LONDON SWINGS INTO SPRING

Byline: James Fallon

LONDON — Can they do it again? The fall season here was one of the most hyped — and successful — ever, and designers are wondering whether they can repeat that feat. They’ll soon have the chance to do just that, since the spring collections, which began here Thursday, get under way in earnest today.
The London schedule is the busiest in its history, with 49 shows on the official six-day schedule and a half-dozen off it. While the hot tickets are expected to be the same as last season — Alexander McQueen, Clements Ribeiro, Antonio Berardi, Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald — there are also a number of newcomers or returnees to London generating interest.
Patrick Cox is having the first runway show for his clothing collection; Ghost has come back to London from New York; Paul Smith is holding a series of presentations for his women’s line at the Hempel Hotel, after a similar exercise in New York last season; Tristan Weber and Andrew Groves are the latest Central St. Martin’s graduates to hold their first shows, and Richard Tyler is launching his Collection line at Harvey Nichols with a charity show at the Oxo Tower restaurant.
“There’s a real buzz here,” said Tyler, adding that he’s dreamed of showing in London ever since he was a boy in Melbourne. “Every season seems to bring up new designers, and they all have their own style without copying anyone else.”
The buzz can be attributed in large part to one person, McQueen, and he’s not too shy to admit it now. “I’ve taken a lot of flak, so I decided it’s time I stood up and claimed credit for what I’ve done,” he said. “People are coming to London because I brought them here. At the end of the day, London is back on the fashion map because of me.”
And like him or not, his show, “Untitled,” which will be held on Sunday night in Victoria, promises to be as uncompromising as ever. Asked what its name means, McQueen simply replied, “Look at this week’s ‘Time Out’ cover and you’ll understand.” (The cover shows a shirtless, dripping-wet McQueen, his eyes covered in thick, black mascara, being licked by model Karen Ferrari, who’s topless.) The show will be McQueen’s biggest ever, costing $112,000, and will be funded by his backer, Onward Kashiyama, and American Express. ICI is also contributing a $45,000 Perspex runway.
As for the fashion message, the designer said he’s aiming at precision of cut in everything from tailoring to dresses. As always, he was reluctant to give too much away, but he did say that people will be “either disgusted or ecstatic; at least they’ll have some emotion about it.
“It’s a different side of McQueen,” he said, adding that he’s more intellectual than many people think. “When people see the collection, they’ll see a new direction for me. We’ve found a way of showing McQueen that’s directional and modern, but still challenging. There will be the show pieces and also very wearable things. It will show people that I’m going to be a very big business.”
Business, in fact, is on the minds of almost all the top designers here. “I hate reading magazines that say London’s great now and let’s enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s going to fade,” said Inacio Ribeiro of Clements Ribeiro. “It must be everybody’s concern to prove those things wrong. The hype won’t stay here; it’s very volatile. But now what we’re all focused on is simply getting on with our businesses and keeping them up even after the next hot city comes along.”
More American retailers than ever are expected this season. Saks Fifth Avenue, which has been steadily increasing its British budget over the last few seasons, now has a full-time buyer specifically for London. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys are sending buyers, while such specialty stores as Ultimo, Alan Bilzerian and Maxfield are coming to London for the first time in years.
“I think London is a lot stronger than people anticipated,” said Pam Blundell, who, with Lee Copperwheat, designs Copperwheat Blundell. “They thought it would be a boom and then a bust like it was the last time. But it’s growing every season, and with strength comes respect.
“We’re proving ourselves — we can deliver on time and the clothes do sell in the stores. People are realizing that there’s a seriousness in London, and now they’re taking us seriously.”
It helps that more and more of the British designers are getting substantial backing. The latest is Berardi, who now is backed by the Italian company Givuesse and who will show Monday night at the Brixton Academy. The designer, who’s been tipped as London’s next big thing ever since his St. Martin’s degree show in 1994, has produced an 140-piece collection, his largest ever, and finally believes he’s ready for the big time.
“This is almost collection number one,” Berardi said. “This is the one I’m proudest of. Now, with the company I’m working with, I can do anything I want.” For spring, he’s continuing with his signature little-nothing dresses, this time in everything from embroidered jersey to bobbin lace that took 14 women 3 1/2 months to produce. There are leather suits tooled and painted like Spanish saddles; waffled toweling dresses and a suit covered in silver guitars.
“As time goes on, it’s more and more an exercise in excellence,” said Berardi, who had sales of $1 million last season. “I don’t want fat pockets filled with money. All I want to do is take it one step further each season.”
That incremental approach sums up the general feeling among London’s best-known designers. Ribeiro says people must stop thinking of British designers as creative wizards with no business sense, pointing out that Clements Ribeiro’s sales are more than those of many well-known French and Italian labels.
“There may not be a lot of designers in London who are really strong, but it’s the same in Paris,” he says. “Paris has about 200 shows, and maybe 20 are relevant. That’s 10 percent. London has 50, and five or six are really good, so it’s the same average.”
Clements Ribeiro’s show on Saturday, which has an Atlantis theme, will focus on texture and shimmer. There will be shimmery sequin tops in seaweed green or sea gray; diaphanous dresses embroidered with jellyfish; the signature striped knits covered in beads, and shredded, embroidered wool dresses.
“It’s a lot calmer than last season, but still beautiful,” Ribeiro said. “It’s a much more mature collection for us.”
Lee Copperwheat and Pam Blundell, whose street and clubwear have made them very popular in Japan, feel the same way this season. They split their Copperwheat Blundell collection into two last season — the clubbier CB Outline and the more sophisticated main line — and they believe that has helped them focus on the strengths of each. Blundell designs the women’s wear and Copperwheat the men’s wear, with each using many of the same fabrics and shapes.
For spring, their main collection takes its inspiration from Central America, with wide-legged striped wool pants, shimmery jersey backless dresses, patchwork pants and skirts and cropped, tailored jackets.
“Our look has developed,” Copperwheat said. “We know what works and what doesn’t, and it’s now a bit more sophisticated, glamorous and luxurious.”
These are all concepts that are thoroughly familiar to Julien Macdonald. The knitwear designer, who made his name working with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, will hold his first runway show this season with a theme he calls “Modernist.” Unlike his presentation last season, which focused on 15 special pieces, this season he has produced a full-scale, 70-piece collection of pants, tops, jackets and dresses.
“It’s real clothes this time,” Macdonald said. “There will be tailored knitwear, draped knit pants, T-shirts, vests and little dresses. It’s more commercial now. But it’s about fabrics and a look that can be no one else but me.”
Paul Smith has been trying to achieve exactly that in women’s wear for three years and now believes he’s succeeded. The designer, who has worldwide sales of almost $200 million, is holding a series of shows in London over the next six days before taking the collection to Milan, Paris and then New York. The spring collection has a Mediterranean air, with toreador-style linen pants, olive or terra-cotta embroidered slipdresses, teeny shorts and cropped cotton tops.
“It’s getting there, and as a company, we’re taking it extremely seriously,” said Smith, who opened a store on Sloane Avenue last week and will open a new flagship store in Notting Hill next year. “We already sell $19 million of women’s wear in Japan, and I think the next two or three years will be really interesting for our business.”
Many of his colleagues share similar hopes. This time around, they say, London is no flash in the pan. As Berardi put it, “I want people to come to London and think it’s as exciting as everywhere else. There are a lot of people who still don’t believe in it. But we’re here to stay this time.”

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