Backstage at the Nasir Mazhar SS15 show (Photo by Piczo)
Nowhere beats London when it comes to putting clothes on people. The other cities that make up fashion’s Big Four – New York, Paris and Milan – may have the money and the prestige, but Cate Blanchett sitting front row at the Palais-Royal Louis Vuitton show doesn’t necessarily mean the clothes will be any good; in fact, it probably means they’ll belong exclusively on the frames of old money debutantes or new money bores – Debenhams dresses at a 900 percent mark-up.
London, as proved at this week’s men’s collections, is where the world’s most inventive designers come to make their names. Where you go if you’d rather try something new – dressing a male model like a Stone Age Cher, for example – than spend your career repackaging those £3,000 leather jackets that junior fund managers wear to music festivals. And isn’t that what high fashion is supposed to be? Ridiculous and fun and sometimes completely impractical?
There are plenty of reasons why London is the best place in the world for fashion, but for structure’s sake I’ll start making my case with its heritage. From Vivienne Westwood through John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, we’ve always had fashion’s most outrageous designers. That’s not to say outrageous always means good, but I’d personally much rather spend a week looking at clothes inspired by tsunamis and revolutions than watch a parade of very expensive, repurposed ostrich skins.
Forty years ago, Westwood set up shop on King’s Road, selling imported fetish wear to art students and other assorted weirdos. A couple of decades later, for his SS98 show – “The Golden Shower” – at a bus depot near Victoria coach station, McQueen had storms of yellow water pissing down over Kate Moss and Gisele. Somewhere in the middle, John Galliano made his name by taking all the most avant-garde aspects of London’s nightlife and putting them on the catwalk.
Of course, McQueen, tragically, is no longer with us; Westwood is more preoccupied with saving the world; and Galliano is now exiled in Russia after some people filmed him being a horrible anti-Semite. Nonetheless, all three continue to inspire, leaving behind a legacy of playfulness and art school stupidity you don’t really see elsewhere. The other day, for example, I walked into a Chinese designer’s East End studio to find him printing out hundreds of photos of glazed, braided breads, dreaming up various ways to sugar coat the heads of whoever he’d picked to walk his show. At Milan’s last fashion week, the majority of models looked like they were on their way to a job interview.
British design duo Meadham Kirchhoff at LFW SS13
That eccentricity is obviously very easy to mock. I was flicking through a magazine recently that compared the latest London Fashion Week collections to inanimate objects – for instance, one of Scottish designer Louise Gray’s AW13 looks was juxtaposed against an overflowing bin. In its own way, the whole article was oddly spot-on, but madness is part of what keeps fashion interesting, and London’s willingness to accommodate that madness is exactly what makes it such an exciting place.
Many of our most successful talents – Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane, among others – learned their trade on the world-renowned Central Saint Martins MA, taught by Professor Louise Wilson, who sadly and unexpectedly died last month. It was hard to be accepted onto her course, hard to stay on it and hard to make the final cut for the catwalk show, but it was a rite of passage that rewarded those with an unusual talent.
Backstage at the Craig Green SS15 show (Photo by Piczo)
Craig Green, currently London's buzziest designer, had his first solo catwalk show on Tuesday. At his CSM degree show in 2012, he stuck a load of smashed-up planks to his male models’ faces, as if they’d all ploughed their way through a shed on a tandem moped. He was rewarded with a prize from L’Oréal and a place on the prestigious Fashion East MAN initiative, which offers support and advice to talented graduates. It’s hard to imagine this happening in any other city. For his first collection with MAN he painted his models completely black. As the show approached, they were all running around the crowded backstage, dripping wet, with their vision obscured by broken wooden masks.
There’s a happy chaos behind the curtain at London’s shows, which comes partly from the fact that most of these young designers are friends – or at least admirers of each other – rather than rivals. Nobody has a lot of money, but they’re all still determined to find a way to unleash their own strange visions of how the world should dress. Ashley Williams, for example, crafted her handbags out of fluffy shark toys and printed her cocktail dresses with SpongeBob's Gary the Snail, while Ryan Lo dressed his models up as Japanese woodland creatures. And these aren’t obscurities; they’re the most hotly-tipped talents to emerge in the past few years.
Fred Butler at LFW SS13
The support that Britain offers to its young designers – whether they were born in London, like Green, in Hong Kong, like Lo, or in Sharjah, like Williams – is unrivalled. Importantly, the guidance from institutions like the British Fashion Council encourages creativity and personality – nobody’s telling anyone to rein in their ideas to appeal to the mass market, or that unique breed of human who buys everything through a personal shopper.
Another vital influence to British fashion is that we still have one of the best nightlifes in the world (granted, it’s not quite Berlin, but at least it’s not Paris), because if you’ve got nowhere to go out, why bother dressing up in the first place? While Moschino-everything garage nights are a distant memory – and there are no longer those !WOWOW! warehouse raves, full of K-holing club kids in Gareth Pugh – there’s still an allowance for some very weird clothing.
Backstage at the Nasir Mazhar SS15 show (Photo by Piczo)
On Tuesday, cyber-streetwear designer Nasir Mazhar closed London's men's collections with a show in Bloomsbury Square’s grand Victoria House. The soundtrack was created in collaboration with Skepta and included that footage of Dizzee and Crazy Titch squaring up to each other, before Wiley – sporting an inverted, braided mohawk – breaks up the fight. The after-party was at Metropolis strip club – a far-cry from the champagne and cocaine celebrations you’d find in New York or Paris.
A couple of weeks ago, Thomas Tait – a young womenswear designer from Canada who moved here to study at CSM – was the surprise winner of the worldwide LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, which brings €300,000 (£240,000) of investment, alongside a year-long mentorship. Last year, LVMH (owners of Céline, Dior, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton) also bought a minority stake in Irish designer J.W. Anderson, while Kering (owners of Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney) bought a majority stake in the Scottish designer Christopher Kane. In other words, the massive French multinationals that tower over the fashion industry are now backing our most inventive designers with their money and their might.
Backstage at the Christopher Raeburn SS15 show (Photo by Piczo)
Cara Delevingne is the biggest model in the world. Our designers hands down beat every other city’s in terms of creativity and originality. London-based photographers like Tyrone Lebon, Jamie Hawkesworth, Harley Weir, Daniel Sannwald and Colin Dodgson are the ones taking the grandest strides past boundaries the fashion industry has known for years. And London is home to a host of brilliant zines and blogs – Hot & Cool, the Mushpit and Style Bubble being just a few – that are all created independently by young people with something to say.
Not enough proof? Alex Brownsell, co-founder of the Bleach hair salon, popularised the dip-dye look, i.e. the biggest hair trend of the decade; Isamaya Ffrench is leading the way in make-up design; set designer Gary Card is sculpting monsters made out of Sellotape; and England’s best footballer is dancing at Storm Models parties, hanging out with supermodel Jourdan Dunn and flossing Hood By Air sweatshirts and rare Air Yeezys all over Instagram.
All things considered – and without wishing to sound like that bit in a David Cameron speech where he starts praising the creative industries – it feels like we might be on the verge of another mid-90s UK Golden Age.
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