When Virginia Woolf wrote the fantastical biographical novel Orlando, she broke all the rules of time and gender. The protagonist lives for four centuries but ages just 36 years; halfway through, with no explanation, he switches from being a man to a woman.
Orlando was Christopher Bailey’s starting point for Burberry’s show, a link more fundamental than the way in which this season’s Cavalry women’s jacket recalls the handsome boy-prince costumes worn by Tilda Swinton in the 1992 film.
The show was staged in the husk of Foyles bookshop, with a copy of Orlando on every seat. At the champagne reception before the show, Cara Delevingne was being snapchatted metres away from a workbench at which craftswomen demonstrated the traditional passementerie arts of tassel making: the present and past of fashion, cheek by jowl.
“What I love about Orlando is that nothing is specific to one time or one gender,” said designer Christopher Bailey after the show. “It is a book about emotion and beauty, which is what I feel fashion is about.”
The downside of a high-concept fashion week event is that the clothes themselves inevitably feel like walk ons, rather than the main event. There was a fashion message, in the blurring of male and female style: the trenchcoat, after all, is genderless, a point that was underscored by a collection that went big on velvet blazers, wide trousers, piped silk pyjama shirts, and other gender-fluid pieces. Long sheer lace skirts were worn over silk, Bermuda-length bloomers.
A catwalk show with the purpose of selling trenchcoats can never exist on the same cultural plane as a a masterpiece of experimental fiction. But in the very different world of global luxury retail, Burberry is attempting something like a commercial version of Woolf’s genteel iconoclasm.
The September show, as this was called, broke with the arcane structures of fashion week. Instead of showing clothes six months before they go on sale and segregating womenswear from menswear in different fashion weeks, these clothes for both men and women were on sale immediately. Jettisoning the pedantic labels of AW16 and SS17 – the internal filing system of fashion are no more compelling to the outside world than any other industry’s office admin – these clothes were “seasonless”. A sharply tailored jacket and a silk shirt are covetable at any time of year, after all.
Orlando is most closely associated with gender fluidity, and the new coed concept is the most eye catching element of the changes currently happening at fashion week. But the dissolution of the traditional fashion timetable is just as revolutionary.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, stream of consciousness is a narrative technique in which “to represent the full richness, speed, and subtlety of the mind at work, the writer incorporates snatches of incoherent thought, ungrammatical constructions, and free associations of ideas, images and words”. This technique, which Woolf used in Orlando, also serves as a fair description of the way in which ideas and trends are disseminated from fashion shows in the age of social media.
This collection was on sale online at the same time it was on the catwalk; some key names, including British Fashion Council chairman Natalie Massenet and pop star Taylor Swift, had been photographed wearing the clothes some days before the show took place. The tight reins of long-lead fashion are on the way out, and a new era of stream-of-consciousness fashion is beginning.
Elsewhere, Christopher Kane’s tenth anniversary show celebrated iconoclasm of a different kind, reminding the audience how he can take the most unpromising looks – here, plastic Crocs and pencil skirts in “road kill fur” – and turn them into want-it-now fashion. “For my very first collection, I made pieces out of stockings that I bought on Ridley Road market”, he said after the show.
“I have always been able to make anything out of nothing. Those dresses are like holy relics to us now. We get them out and look at them every season.”
Roksanda stands in serene contrast to Kane’s gleeful bad taste. Her label combines a boldness with colour – Elastoplast pink with brick red, in this instance – with a cool eye and an unerring taste level. It is this instinct for the true north of chic which has evolved her label from a niche brand for art collectors and wealthy gallerists into a go-to name for A-list soft-power dressers including Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama.
The penultimate day of London fashion week took a darker turn at Erdem, and a collection conceived when the designer read about the story of Jean Kerr, lady-in-waiting to the consort of Charles I and sometime spy for the King of Spain, whose wardrobe was lost at sea during a daring mission to pawn the crown jewels to raise money for the royalists on the eve of the English civil war.
This elaborate backstory gave Erdem a character for the season (a society woman whose elegant dress conceals a daredevil character) and a stage set (a very picturesque, sympathetically lit shipwreck). The resulting dresses had a kind of broken-hearted-romantic-heroine chic.
This is London fashion week, home of original fashion thinking – so why go to the party looking like everyone else?
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