At London Fashion Week, designers grapple with a pandemic and Brexit

What does one wear after a crisis? In the UK, where Covid-19 vaccinations are well under way and British designers are hopeful their new collections will be worn free from lockdown, there is a prevailing belief that this crisis — just like the Spanish flu, the world wars and the 2008 global recession before it — will change the way we dress.

“It could go either way — I think we’ll be totally overdressed in all of the things we’re craving, or we’ll dress much more casually,” says Roksanda Ilincic, the Serbian-born, London-based designer known for her colour-blocked day-to-evening dresses and feminine suiting. “I would like to think we’ll dress up, there will be a desire for colour and something optimistic and powerful. I don’t think people will want to wear the usual standard stuff.”

Her autumn/winter 2021 collection, unveiled via a dreamy three-minute video featuring Vanessa Redgrave and her family, was hardly standard stuff, with its operatic pouf-sleeve dresses and long silk tunics etched with nude figure drawings.

While there was an ease in the silky, waistless dresses and big-sleeved blouses that chimed well with the present moment, Ilincic said she also wanted to offer “strong, smart and chic” pieces for going back to the office — and that included tailored pantsuits, which were generously cut in combinations of burnt orange and hot pink, peppermint and beige.

Emilia Wickstead AW21
Daniel W Fletcher AW21

Sales of suits and other types of formal workwear crashed during the pandemic, and department store buyers say they have cut back their investment in the category. But Ilincic’s collection isn’t the only one hinting at a comeback for tailoring — at least for after-hours. Alice Temperley showed rock-’n-roll, Seventies-styles trouser suits in corduroy, wool and velvet. Emilia Wickstead cut stretchy suiting-weight wool gabardine into Grace Kelly-inspired dresses and separates that were overtly sexy in their low necklines, high slits and cut-out backs.

After the cancellation of London Fashion Week Men’s in January, many menswear designers joined the London Fashion Week schedule for the first time. That included Priya Ahluwalia, who turned out a gorgeous collection of patchworked polos, printed sportswear and denim that drew on 17th-century Ghana, the Harlem Renaissance and the black artist Kerry James Marshall. She was awarded this year’s Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in a virtual ceremony.

Erdem AW21
Halpern AW21 © Haydon Perrior/Thomas De Cruz Media

Daniel W Fletcher, another menswear designer, used the opportunity to launch his first womenswear collection — adapting his signature menswear pieces (split-hem trousers, contrast-stitch denim, a double-breasted suit) for women. Straight and strictly tailored, they require a rather boyish silhouette to squeeze into — but offered something not seen elsewhere in the women’s collections.

At Burberry, sales of men’s clothing have been growing briskly since Riccardo Tisci’s first designs landed on shop floors in 2019, and now bring in as much revenue for the brands as womenswear, he says. Thus he decided to devote this season’s show solely to menswear, which he showed on a mix of male and female models in a nod to the “importance of [gender] fluidity” to young people. (His women’s collection will be shown at a later date, he says.)

Burberry shares nearly recover to pre-pandemic levels

Tisci looked to the aftermath of the world wars for clues as to how life might change after Covid-19. They were periods when young people fled cities for the country and reconnected with nature. (A similar migration is already afoot in London: PwC predicts that the city’s population is set to decline this year for the first time in more than three decades as more people work from home and the number of city centre jobs declines.)

And so he looked to country wardrobes, mixing classic English tailoring with black kilts, sportswear and regimental outerwear he endeavoured to make “more elegant” with gold fringe and embroidery, he says. Tisci’s past collections have sometimes been overpowered by the Burberry house codes, and though the collection gave plenty of play to beige, the trench and the house monogram, there was a subtler, more sophisticated interplay here.

Burberry menswear AW21 ©
Burberry menswear AW21 ©

“A company like Burberry is like a big boat, it takes time to learn the whole place,” Tisci replies when asked about his new approach. “At the beginning I was digesting what was Burberry. Really it’s about the colours — very recognisable, very outdoor, brown, bordeaux, sky blue, colours that came from nature. [For me] it’s about codifying, deconstructing and reconstructing [the brand signatures] in a more modern and contemporary way.”

Victoria Beckham AW21
Victoria Beckham AW21

The past year has forced many designers to rethink their businesses — Victoria Beckham included. She offers consistently good options for working wardrobes (I am partial to her dresses and shirts), and her latest collection was no exception, with its colourful suiting separates, military-inspired outerwear and gently ruffled prairie dresses. But like many apparel-focused designers, she has had difficulty turning a profit, with losses amounting to £11.8m in 2019. The pandemic has wrecked further havoc.

“It forced us to work at the business strategy,” she says via a phone call from Miami, where she has been regularly rising at 4am to liaise with her team in London. That includes smaller, more season-less collections; shifting the delivery schedule forward to avoid early seasonal discounting; a renewed focus on denim; and leveraging her own considerable social media presence “to really communicate with my customer”, she says.

Column chart of Net profit/loss* (£m) showing Continuing struggles at Victoria Beckham’s fashion brand

Roland Mouret, a designer known for his acutely tailored dresses, did not mince words about the state of his business. “I lost 80 per cent of my turnover. I’m back where I was 20 years ago,” he says. He warned that “a lot of brands could disappear in the next six months” unless customers step in to support independent designers. “A lot of young designers can make it, but designers who have been around the last 10 to 20 years, we have a different reality because of the amount of cash flow we need.”

Mouret said he still believes there is a customer for fitted dresses — but acknowledges that she might not require any at the moment. Instead, he focused on versatile separates, including athletic leggings, knits and loosely draped dresses.

Roksanda AW21
Roland Mouret AW21

Not all designers are interested in adapting their collections to the present moment. “I don’t want my work to be compromised because of the situation we are all in,” says Simone Rocha, whose singular collection began with tough, sculptural garments in black leather and, through tulle and florals and soft mesh, became increasingly floaty, fragile, voluminous. Erdem, too, stayed steadfast to his vision with gently molded coats and Fifties-ish, full-skirted dresses in wallpaper florals, counterbalanced by luxe knit shorts and cardigans. Molly Goddard combined her signature tulle confections with taffeta party dresses, tartan and Fair Isle jumpers.

Simone Rocha AW21
Simone Rocha AW21

Designer Michael Halpern’s three-year-old label has built a following for its fun, colourful, sequinned-splashed eveningwear. “At the beginning of [the first] lockdown, it was really scary, no one was buying anything, especially the kind of clothing [we make]. We thought, are we going to have to make cashmere and pyjamas for the rest of our lives?”

Thankfully, no. Although Halpern says 60 per cent of his wholesale business vanished last year, there was still a steady demand from private clients. “People don’t come to us for tracksuits, they come to us for shiny, sparkly things that make them feel good,” he says. “What we’ve learned is that you have to stick to what you love and what you’re good at.”

Molly Goddard AW21
Molly Goddard AW21

His autumn/winter collection was sexier and more skin-revealing than those he’s designed in the past, inspired by his sister’s own going-out clothes. Brexit added an additional layer of complexity (and will lead to higher prices); as a result, all 24 looks were designed with just six fabrics sourced in Italy. “You make it work.”

Elsewhere, collections combined the tactile with the utilitarian. Colville’s offering of painterly dresses, quilted capes and patchwork knits was beautifully considered, rich in what co-founder Lucinda Chambers describes as “pieces that make a difference” in one’s wardrobe. Bethany Williams unveiled a see-now-buy-now capsule collection of one-of-a-kind upcycled blanket coats for Selfridges. Harris Reed, the designer who frequently outfits Harry Styles, skipped the London Fashion Week calendar altogether, unveiling a gender-fluid “demi-couture” collection for 305,000 followers on Instagram. There are no plans to put the collection into production; instead, it will be lent to celebrities.

Colville AW21
Colville AW21

“I’ve seen how young brands operate — shows, stockists, produce, produce, produce. It’s not how I see my brand working.” Reed is instead modelling a career after the Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, who design two couture collections a year funded by a bestselling fragrance. And why not? There’s hardly been a better time for independent designers to rethink the industry’s prevailing business model.

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