LONDON--It's climbing in the fashion ranks, but London has a way to go before it's back in the ascendancy again. The three-day London Fashion Week, which closed here Sunday, lacked the expected pizzazz despite a strong American retail presence. The fashion message--like the hemlines--was all over the place as some designers abruptly--and not always successfully--changed directions.

Bella Freud: Bella was simply Bella-issima. Freud is London's most feminine designer, and, though things haven't always swung her way, the New Glamour in the air makes her dainty elegance finally right. This season, she went in for flirty looks and sharply tailored suits that suggested the heyday of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; her floaty floral dresses, cropped jackets and tailcoats could have come straight from "Flying Down to Rio." Freud also infused a new sophistication and quality into her collection, which was a little too girlish in the past. The giant purses and chunky-heeled sandals only added to the tongue-in-cheek approach.

Abe Hamilton: If you're looking for light, airy clothes with an ethereal elegance, Abe Hamilton's your man. This season the designer cut his signature featherweight fabrics with a modern edge. In a nod to nudity, Hamilton sent out rhinestone-dusted, puff-sleeved blouses, wrap skirts and ballerina looks, all in barely there flesh tones. The entire collection was shimmery and feminine, even when it veered sharply into bright colors. There was also a new body-consciousness, with floral hipster pants, teeny tops and bikini bottoms, done in sleek nylon, a favorite fabric this season.

Alexander McQueen: McQueen took his audience on a road trip--literally--complete with a two-lane blacktop runway and tons of tire-mark prints. The collection itself was filled with raw sex--and should help resuscitate London's reputation for street fashion. There were see-through plastic dresses, indecently cut bumster pants and sheer tops, worn with tire-mark-print jackets, tailcoats and plaid blouses. Take away all the tricks, though, and you discover why everyone's talking about him--McQueen can cut with the best of them. That isn't surprising since his background includes stints at Savile Row's Andersen & Shepard and Romeo Gigli.Philip Treacy: Another of the hottest tickets in town was a little cooler than expected--especially after an hour-and-a-half wait. Still, Treacy's millinery inventions can't help but dazzle, even if the big hat isn't the main message for spring. Petite and saucy looked best on his runway, from the striped Hershey Kiss creations to little satin meringue mounds perched on the forehead. Feathers were flying all over the place, and color was the big message--underscored by a giant yellow UFO shape that glowed in the dark.

Red or Dead: Cigarette-puffing biker babes in studded leather and the blare of Seventies' hard rock gave London a much-needed boost of energy, as Red or Dead roared down the runway with a collection dear to a clubber's heart. It took a Forrest Gump-style zip through the decade with motorcycle and stock-car-inspired jumpsuits; glittery HotPants, and butterfly-print velour minis. The accessories kept pace with big patent leather bags, neon-bright nylon running shoes and Folies Bergere-style head-pieces.

Xavier Foley: This was inventive simplicity at its best. Xavier Foley's collection hit on the more commercial notes of the London beat with well-tailored linen suits, organza T-shirts and fabulous silk sweaters in washed-out earth tones. But designer David Foley doesn't just create for the conservative. He also wraps a simple satin blouse with an offbeat air, and cuts beautiful, asymmetric, marble-print silk slipdresses. It's too bad the designer himself missed the applause; he's in the hospital recovering from a brutal run-in in Barcelona.

Sonnetag Mulligan: Seventies' glam is everywhere--and there were more than a few traces of it at Sonnentag Mulligan. The bright, floral-printed plastics are a drastic departure from their former sobriety. The design duo of Tracy Mulligan and Barbara Sonnentag took a funked-out trip to Polynesia this season with New-Length togas; straight, strapless minidresses, and low-slung, stretch satin low-slung pants.

Betty Jackson: Jackson's approach to the Seventies was to recreate the look of one of the decade's quintessential movies, "Shampoo." With Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous" looking on, the designer paraded a series of sharply tailored white pantsuits with logo T-shirts; long pinstriped jackets; A-line dresses, andday and evening knits.
Meanwhile, HUSSEIN CHALAYAN beamed-down a space-age collection of glow-in-the-dark paper jackets and tunics mixed with spaghetti-strap dresses in mottled, cloud-like prints, and NICHOLAS KNIGHTLY sexed up his collection with slinky jersey numbers hailing the season's New Length. It was all glamour, ruffles and tiers at WORKERS FOR FREEDOM, who delivered a collection perfect for their customer. JEAN MUIR stayed true to her minimalist credo with elongated knits and fit-and-flare jackets. Easy sportswear with few surprises but a guaranteed sell-through turned up at NICOLE FARHI. Some of the season's best lace looks were at ALLY CAPELLINO. FLYTE OSTELL injected Technicolor and better pricing into their luxurious spare style.

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