Byline: James Fallon / Ruth Gurevitch

LONDON — Miuccia Prada brought her English schoolgirl look to its birthplace at her fall Miu Miu show here Sunday night. And along the way, the schoolgirl visited the Big Top. As Prada put it in her program notes, it was all inspired by a poor girl “who grew up too fast — and who’s working in a circus.”
The collection itself featured over-and-undersized proportions and offbeat layering — loose knits zipped over floppy poplin nightshirts, for example, and tight belted jackets left over from grade school, worn with thigh-slit wool minis, which will send tremors down the runways of Milan, Paris and New York. The Miu Miu schoolgirl also wore her father’s heavy wool coat over short slip dresses and her boyfriend’s wide pants under gauzy tunics. Circus-clown polkadots in sequins were a recurring theme in the form of trim on spike heels, wool scarves and dresses.
Much of the collection was in gray flannel and vicuna, and rarely have they looked so sexy. It was the English thrift look taken to a luxe level by Italian manufacturing. “She’s the Cheshire cat of fashion — every time you think you’ve figured her out, she throws you a curve,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, of Miuccia Prada, adding that the Miu Miu collection was “more commercial than ever.”
Earlier in the day, Vivienne Westwood had made her own bid for commerciality with her younger and less expensive Red Label collection. It trawled through history — both Britain’s and her own. The designer, who hasn’t shown in London for six years, showed in the mirrored and gilt ballroom at the Dorchester hotel, which she festooned with balloons and rose trellises. The star turns were by Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, making a rare public appearance in the audience together after repeated reports of marital problems.
Westwood generated some controversy in the British media before her show with her decision to use as models very young teenage girls from London private schools — but no British 13-year-old would want to wear frumpy looks clearly aimed at trendy teenagers in Japan. Boned and molded dresses, pants and skirts in tweed, moleskin, jersey, damask, velvet and corduroy were reprises of looks Westwood has shown in Paris for years. Among the few new pieces were several ruched metallic dresses and two black and brown metallic and alpaca coats.
The Westwood and Miu Miu shows kicked off a London schedule which is the busiest in years, with 48 runway shows over six days, as well as the London Fashion Exhibition at the Natural History Museum. The buzz about London continues, with a growing number of retailers from overseas coming into town this season. Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, has sent its largest team of buyers ever. Always a top place to spot trends, the city is finally being acknowledged for this after years of having English ideas adapted by and credited to European and American designers.
“It is the place to be,” Miuccia Prada told The Sunday Times of London. “I wanted to show the Miu Miu collection in London because it is a younger line and all the young, interesting people are here.” And American stores are eager to increase their business with such British designers as Alexander McQueen, Clements Ribeiro, Martin Kidman, Nicole Farhi and Joelynian — as well as relative newcomers like Stella McCartney, Matthew Williamson and Elspeth Gibson.
For fall, knitwear designers Julien MacDonald and Lainey Keogh are holding their first shows, while Sonja Nuttall and Jasper Conran have returned to the runway. The core group of designers who have generated the buzz here in the last four seasons believe that the pressure on them to prove themselves has passed and that they are well on their way toward establishing strong businesses — albeit ones which are still quite small compared with such American giants as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Few of the younger British designers have sales which exceed $1.62 million to $3.24 million ($1 million to $2 million pounds) a season.
Even McQueen, who has been a prime mover behind the renaissance of London fashion, says he feels confident enough now to present his style full-force. “It is full-on this season,” he said. “I’m paying $81,000 (60,000 pounds) for a show, and I want to go for it. If people want to see my commercial side, they can come to the showroom.
“This will be my hardest-edge show ever,” the designer, who will show Thursday, added. “People better hold on to their wigs for this one. McQueen comes back with a vengeance, and people are going to be sitting in their chairs two hours after the show with their mouths open. I’m going back to the energy level of my beginning.”
McQueen’s devil-may-care attitude stems partly from his experience at Givenchy and the fact that the reviews for his first couture show there in January were decidedly lukewarm. McQueen admitted that he was “stunned” by the reaction of the press — and by how political the world of French fashion is. He also contended that people did not understand what he was trying to do.
“People who know McQueen would know that I would never in my life do a white-and-gold collection, but I only did it so I could signal the break at Givenchy from what John Galliano did,” he said. “But I can say there will never be another white-and-gold collection. I can also say that my own ready-to-wear collection is selling really well, and everyone is pleased.”
McQueen’s confidence is mirrored by that of other English designers. “We feel we have a sense of place now,” said Inacio Ribeiro, who, with his wife, Suzanne Clements, constitutes the design team of Clements Ribeiro. The pair are creating what they call a “punk trousseau” this season, with tartan and pinstriped dresses; pants and skirts cut on the bias; coats collared in real mink, and their signature striped knits done in monochrome colors. “It’s a small niche, but it’s ours, and we now feel established in our own way. That gives us confidence to go for it even more,” Ribeiro added.
His optimism may also be heightened by the fact that Britain’s economy remains the strongest in Europe and that there continues to be an upsurge of new talent in design, food, the arts and retailing. Fashion addicts are trekking across town to Holland Park to the shop The Cross, for its interesting mix of clothes, accessories and toiletries from such designers as the Jacksons, Jenni Bolton and Neisha Crosland. Voyage remains appealing for its romantic devore dresses and antique-style slip dresses (the store recently began wholesaling its collection to Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys Los Angeles). And Koh Samui in Covent Garden is attracting a growing clientele for such designers and firms as Conscious Earthwear, Clements Ribeiro, Rutie Danan, Elisabeth Baldwin and Anthony Gibson.
“London designers are showing more character now than ever before,” says MacDonald, who creates knits for Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld in addition to his signature collection. His show on Friday will mix models and photographs to create the feeling of a mythical sea world. The presentation, which will be held at London’s multitiered Imagination Gallery, will have guests sipping sea-green cocktails and eating seaweed hors d’oeuvres as they take in MacDonald’s crochet-style knit dresses. “London used to be only about Portobello Road and the streets, but now people are coming to London to see its other sides, like the aristocracy,” MacDonald added.
According to Nuttall, who is returning to the runways after three seasons away, “There are a lot of serious people here now. It’s still tough for all of us, but we are getting better and better.”