel-toned exploration of Irish craft heritage on models who stalked through galleries of Renaissance treasures at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But perhaps another, wider, industry shift in attitude is also required: a genuine acceptance of digital showcases alongside physical catwalks as a means of seeing new fashion. It may be a complicated transition for those used to absorbing the theater and spectacle of the runway, or eyeing fit and fabric up close. But live shows are a great financial and emotional pressure on designers, a fact widely acknowledged even before the pandemic. If brands’ survival is a priority for the sector, habits will need to evolve.

To wit: Emilia Wickstead and Victoria Beckham, both of whom adopted a digital-first approach. Ms. Wickstead created a video ode to French New Wave cinema, reworking versions of her tailored dresses and separates in fruity shades and floral prints, while Ms. Beckham’s businesslike look book offered crisply cut trenches and wrap coats, coordinating tunics and pants that reflected her penchant for a men’s wear silhouette alongside silky slip dresses with stark peekaboo backs.

Indeed, digital creativity was on full display. The multicolor, maximalist crochet ponchos, knitted thigh-high socks and upcycled-fabric ball gowns of Matty Bovan, the Woolmark Prize winner, took (more of) a psychedelic twist than usual thanks to a retro 1970s-style short video and accompanying GIF look book. And Michael Halpern produced a video starring principal dancers from the Royal Ballet School in evening wear designed to fully come alive in movement.

“I wanted to support the London performing arts scene, the dancers who endured so much with such incredible discipline and determination,” he said backstage at the shoot earlier this month, standing next to color-block column gowns with box-shaped fringe, orb-shaped puffballs finished with Swarovski crystals and fluid silky evening dresses. “After such uncertainty, I wanted to capture their joy in being able to return, and to keep standing, and for the wheels to keep on turning.”

A similar sentiment made for one of the most moving moments of the week. As guests assembled Sunday night beneath the British Museum colonnades for a celebration of the 15 years since Erdem Moralioglu’s first fashion show, a storm rumbled overhead. The designer loves to pluck maverick characters out of British history as inspirations; this season was the turn of the poet Edith Sitwell and Ottoline Morrell, an aristocratic philanthropist. Their influence sparked embroidered blooms and bold floral prints, cinched-waist Edwardian silhouettes and hats, romantic gowns of white lace and lustrous men’s tuxedo suits; an ode to survival and a love letter to the British capital’s idiosyncratic soul.

“I feel so fortunate to be an independent fashion label in London and am entirely indebted to all those who make it possible,” Mr. Moralioglu wrote in his show notes.

During the finale, a rare double rainbow broke through the clouds to hang triumphantly across the moody sky.

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