LONDON — Post-lockdown and post-Brexit, the London fashion scene feels forever changed.
Most of London Fashion Week’s anchors are gone, picking Paris — or even the metaverse — over the more intimate, low-budget catwalks of the British capital.
So what will become of the London fashion scene, without Jonathan Anderson, Victoria Beckham, Burberry, Christopher Kane, or Mary Katrantzou headlining its fashion week schedule? Will any industry professionals of note even show up this week?
While the schedule, which runs from Feb. 18 to 22, is indeed much thinner and attendance numbers lower, London remains part of the conversation — because there are new sheriffs in town and they mean business.
A whole new generation of designers is taking over: Most of them graduated during the pandemic and, against all odds, became resourceful; designed collections from their apartment shares; built communities on Instagram; caught celebrities’ attention, and stood up for what they believe in — ethical production, unapologetic self-expression and gender fluidity being some of the values at the top of their agendas.
Feeling robbed of the graduation catwalk show they’ve grown up dreaming about, they are now ready to come into the new, post-lockdown landscape and put on shows to remember.
The ultimate aim? Reintroduce the kind of performance and emotion associated with fashion’s former glory days, before fast-fashion and big corporations swooped in.
“I wanted theatricality and a moment no one was going to forget; we’ve all been craving it. That’s why I’ve been thinking to myself how can we immerse people into the show? How can we be transformative? I realized I’m a showman as much as a designer,” said Harris Reed, one of the brightest stars of the British capital’s new scene, who won London Fashion Week before it even began.
His intimate show, held off-schedule on Thursday, the evening before the showcase’s official opening, included a surprise performance by Sam Smith; a dreamy set of 18-foot-tall clouds, and some terrific tailoring mixed in with larger-than-life feather headpieces and gowns.
“We’re very much going for a f–k off, old-school McQueen, Galliano, London show. I know people talk about McQueen way too much, but all those early McQueen days were about a performance, excitement and artistry — pieces that made people think, not the kind that would be immediately stocked in a store after,” said Reed.
Many of Reed’s peers are going into the week with the same kind of hunger and resolve to give the fashion world something to remember.
“The setbacks of the pandemic were good fuel. This anguish, the feeling of having been dealt with a bad hand only makes you more hungry for the future,” said Conner Ives, another graduate from Central Saint Martins’ class of 2020 who is making a highly anticipated catwalk debut on Friday and promises to reawaken the energy of the ’90s catwalks and bring back “the bygone era of fashion.”
Britain’s political and financial woes aren’t stopping them — in fact the country’s turmoil of skyrocketing taxes, spiraling inflation and immense economic inequality under Boris Johnson’s conservative government is adding fuel to the fire of these young creatives just like political and economic turmoil fueled John Galliano, Lee McQueen, et al in the ’90s.
Having also spent two years in relative isolation and detached from the — now broken — fashion system, these designers were able to cut out the noise and hone their individual aesthetics, in all their over-the-top, eccentric glory.
Gone are the days of homogenous, trend-driven collections. This new crop of designers is creating provocative, visually arresting lineups — love or hate them, but they certainly won’t leave anyone indifferent.
“It’s no longer the time to be answering to anyone else. It’s a time to create whatever we want, whatever makes us happy. At the end of the day, if you’re making pieces you believe in, people will see that,” said Chet Lo, the Asian American designer who is quickly making a name for himself for his electric-hued, spiky knitwear that’s sheer, figure-hugging and designed to make the wearer feel sexy.
“When people wear my pieces, I want them to feel confident in their own body and spirit. I’m just trying to put forward any kind of way that you can feel hot,” said Lo, adding that he often challenges buyers to defy convention and go for his extra-short, sheer creations rather than offer alternatives.
At a time when retailers need to offer stronger points of view to stand out, this bolder approach is working.
“It’s so exciting to see this new wave of designers not following trends. Each of their aesthetics is completely individual and really speak to the new generation of customers searching for a strong and unique fashion point of view,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, chief commercial officer at Matchesfashion, adding that the business is opening up to new ways of working with these names.
“A lot of our new designers work with one-of-a-kind or deadstock fabric, which can have its limitations, but can also mean these limited-edition pieces are more in demand due to their scarcity.”
This is fashion that works across genders, too. “Man or woman, it’s so personal how each one of us wants to express themselves. So I try to stay as open as possible, make sure that styles cross genders, and be in close contact with customers who might have questions about fit,” added Lo.
Fluidity is also the very core of Reed’s work, and broader mission. After a series of successful mainstream collaborations, ranging from MAC makeup to Missoma jewelry, he feels the industry and society as a whole, are ready to listen more closely.
“Because of the amount of attention that the work has gotten over these past couple of years, people are now realizing that maybe they should actually invest the time and money to see if this made-to-measure, fluid model works,” he explained. “Early on, it felt like it was just me yelling into the void and yelling into Instagram, with support coming from young people like me and a couple of industry people who took notice. But now I’m in a place where I have to do less screaming and more constructive talking. The numbers from our different business ventures prove my point, so I’m also learning to talk people’s language more.”
That’s another thing about this new guard of designers: They can talk business and are determined to defy the stereotype of the hot young things who are highly creative, but financially illiterate.
Lo, for instance, set up his Instagram shop and e-commerce platform shortly after graduating in 2020 because he couldn’t find a job and needed to pay rent. His unique take on knitwear meant he quickly “blew up” on Instagram and managed to establish a thriving direct-to-consumer business of his own, which allows him to be more selective about the retail partners he takes on and set his own pace.
“I do love working with certain wholesalers, but for me it’s a little too fast-paced, and I’d love to eventually branch out and work outside of the calendar, presenting something when I’m ready not because we have to go to market,” said Lo. “Selling d-to-c [direct-to-consumer] is also incredibly sustainable, because everything is made to order and there’s never extra products sitting around. Even watching Harris do it has been incredible. He showed me that there was another way.”
Lulu Kennedy, who championed Lo’s work from the get-go, inviting him to become part of the Fashion East showcase, gave the designer a big thumbs-up for his left-field thinking both when it comes to his business and “defined” aesthetic.
“I’m loving watching a lot of the dusty old rules getting ignored and young designers find a pace and structure that suits them better, like being selective with wholesale accounts and selling direct-to-consumer, not rushing things. It doesn’t matter so much if you’re showing at a specific fashion week, doing runway or not; if the work is good, it will cut through the noise,” she said.
Ives, too, said he is committed to showing once a year and working with mostly upcycled fabrics. “Our industry really made a lot of commitment over lockdown, but eight months later everyone was on a plane to Milan, going to markets. That doesn’t sit well with me and I realized I need to be the change I want to see. I hope more designers can see what I’m doing and follow suit,” said the designer.
Reed has been playing by his own rules from the get-go, showing off-schedule, sticking to a demi-couture model and creating additional revenue streams by way of blockbuster collaborations. He also has a new line of “fluid basics” designed for all of those moments when his clients have to take a break from wearing his kick flares, lace blouses, or extra-large platforms.
“My business has been around for three years and we’ve turned a profit every single year. I do think that demi-couture and made-to-measure are the future and it’s been profitable for us: The last gown that went to Selfridges sold for 10,000 pounds on the first day, from the window,” said Reed.
“We’re often seen as creative beings, but because we’re young and doing fun things, it’s almost like we’re stupid or can’t understand the consequences of having a business. But I will be the first person to be standing in 8-inch boots in a feathered headdress, bleached eyebrows, and be like ‘No, I’m a headstrong b–ch and a damn good business person. This didn’t all come from being frivolous or a rich kid, it came from making smart business choices, sticking to my guns and believing that this kind of fluid beauty can make a mark.”
What’s even more refreshing is that they don’t have an attitude problem and believe in camaraderie over competition.
“There’s been a big narrative shift. When I talked to kids who had the old tutors at Central Saint Martins, they were pitting them against each other. The attitude was, ‘This is your competition, watch your back.’ And everyone was grinning and smiling as if that was a good thing. But now we were just able to stop and say ‘What the f–k, why are we fighting?'” added Reed. “I don’t know if it’s because of things like headspace: All of my friends are now in therapy and we all talk openly about our mental states. Mental health is huge.”
It’s why you’ll often find Reed stomping up and down the corridors of The Standard Hotel in King’s Cross — where he has a residency — to check on Lo, who is also part of the same residency program. The duo have grown into neighbors, best friends and each other’s biggest cheerleaders.
Apparently every time one of them scores a major celebrity moment, which is often — Reed has gone viral dressing everyone from Adele to Emma Corin and Emma Watson recently, while Dua Lipa and Doja Cat are firm fans of Lo’s electric knits — you’ll hear that artist’s music blasting through both studios.
The team at The Standard couldn’t be happier to get the injection of energy from the creative, fun-loving duo.
“One of the silver linings (of the pandemic) was the opportunity to reflect on what we could do to really become an integral part of London when it emerged again [and] offered Harris and Chet a home to bring their incredible talent and creativity to life,” said Elli Jafari, the hotel’s managing director and a fairy godmother of sorts to the two designers.
For Von der Goltz, this level of camaraderie and “peer mentorship” in London’s new guard means they are also able to create a healthier support system and help each other make smart business choices and “grow at a rate they can sustain.”
“The people I would have considered my competition when I was younger are the people I want to get to know. If you feel competitive, it’s actually because you really like what they’re doing and you can share your visions or learn from each other. It’s too old-fashioned to act competitive, I wouldn’t want to be part of the industry if it was like that,” said Lo, who is channeling his optimistic outlook to his fall 2022 lineup, inspired by bunnies hopping across cozy alpine landscapes.
“As an Asian American I grew up wishing I was different, but now through project after project and trial and error I created something that’s representative of me. I get to mix elements of my own heritage with other cultures and inspirations.”
London, despite the hurdles posed by Brexit and the smaller scale of its fashion week, has proven the perfect home for designers like Lo and Reed to define their aesthetics and freely express themselves.
“London has given me a safe space as a queer person to grow and expand. I feel like I’m part of a bit of a rebellion to change the schedule, the way we buy, the way manufacture, so I don’t want to just like get up and leave,” said Reed. He added that he might be staying put in London, but his mission to spread the fluid message is global and hosting events across the world is part of his ambitious agenda.
Also on the agenda? Coming up for air from time to time and appreciating how far they’ve come.
“We did just graduate. And we’re working on our dreams and accomplishing them. It’s actually insane,” mused Lo.