The Queen's Guard Isn't Laughing
c.2014 New York Times News Service
LONDON — On the penultimate evening of London Fashion Week, Samantha Cameron, Britain’s first lady and the British Fashion Council ambassador, and Natalie Massenet, the council’s chairwoman, hosted a cocktail event at 10 Downing Street to celebrate what both women were careful to call “British fashion,” aka the “most successful of our creative industries,” according to Cameron — bigger than film, music and advertising.
Note that they said “British fashion,” not “English fashion.”
What exactly does that mean these days? It’s a legitimate question, not just because of the Scottish independence referendum Thursday, which has given rise to a long, dark night of the soul among many in fashion who have personal and professional ties to the north that go beyond knitwear into formative myth. And not just because London art schools are now so globally renowned they attract students from numerous other countries who stay to make their careers in the capital.
But rather because the old stereotype of British fashion — of crazy creative types pushing sartorial boundaries without regard for sales or sense or, sometimes, the finished seam — no longer really holds true.
Or mostly doesn’t. There are still some young designers like Thomas Tait (who happens to be Canadian), whose mishmash of bright pink and peach and yellow and nude in counterintuitive geometries saw a triangle jut out from a shoulder here, checkerboards flap from a skirt there and silk dresses sliced and diced like an aesthetic experiment gone terribly wrong.
But in general, you know something has changed when even Giles Deacon, a former agent provocateur of British fashion, left behind his once-signature cartoonish tendencies (or at least toned them down) in favor of some pop-flavored, but not overly exaggerated, jungle-lovin’.
A black jeweled snake curled down the front of a pink shift; giant pink panther paws were knit into oversize sweaters or appeared clasping one shoulder of an otherwise simply white jersey column; and black and white silk-screens of big cats were cut up and collaged onto billowing evening gowns and narrow trousers, paired with a simple white Peter Pan-collared shirt.
At Peter Pilotto, Pilotto and his partner, Christopher de Vos, offset inventive use of materials (holographic organza and Perspex paisley and foiled lace, among others) and a kaleidoscope of color by confining the exuberance of the fabrication to rigorously simple shapes: neat A-line sleeveless dresses, straight trousers, car coats and planed shifts.
It was a good thing because otherwise the clothes might have risked sensory overload. Instead, they telegraphed a controlled optimism.
That line also is well walked by Christopher Kane, the Scottish designer who is now a part of the Kering group and whose show was dedicated to his tutor, Louise Wilson, the course director of the Central Saint Martins master’s program, who died in May. She had shaped a generation of British designers (and also, as it happens, grew up on the Scottish Borders).
Kane went back into his own archives, to themes he once explored during his course with Wilson, and then reimagined and reworked them. Playing with the idea of ropes and control and release, not to mention the palette (burgundy, navy, white) of a school uniform, he wove lariat embroideries into shift dresses, abstracted them into oh-so-appropriate braided suits and cardigans, and cut out the bodices of silk-satin tea dresses so the fabric looked as if it caged the torso. Tulle bursts escaped from the seams of full skirts and the peplums of neat jackets.
“We are looking back to our time with Louise, but also looking forward,” he said, and in mediating experimentation with experience, he found true balance.
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As it happens, Wilson was also a formative force in the career of Simone Rocha, who likewise dedicated her graceful show, a study in subtle contrast, to her teacher.
On one hand were little black jacquard dresses, cut slightly askew — just slipping off one shoulder, just hiked up on the hem — with downy trim smudging the edges; ditto cream trenches and trousers, like a bleached-out memory of the same. On the other was an explosion of red poppies and other blooms evocative of her family’s Hong Kong heritage. Resolving the two were metallic floral jacquard dancing dresses with a skirt-side hint of panniers, winking at historicism and once again fluttering feathers.
British designers, it seems, have finally left extremity to the politicians and, in its stead, defined a new, magnetic center for themselves.
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The question of national sartorial identity gets even more complicated by a collection like Tom Ford’s, which provoked a startling sense of time travel into the past, from the mirrored floors and walls to the follow spotlight and the Glamazonian sex pots with tousled shag cuts on the runway. Toto, we’re not in London anymore: We’re in 1990s Milan!
Indeed, according to the show notes, Ford was inspired by his own work during his Gucci years, but more so (more leg! more platform shoe!), and thus out the models came, tottering on their towering platform clogs in endless suede or tuxedo or Lurex print flares, all the better to emphasize both height and length.
There were sequined long-sleeve T-shirts with camouflage sparkle flares, miniskirts in metallic jacquard under cropped squared-off jackets, braided silver leather thigh-high dresses, and lots of sheer tulle underslips — and then an utterly confounding series of evening skirts and trousers with “Night Porter”-like suspenders playing peekaboo on the torso, and baby-doll dresses with sheer bra tops complete with trompe l’oeil bead-encrusted pasties. It culminated in a long white draped jersey goddess gown cut to expose the breasts, bristling with silver flowers.
Ford can make a woman look more attenuated and dominant than perhaps any other designer, and he achieved that here. But he has also been there, done that, and the dresses, far from being provocative or powerful, just looked silly.
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Maybe he was trying to tap into the currently popular rock-vintage vibe; the new generation’s desire to get the look the second, or third or fifth, time ’round. Given that Ford arguably revived it first, you can kind of understand why he might want to own it now.
But in a world where “Fifty Shades of Grey” pops up on subways everywhere as commuter reading, such in-your-face sex no longer seems transgressive. It seems, and this is a word rarely associated with Ford, but here we go: old-fashioned. Relevant to another place, and time.
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The Scottish question may be the biggest one in Britain right now, but in the smaller world within a world that is fashion, another issue loomed large — one with its own set of implications and repercussions. Could Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief creative officer and, as of last May, chief executive, do what no designer had done before: move seamlessly between aesthetics and accounts without sacrificing the one for the other; prove art could coexist with commerce (and, more pertinently, quarterly reports) in one person?
Little wonder Bailey said backstage when discussing his spring show, his first real aesthetic statement after adjusting to his new dual role, that he was thinking about “contradiction” and “rebirth.”
This translated as a nostalgia-infused collection of abbreviated and peplumed denim jackets, the hem finished in fringes of shearling, and 1970s suede trenches with patent collars over dégradé pleated and collaged chiffon dresses, some dangling oversize paillettes. Prints were Impressionist watercolors or snatches of titles and insects (honeybees, dragonflies) taken from the covers of 1940s books and blown up on gabardine to give strapless dresses and trenches a naïve, crafty feel. And it was all paired with leather sneakers or Birkenstocks the colors of butterfly wings, and set against a live solo performance by James Bay.
It was often lyrical, occasionally lovely, but unquestionably repetitive; two notes, the tough and the filigree, outerwear and flower fairy dresses, iterated over and over. At least they had rhythm (except for some weird insert of “glossy leather” at the hip of a chiffon tea frock that simply weighed the whole thing down like a wedge of Edam cheese), and those coats should sell and sell, but in the end, it was limited. It lacked layers (metaphoric, not literal) and dimension. But as a statement of intent, it was a promising (re)start.