LONDON’S OPENING PLAY

LONDON — The first four days of London Fashion Week produced two solid hits and a strong chart-climber, but a lot of shows that would barely make the Top 40. The high notes came at the back-to-back shows Saturday night of Clements Ribeiro, which had an Atlantis theme, and Hussein Chalayan, whose collection, focusing on mummified images, provided the first fashion moment of the season. The one with the bullet was Matthew Williamson, who, in his first runway show, proved he’s a budding star.
Otherwise, the mood on the runways thus far was less buoyant than that of last season. Nicole Farhi showed a strong collection of her signature sportswear, and there also were bright moments in such shows as Copperwheat Blundell; Irish knitwear designer Lainey Keogh; Workers for Freedom, and Mark Whitaker. But people were still waiting to see what kingpin Alexander McQueen and Antonio Berardi would produce.
This spring season, however, has already proved that London is around to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Senior buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Charivari and Ultimo were trawling London’s runways and byways searching for ready-to-wear and accessories to buy, or simply wandering the streets soaking up atmosphere.
The fashion exhibition accompanying the shows was packed with French and Italian retailers. Newcomers Tristan Weber and Andrew Groves (both helpfully hyped by stylist Isabella Blow), created a drumbeat, while buyers and press hiked through the East End and up five flights of wooden steps to see the show of Boudicca, a line designed by Zowie Broach. Its molded breastplates and taffeta looks aren’t commercial, but these attic shows are what London’s all about.
There were also enough parties to exhaust even the keenest raver, from the launch of Nautica in Europe to the end-of-gig bash held by Oasis Saturday night. The “Sensation” exhibit at the Royal Academy was a must-see for buyers and editors who want to catch the latest in British contemporary art (and buy the catalog and Antoni & Alison-designed T-shirt).
Meanwhile, the stores were packed and more keep springing up — CK Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani Le Collezioni, J. & M. Davidson and, in the next few months, Prada, Gucci and Miu Miu. Joseph Ettedgui’s new men’s wear store on Sloane Avenue had retailers raving about its mix of Gucci, Prada, Jil Sander and Helmut Lang with furniture and accessories, while Paul Smith’s just-opened store for women’s and men’s wear several doors away offered a glimpse of his new look before the opening of his flagship store in Notting Hill early next year. Even the 24-hour deli in the Underground stop closest to the shows is selling a London Fashion Week T-shirt of its own design.
It’s also evident from the shows that designers are settling down to build long-term businesses. While this means they might not be as raw and edgy as in the last four seasons, it does indicate that the British bubble isn’t about to burst.

HUSSEIN CHALAYAN
Chalayan has been tipped as one of London’s stars ever since his degree show at Central St. Martin’s was bought by Browns. But his sparkle had dimmed in recent seasons because of the variable quality of his shows and his relatively quiet, philosophical demeanor. This season, however, he’s back on form, with a show that summed up the somber side of current fashion. His presentation, held in the huge white Atlantis Gallery in East London’s Brick Lane, and called “Between,” was intended to examine the way people define their territories and the idea of mummies. The first models out, who had flat black screens on the backs of their heads and face paint on their noses, chins and foreheads, were wearing black skirts and crisp white cotton shirts.
Chalayan played with cut throughout the show with such elements as cropped tops, cutaway backs, fish-fin trim on tops and dresses and various forms of knit dresses with no armholes but keyholes for the hands. Many looks had cutaway sides, his new way of baring the body, which is sure to be knocked off from Milan to Hong Kong. At the end of the show, five models came out in a range of dress from totally nude in an Islamic face mask to fully covered in a chador. They walked off, the lights went off, then flashed back on to reveal 11 models wrapped head-to-toe in white and one in black, capturing the mummification idea in a single image.

CLEMENTS RIBEIRO
The husband-and-wife team of Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro have established themselves over the last three years as sharp interpreters of the current fashion mood. They continued to be this season, showing backless looks, sequins and embroidery which fit into their Atlantis-inspired theme. There were jellyfish-beaded chiffon dresses, jersey mini-dresses, sequined pieces in sea colors for day, and ripped embroidered wool dresses worn over silk slips. But the strongest pieces in the collection — which went on a bit too long — were their signature striped cashmere knits. For spring, Clements and Ribeiro showed them in thinner stripes and in beaded patterns — bound to set a trend — and paired them with tropical-weight wool pants or scalloped-edged wool skirts.

MATTHEW WILLIAMSON
Williamson invited everybody to Ladbroke Hall in hip Notting Hill for his first runway presentation and asked some of his cool friends to lend a hand — Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and Helena Christensen all modeled in exchange for some clothes. The 15-minute show, dubbed “Electric Angels,” starred Williamson’s signature pieces — embroidered and beaded skirts and dresses in patterns of spider’s webs, feathers and dragonflies. New for spring were two-tone bias-cut silks in sherbet shades. Cashmere knitwear, too, was embroidered at the shoulder with dragonflies. The result was a collection that’s sure to be in every Notting Hill closet come spring.

NICOLE FARHI
Farhi is at the commercial end of the London design spectrum, and this season her collection mixed leisure- and activewear with the more tailored styles she’s known for. There were ragged-edged sarong skirts; cropped mackintoshes; sheer layered dresses worn over jersey sweatpants; and nightgown- and peasant-style dresses and tops. The emphasis, as in many other shows this season, was on such natural fibers as cotton and linen. These were white, tan and black with splashes of red, yellow and purple.
COPPERWHEAT BLUNDELL
Lee Copperwheat and Pam Blundell said they were aiming for a more sophisticated look this time, and that’s what they delivered. There were glitter jersey cricket tops; patchwork leathers, sharply cut suits in striped wools, and backless metallic evening looks. Some buyers complained about the lack of their signature club and streetwear styles. But the show marked a transition phase for the duo, as they try to build a strong image for their main line.

LAINEY KEOGH
Irish designer Lainey Keogh’s second runway show led off with her friend and countrywoman Marianne Faithfull weaving down the runway in a tight knit dress as a voice read “Ode to the Sea.” And that’s what Keogh played on as she continued to explore the outer limits of the sweater — sleeveless chenille dresses; gossamer looks in ocean tones; pearl-encrusted dresses, and fringed and beaded styles. The show didn’t have the impact of fall’s, but Keogh still stood out in a season in which knitwear remains strong.

KATHARINE HAMNETT
Hamnett lured everyone to the back streets of the East End with an alternative presentation, in a disused prison. It was a seven-minute movie featuring her spring line. Titled “Lost Luggage,” it had Iris Palmer and pals living out their dressing-up fantasies in the American West in silhouettes which ranged from sequined dresses and HotPants to peasant styles. The film was the perfect vehicle for Hamnett, whose look has always been more rock star than runway.

ANDREW GROVES
Groves graduated from Central St. Martin this spring with a degree show that focused on nail-studded leathers. Perhaps it’s too soon for him to go out on his own, since his runway show Sunday featured amateurish “aggro-chic” looks. Maybe his career lies in entomology — his show-ender was a model ripping open her cotton-ball-covered top to reveal that she was covered in dying flies. Enjoy your breakfast.

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