No sit-down shows. No perky audience dressed in a unique way. No students scrabbling for a seat. Just that wretched Covid-19 ruining everything.
But no. Not quite. The ‘make do’ attitude of the British creates not a catastrophe, but a challenge. Or as Roksanda Ilincic put it in the words of her creative friends, staging a ‘happening’.
As the designer says: “Key social issues have been brought to the fore, where dark experiences of confusion and grief have been felt in contrast to unexpected moments of joy, clarity, and progress.”
It does seem that British designers can conquer all, or at least create a way to promote their work in an alarmingly difficult situation.
Finding a forest seemed to be the first step – as it has been throughout the post-lockdown season. Dior did that gracefully back in the summer by conjuring up Grecian idylls in a magic wood. In London, the foresters were less romantic, more down to earth.
To open the London shows, Burberry found a wild wood. Yet Riccardo Tisci, Burberry’s creative director, used it as a backdrop for a sea-and-sky coloring of a southern European beach.
That penetrating blue, although bold and striking, was a strange idea considering that the historic British company was founded on beige raincoats cut like army uniform.
Tisci offered a show that seemed too Mediterranean and too streamlined, rather than capturing the Englishness of colors washed by a bleary sun.
Is he a cult designer? It seemed like that when figures rustled around the forest. But whereas other designers drew from the trees of history, Tisci seemed to drop his international sportswear into fashion’s woods – without any powerful intent.
When it came to the “physical” shows – as opposed to digital presentations – the most effective were by designers whose work turned a moving storyline into clothes.
That applied to Halpern, whose extraordinarily joyous film showed hospital workers in a moment of magic and madness when they exchanged their hospital scrubs for fluffy, blown-up outfits from the collection.
“These were people who put their lives on the line every day – for all of us,” said the designer who managed to bring meaningful thought to his collection by casting the hospital workers he worked with while making masks.
They were dressed in specially made clothes. The concept of “Covid couture” might seem difficult to digest, however sincere and sweet-natured the designer, but the result in fashion was as meaningful as it was joyous and a moment to tug heartstrings.
Christopher Kane put his fashion heart into art – typical of many British fashion designers who mostly start their careers at Central Saint Martins or another of the UK’s exceptional fashion schools.
Kane chose to go back to his roots by painting figures, sparkling with tinsel glitter, personal artistic work that he had made in his teens at the very start of his career.
The glittering paintings, interspersed with dresses printed with the same colorful flourish, took over the Christopher Kane store on London’s Mount Street – but all were connected directly to the designer’s colorful paintings of 15 years ago.
Coming back from fashion to artwork during the lockdown, Kane rediscovered his fascination both with glitter painting and with expressing friendships in an artistic way.
“They could be literal – they are very personal,” said the designer, explaining how, while painting and punching the canvas in lockdown, he worked with his sister Tammy to produce what he calls “a hands-on approach to textiles, very personal, using big scale gloves, punching the canvas.”
“I was six months painting – fashion did not come in the way of dealing with the lockdown,” he said, adding that his artwork was “about texture, warmth and human emotion”. More significantly, he has made the decision, separated from his period with big brand backers, to produce only two collections a year.
“How crazy I was,” he admitted, now that the inventiveness will be deliberately brought down to a much smaller number of clothes – and his art pieces on show as part of the presentation.
Erdem was determined that his show would be “business as usual”, in spite of the assumption that the pandemic was changing everything.
“How can people not want something from so much energy,” the designer asked. “If in World War Two you could have a beautiful suit – why do we now have to go to sweats?”
Instead, the designer aimed for elegant clothes in inventive fabrics, inspired by The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag’s 1992 novel that Erdem calls the American writer’s “only romantic work”.
There was a depth of emotion coming from Erdem in his interpretation of Emma Hamilton and her scandalous affair with Lord Nelson, with the richly patterned and colorful clothes photographed in a forest (again!).
But “dancing and falling in love on the lip of a volcano” was the source of the clothes, with their Grecian drawing, layered fabrics and an admiral’s jacket. And although the designer sometimes seemed to be too engaged in the past, these clothes made what the designer called “beautiful parallels between that period and the way we are now”.
As he put it: a beautiful story in ugly times.
They were strong and often famous women who wore Roksanda Ilincic outfits in her bold color choices of pink, gold or burnt orange.
Each figure formed part of a group in a historic 18th-century gas building. In what felt like rooms forming a rooftop, the animated figures were eating, reading books or chatting, a mother and daughter a sweetly happy couple on a bed in a chaotically messy room. Roksanda expressed it as her own Covid feelings of unease or hidden panic.
“All about what is happening now has to be relevant – not ball dresses no one wants to wear,” said the designer, focusing on immersive theatre and a look at racial injustice.
Roksanda’s idea of dream pieces was mostly in the fresh and inventive colors on fabrics that were never fussy in their presentation. But her own words opened up a world of thoughtfulness.
“We have witnessed an uncompromising shattering of a brittle and misplaced society,” was the designer’s primary statement.
“However, these difficult moments have also given way to an undercurrent of unexpected positivity – and an ever greater need for hope and dreams.”
“Comforting – but exploding,” was the description Simone Rocha gave to a show which also had what the designer called “hips highlighted, hugging the female form”.
The designer, who usually shows her collections among the rich artistry of a grand building, had a plain space with white walls to show models moving about in a socially distanced way, a dress with an external lacy bra and a skirt puffing up over a plain white undercover.
Using curt phrases such as, “Chests. Creature comforts, creepy creatures,” Simone re-interpreted what she is so good at creating: clothes with emotion somehow sewn into the designs.
“Looking for comfort and security in the extreme,” she said to express layers where messages were subtly hidden. So much seemed to be designed in the round, not just her signature pearls, but also swooped down necklines and other rounded volumes. Flat black ribbons might trap the transparent whiteness of a soft dress.
In the official photographs, the clothes were powerful. In a live presentation, they were magical.
Originally published on Vogue.co.uk