The success of tonight’s Fashion Fringe, the finale show at London Fashion Week, goes a long way in proving how far the British international offering has come in making a real name or itself alongside the traditionally more prestigious affairs in New York, Paris and Milan. Eclectic, eccentric, electric; these things London has made its name for and continues to do brilliantly, but one thing it is not, at least for much longer, is the amateur side show to bigger and better things. Known as the city in which designers cut their teeth, exploring avenues of wildness before graduating to “proper” houses in Paris and beyond, it was the starting place for John Galliano, Lee “Alexander" McQueen and Stella McCartney before they got day jobs elsewhere. But all that looks set to become a thing of the past. McCartney already came back for a season; the Alexander McQueen sister label McQ shows here now. But what of the future?
Despite the name, Fashion Fringe, brainchild of British fashion don Colin McDowell, tonight closed fashion week at the heart of the on-schedule proceedings, hardly a fringe affair at all. With the final slot in the courtyard catwalk space in the middle of Somerset House, replete with a packed audience and celebrity front row, seems emblematic of the trajectory of British Fashion as a whole.
One designer who has remained faithful to the English capital is Christopher Bailey, who helped to oversee and nurture the talent on show tonight, and the fruits of his work at Burberry have become a highlight of fashion week and a blueprint for British labels. As he notes in his introduction to the evening’ affairs in the press notes, he too was once a graduate designer and needed support and belief from those around him to succeed. That new talent in London is being given mentorship by such prestigious names as Bailey, as well that of McDowell, and that it is being recognised in such a way, suggests that Britain is finally taking its creative talent seriously and respecting fashion as a whole as an industry.
As creative director Colin McDowell notes, “after eight years of showing our finalists’ collections in independent venues, we are celebrating our ninth year at Somerset House… designed not as a grand house but as an administrative centre for government offices.” With wholehearted support for the fashion industry coming from those more associated with government like Boris Johnson (he also contributed an introduction to tonight’s affair), advocates of British labels Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron, it is only right that the fashion industry is gaining respect from the country’s administrative department for its huge contribution to the economy and to nurturing creative talent in this country.
And the creative talent on display tonight was indeed worthy of such weighty support. CSM graduate of 2005 Haizhen Wang showed an architectural collection inspired by Japanese armour and the architecture of Santigano Calatrava. Citing cultural and feminist theory as influence, the collection certainly played with gender notions in a strong, sculptural offering. Thick, padded jackets and coats were worn over tailored pants or draped skirts like archaic military-wear, with all the romantic ideals of strength and beauty one associates with ancient Oriental soldiers, made feminine with wide belts cinching in waists and exaggerated shoulders and hips giving things a sexy silhouette. The palette of whites, navy and black was both on trend for the season and suitably androgynous and cool.
Teija Eilola showed a somewhat more wearable, simpler collection, not to detract from her craft. Indeed, her draped pieces were easy, breezy beautiful with just a twist of something darker creeping in; her inspiration, apparently, was “a Finnish girl comes in from the cold spring weather into a party… on the way she walks through the forest and crossed two hills.” A draped gown something like leaves creeping over the front in a beautiful nude colour, with little leather fastenings at the back summed this mood perfectly, as if this girl had caught some of the woodland debris on her ball gown as she made her way to her evening event. The cocoon shape frocks with cutaway backs were also great; there was something wrapped up against the cold about them, yet also something more exposed and naïve. Having formerly worked at Ted Baker, who kindly provided the accessories for her collection, Eilola’s work looked the most ready for store success.
Finally, Vita Goitlieb’s work fused Western and Eastern influences, with embroidered fabrics and silky, figure hugging dresses occupying that funny old place between the two geographical and cultural worlds, namely the Western “interpretation” of the East. Names after a 1911 party thrown by Paul Poiret named “Thousand and Second Night” in which “guests were asked to wear Persian dress and indulge in dancing in the moonlight”. The slinky mini-dresses in sultry fabrics were easily and obviously informed by ideas of Persia and beyond as a fantasy place. Thankfully Goitlieb’s intention was clearly to foray beyond reality; the shoulder piece crafted from what looked like a thousand and two hand-knit cones was incredible, especially since Goitlieb received no formal training in fashion.
After the three collections, band Bastille played gorgeous, hauting songs (I got a photo with them after, natch). Christopher Bailey and Colin McDowell made some terribly sweet speeches thanking everyone and enthusing on all that is good and great about British fashion right now. Bailey presented Haizhen Wang with first prize and literally leaped with joy to see him come out to receive it; if anything, it shows just how much heart and soul Bailey has been putting in. He had all three finalists come for a two week placement at Burberry HQ where they got to see all sides of the enterprise, a worthy privilege when you consider how much creative guidance and how little business training fashion students receive when essentially they are entrepreneurs-in-waiting. Having just opened the Regent Street mega-boutique for Burberry, quite the contradiction in terms, where technology and retail become one, he is very much a winning appointment for Fashion Fringe, both for this year and next.