LONDON — What do you do when the king has fled?
That’s the question behind this season’s London shows — which began Tuesday and end today — as British designers struggle to cope with Alexander McQueen’s one-season defection to New York.
Whatever can be said about McQueen, his showmanship and the controversy he attracts have upped the ante in British fashion in the last three years. His absence has left everything flat and unfocused. Gone are the hype, the controversy, the tingling expectation of what bizarre events might lie ahead. All that’s left is the clothes — and, unfortunately, they haven’t been enough this season.
As a result, people have been talking about anything and everything — except what’s on the runway. London has always been a scene that’s as much about the streets and stores as the shows. And, as luck would have it, there’s plenty of activity on those fronts at the moment.
First, there’s the buzz surrounding the recent opening of Ian Schrager’s new St. Martin’s Lane hotel, which has rapidly become the new hot hangout and party spot.
Then, there’s the usual trawl through the new stores — the “fashion gallery” on Poland Street, recently opened by former fashion assistant Yasmin Cho; the jewelry and women’s wear store La Joya, opened by former model Celia Forner; Tribley & Tribley in Mayfair, and the street boutiques around hip Brick Lane. Not to mention the obligatory pilgrimages to Pineal Eye, The Cross, Duffer of St. George, Connolly and Joseph.
Another reason designers are not getting as much attention this season is that most of them have chosen not to show at the official site at the Natural History Museum. Retailers and press have been shuttling literally from one end of town to the other, often struggling to keep their eyes open as they sit in some dusty venue in North London at midnight waiting for a show to start.
There are also more off-schedule shows than ever this season — which gives hope for the future, but makes buyers wish they could clone themselves, since they’re forced to choose between seeing a collection they already buy and one they might two years hence.
The main trend on the runways so far has been Rock ‘n’ Roll Romanticism. Rocker chicks modeled on Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders were parading skintight cut-out or studded leathers while across town, models wafted along in chiffon or silk styles trimmed with ruffles, frills and bows (but no bells).
The master of the rock regime was Julien MacDonald, whose late-late show Wednesday night was the theatrical highlight of the first four days.
As for romantic, one couldn’t do better than Burberry Prorsum by Roberto Menichetti, whose standout collection for spring was undoubtedly his best yet. While every other London designer seems to be looking backward, Menichetti produced the first truly modern collection of the season, which is ironic, given the fact that Burberry is one of the oldest houses in town.
Even Menichetti’s presentation broke from tradition, as the company eschewed the runway in favor of a breakfast affair at which one could talk to the designer and touch the clothes.
“This collection is about a balance between the image and the commercial,” the designer said the day before the presentation. “This is the most important collection yet because it’s now much freer, more feminine, more colorful and more sophisticated.”
He continues to develop the ideas he started two seasons ago. There was the usual twisting of the classic Burberry check — a rounder form on backgrounds ranging from ash gray to soft lavender, a wave-like print on tiny tops and even a linen lace version on shifts, skirts and camisoles that resembles a cutout check.
Menichetti also mixed the check with other prints on various pieces, from jackets with tiny herringbone insets at the elbow to his new, two-in-one jacket style with black and white gingham sleeves. The design, first seen in the Prorsum men’s wear line, consists of a slim-fitting under-jacket in one fabric that ties into a looser-fitting one in another, usually leather.
Other strong pieces were trenchcoats in a weathered buff leather, based on an old rugby ball Menichetti found; the new kilt in stretch cotton; neon-bright argyle knits, based on the Prince of Wales’s socks, and cotton coats and jackets with a new waterproofing using tree sap and sailing rope. And the shoes were great, from high heels done up in the Burberry check to a new flat that’s a cross between a motocross boot and a classic pump.
Rosemarie Bravo, Burberry’s chief executive, said she decided not to do a formal show because she wanted to demonstrate the completeness of Burberry’s transformation and felt she couldn’t do that on the runway.
“Everything now is comfortable and easy, and the collection can fit a wide range of customers and body types,” she said. “We’re keeping the classics, but also creating modern classics.”
Julien MacDonald: MacDonald’s Frock & Roll wins the Tony Award for Best Production of a London show. Linking up with the De La Guarda acrobat troupe, the designer produced the season’s first fashion happening: a tiny, packed tent in North London — three of the four Spice Girls, Sadie Frost and Bianca and Jade Jagger all sat in the front row — and great music, from Sister Sledge to Tom Jones.
As the lights dimmed, the shadows of the suspended acrobats danced across the tent’s ceiling, which first was pelted by what sounded like rain and then by multicolored balloons and confetti.
Suddenly, the acrobats burst through the ceiling and yanked a fashionista into space, never to be seen again (perhaps a remedy designers might adopt). Finally, the roof was ripped away, showering the laughing audience in balloons, confetti and styrofoam balls. It felt like a kid’s birthday party.
By that time, everybody was in such a good mood, MacDonald couldn’t miss if he tried. But the clothes lived up to the buildup. Yes, clothes. The designer promised last season that from spring on, he would begin producing more than just knitwear and he did just that with patent leather and suede coats, jackets, skirts and even bikini pants — either lattice-cut or covered in silver studs and eyelets.
And his usual fantastical knit creations were more wearable than ever — multicolored jersey bombers and pants that looked like they’d been spray painted, glass crystal bead dresses, silver glitter bubble jackets, brightly striped styles with glitter insets and herringbone-check pants and dresses in red and white.
It was all colorful and fun, and the audience went wild at the finale — Scary Spice, the only one who was missing from the front row, turned up on the runway in a hot pink sequined dress.
Clements Ribeiro: Can bohemians grow up? The husband-and-wife team of Inacio Ribeiro and Suzanne Clements are trying to, and they came up with one of their strongest collections in a while.
The cashmere knits, as always, were among the best around — the focus this season was on Damien Hirst-style polka dots in varying colors, a key trend on the London runways.
The couple continued the theme with dots on sheer silk dresses, lingerie and ruched tops and big multicolored plastic sequins on shiny linen skirts and pants. The only missteps were the Edwardian sequined styles in brown and pistachio and the draped smock shapes.
In any event, Clements and Riberio have a lot on their minds — they’re searching for a new manufacturer following the breakdown of their deal with Staff International.
Paul Smith: Smith, one of Britain’s most successful designers, stuck to the amusing take on English classics he adopted for his women’s wear last season and have always made his men’s wear so great.
His girl for spring was a boarding-school refugee from the Raj with a wardrobe that included Henley Regatta-striped blazers, pants and skirts; white linen swirl skirts with a St. George’s red stripe; tiny colorblocked knits; coffee-dyed knit cricket dresses; map-print dresses and skirts, and embroidered and beaded sari skirts, djellabas and blouses. Some were beautiful, but many looked as if they could be picked up for less in the Indian neighborhood of Brick Lane. And velvet for summer?
Matthew Williamson: Williamson keeps mining his ethnic vein, and, given all the beading and embroidery at the London shows, he should have shone. But many of his styles were so literal they resembled Turkish or Indian costumes, and a lot of it looked downright cheap.
Oh, well. His front-row fans — including his muse Jade Jagger and her boyfriend, Dan MacMillan; husband-and-wife actors Jude Law and Sadie Frost, and Sharleen Spiteri of Texas — didn’t seem to mind.