London Fashion Week is back in business

20 February 2013
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London Fashion Week is back in business

At every fashion week launch from Perth to Berlin, dignitaries tell white lies about the eyes of the world being on their runway, but Natalie Massenet was talking to a room of true believers at the opening of London Fashion Week.

"British fashion has never been more globally recognised and successful," Massenet, chairwoman of the British Fashion Council and founder of Net-a-Porter, told them. "There isn't a store or fashion publication that isn't looking to London fashion to update their business."

London Fashion Week was once the very poor cousin to Milan, Paris and New York, focusing on creativity rather than commerce. While the city's respected colleges spawned John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, the fashion festival kept its spotty student spirit.

But in the past four years London Fashion Week has emerged from a prolonged adolescence, increasing in influence to become a must-see for buyers and editors.

BFC chief executive Caroline Rush is the woman responsible for turning the event inside out, like a pattern-maker inspecting the seams of a jacket. By focusing on the business rather than the bling, she has tailored an event that attracts powerhouse names such as Burberry, Tom Ford and Mulberry, and promotes designers such as Christopher Kane, from emerging talents to luxury labels.

"When I first started, people would ask me what I was going to do for the rest of the year, with only two fashion weeks and the fashion awards," Rush says.

"We've done a lot of work. The Value of Fashion Report in 2009 was very much a strategic statement that fashion is not just about the creative elements. Showing what we contribute in (gross domestic product) and the number of people we employ, as well as the global influence we achieve, was a real turning point."

Rush has successfully wrangled the financial support of high street stores such as Topshop and Marks & Spencer and, despite this year's theme of digital innovation, the real buzzword for Massenet and Rush is business.

"We will lead, not follow; we will make new rules and move into an age of celebrity, financial savvy, innovation and, most importantly, self-confidence,"
Massenet says.

"Part of what we've been doing with Natalie is drilling down right through the business and looking at what we can do better," adds Rush. "What we should be doing is making sure that we are not standing around, that we are leaders and that we are taking our designers with us."

The Mulberry show at Claridge's demonstrates just how far London Fashion Week has come from student shows in dusty warehouses. Creative director Emma Hill oversees a business that has grown from £45 million ($67.8m) to £168m during her five-year tenure. The once dowdy accessories company founded in 1971 has expanded into ready-to-wear and has grown globally.

Front-row regulars Alexa Chung and singer Lana Del Rey, who have handbags named after them on the shelves of Mulberry stores, watched as coats of brown and green tweed plaid, bell-sleeved ox-blood leather tunics, forest-green trousers and long-sleeved gloves with trompe l'oeil zips emerged. The flippy skater skirts worn over wide-legged trousers may have transformed glamorous models into harried netballers, but the overall effect was one of polish and prestige.

At the other end of the spectrum are the shows from high street retailers such as Topshop and River Island, which received a mountain of publicity thanks to a collaboration with pop singer Rihanna. Unlike meaningful celebrity products such as The Row by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen and Victoria Beckham's signature collection, this was pure mass clothing marketing.

Thigh-high slit skirts, leather baseball jackets, bra tops and flimsy spaghetti-strap dresses were designed for people who know the lyrics to Rihanna's Stay and want a piece of her complicated and compromised image of empowered sexuality.

The whiff of money and publicity has drawn many designers back to the London runway, including Julien Macdonald, who has been absent for two seasons. Macdonald is Britain's answer to Alex Perry, complete with a slot on Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model and, like his brother from another motherland, he has never met a sequin he didn't love.

Mesh mini-dresses embellished just enough for an attempt at modesty competed with fringed sheer gowns in crimson, and one outfit that looked like a feathered disco ball for the attention of the front row, which included pop singers the Saturdays.

By comparison, Paul Smith's show was restrained, but there was a pulsing sexual vibe as he successfully channelled the late 1980s with jewel-toned power suits and digital print mini-dresses with dripping chandeliers; Australian model Catherine McNeil took the final bow with Smith in a tattoo-revealing sheer white blouse.

There have been concerns that the creative spirit of London Fashion Week could disappear with the new passion for dollars and pence, but there are remnants of rebellion in the work of some designers.

Joe Bates, Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery's brand Sister by Sibling picked up the momentum it found last year with inspirational knitwear.

The collection was inspired by Paula Yates, the television presenter and partner of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence whom McCreery describes as a punk English rose.

Giant scarves and Tam o' Shanters topped off red leopard mini-tube dresses, jacquard twin-sets and the head of Marie Antoinette, sliced on to a Lurex jumper.

There's little chance of Sister by Sibling following Kane into a luxury conglomerate such as PPR, but the support of stylist Katie Grand and Brit It girl Cara Delevingne on the runway made this the first London show to really swing this season.

The talent of Australian expat Richard Nicoll can't be ignored. His mannish tailoring conjured an American Gigolo vibe, fitting considering Debbie Harry, who appears with Blondie on the film's soundtrack, was his muse. Nicoll's love of fabric was the standout, with jacquards masquerading as denim in jumpsuits and knits with reptilian finish. The work demonstrated a quiet luxury that, hopefully, won't be drowned out by London's new volume.