Queen Elizabeth II sits next to Anna Wintour (R) and Caroline Rush (L) at London Fashion Week
Queen Elizabeth II sits next to Anna Wintour (R) and Caroline Rush (L) at London Fashion Week
Image: Getty

The highlight of the week? HM Queen Elizabeth sat in the front row at Richard Quinn. Her majesty was there to present the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design to the young designer, who launched his namesake label in 2016. The award was initiated by the British Fashion Council “in recognition of the role the fashion industry plays in society and diplomacy”, and will be awarded annually to an emerging British designer who shows “exceptional talent and originality”. The award was designed by Angela Kelly, who has orchestrated the Queen’s wardrobe for the past 26 years.

The Queen gets it. London Fashion Week represents an industry sector that contributes £29.7bn in GDP to the British economy, and one that has continued to show growth for the past nine years. British creative talent and designers are today employed throughout the world, and at all of the top fashion houses. British style — from the Queen’s Balmoral tweeds and headscarves, to the madcap eccentricity of young designers such as Matty Bovan, to the genteel, elegant eveningwear of Erdem, is recognised all over the world. This was a sincere and significant step on the road to making the matter of clothes more serious.

Nevertheless, the road still has some bumps ahead. London Fashion Week dawned with the publication of another exposé, this time in The Boston Globe, detailing the systematic abuse of models by a number of leading male photographers and stylists. The behaviours tolled all too familiar traits: powerful men taking advantage of powerless youths, often minors, who only had their bodies to offer as leverage.

Specific though some of these abuses were, the piece also catalogued more casual attitudes towards the models on whom this industry survives. Pushing backstage after the shows in London to grab quotes and images for our social media feeds, I was reminded of those anecdotes in which models described their feelings of vulnerability in such a wild and largely unregulated environment, where changing rooms are a windy warehouse and a rail of clothes, and where anyone can leer. A lot of us don’t sexualise models, or objectify them. We barely think of their needs at all... Time’s Up on that, for sure.

Thankfully, correctives are being put in place. At the British Fashion Council’s launch breakfast last Friday, Adwoa Aboah, its Positive Fashion Ambassador, outlined the BFC’s efforts, along with the British Model Association, to regulate the industry. In December, they launched the Models First Initiative: “to set best practices for supporting and protecting models, talent and employees, to stamp out any form of maltreatment or abuse.” The committee aims to develop a charter that will “protect and give a voice to models”.

The catwalk is also becoming more inclusive. “Our objective is to become the most diverse fashion week,” said Aboah. “We are currently second behind New York City. In September 2017, London had 31 per cent representation of non-white models on the runway, which is above the national UK average representation of 15 per cent, but we’d like it to be closer to London’s population average of 40 per cent. This representation should look beyond race and include those of all body types, religion, sexuality and gender identification. I want to ensure that every person out there can eventually identify with someone in our industry that represents them.”

The spirit of this ambition was felt through many of the collections. Diversity was the watchword at Marques’Almeida, Matty Bovan, Halpern, Fashion East and Chalayan as well — all of which were cast with new, more interesting faces. At Burberry, the outgoing chief creative officer and president Christopher Bailey dedicated his swansong show to three LGBTQ+ charities, and dressed the catwalk in a rainbow of clothes promoting diversity. Bailey spoke backstage of the responsibility he felt as the creative head of a “big organisation” to address broader social issues: “it’s important to show that we stand for something.”

His last collection, which featured hoodies, branded sweatshirts and rainbow puffa jackets, reflected the times in which we live. It also presented an interesting question: if the luxury world insists on looking to the street to define itself, what purpose does the catwalk now serve? Much of fashion is now about tone, or context. Rarely is it about dressmaking or the clothes themselves. Bailey didn’t have the answers. He described the industry as being in a state of “chaos”, where consumer habits, retail trends and cultural shifts are now impossible to predict. It was a bittersweet goodbye.

Meanwhile, at JW Anderson, designer Jonathan Anderson spoke of the need for a “clear-out”. He has just launched a competition that will award a photographer the chance to shoot his new campaign; he’s switched his schedule around to become more efficient, and his catwalk was full of ingenues. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and I want to re-look at the way we do fashion and make it work.”

Post #MeToo, post Time’s Up, post fur (the week was punctured by noisy demonstrations by protesters declaiming its continued use in fashion), designers must all decide what works for them — and what they stand for. Some simply make very pretty dresses, and good for them. Simone Rocha offered another meditation on crafty Victoriana, all dressed up in oversized tulle dresses, floral brocades, tartan skirts and Perspex heels. Roksanda Ilincic showed a customarily distinctive palette of muddy pastels — sand, damson, lemon, and forget-me-not blues — in a dance-inspired AW18 collection that gently swathed the body in soft quilting, blankets, camel-hair coats and ladylike silks.

Erdem took his cue from Adele Astaire, the American actress who married the Devonshire heir, Lord Charles Cavendish, and sent out Jazz-Age polka-dot tulles, pearl beading and heritage tweeds. Was his study of an Anglo-American marriage a sign he might be preparing for Meghan Markle’s big day in May? He feigned the innocence of a Henry James heroine: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

No such bashfulness about Christopher Kane. Asked whether, in the current climate, he had had second thoughts about dedicating his AW18 show to sex, he looked utterly bemused. “I’m not about to change my creative process,” he said backstage (actually, he had come front stage, so the models could change in peace). “I’ve always been obsessed with human behaviours, and sex, whether that’s the biology of it, or the actual experience. I can’t not do what I do.”

His AW18 show was all about sex. Not the nasty, abusive stuff, but of the hairy, 1970s, Joy Of variety. He had even used Christopher Foss’s illustrations from the original sex manual to emblazon on dresses — as well as “cage” diamanté details, lace form-fitting dresses and bondage leathers. “It’s meant to be provocative, perverted, sexual, but it’s all done in a beautiful way,” he added. “It’s based in reality.” I’m a total prude, but I thought a lot of it quite lovely.

As Bailey says, the current climate is chaotic: what to say, what to do, how we behave and what we wear are all the subject of endless debate. No one quite knows what will happen next. But where this chaos could have easily resulted in creative impotence and dull homogeny, it seemed to empower the London designers. London Fashion Week may not have the commercial thrust of New York, Milan or Paris. But its best and strongest asset — aside from a royal ambassador — is its bold point of view. I hope it only gets bolder.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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