A few minutes after her catwalk show had finished, Stella McCartney was discussing the collection backstage when she was interrupted by photographers demanding a photo opportunity with her famous front row guests.
Valuable though these images are to her brand, McCartney stood her ground. “No, this is important,” she said, turning her back to the cameras to continue explaining how she hoped the jackets and shoes on her catwalk could challenge the role of leather in luxury fashion.
If you did not know McCartney was an agitator for animal welfare, you would never guess it from looking at her catwalk these days. In this collection for next autumn were butter-soft black leather trousers, chic suede jackets, luxe nappa handbags and trainers with flashes of microsuede.
Except all the above are what McCartney calls “skin-free skin”, modern animal-friendly technical fabrics that are indistinguishable from the real thing.
“Until recently, I avoided using fake [leather] because it never looked luxurious enough,” McCartney said. She has always been mindful that her brand’s luxury status could be devalued by the use of imitation skins that did not compare well to the real thing.
“I am so excited that we have finally developed fabrics that look just as good as the real thing and therefore genuinely pose a question to the industry about why anyone needs to use leather any more,” she said.
The skin-free skin elements added a new strata of elegance where McCartney’s sophisticated tailoring once used to jar against, say, a cork-soled sandal. The brown checkered tweeds beloved by English countrywomen have been a recurring theme in this round of fashion weeks, but they have seldom looked as chic and sexy as in McCartney’s high-waisted jackets with their pronounced dressage curves.
McCartney likes to underscore the fact that hers is a brand based in Britain, although the show takes place in Paris fashion week, and the equestrian theme was most bluntly spelled out in a print taken from George Stubbs’ Horse Frightened by a Lion. But it was the Balmoral-esque quilted coat, along with wide-legged, high-waisted woollen trousers and a more structured, Launer-esque take on the signature Falabella bag that stole the show.
Days after actor Emma Watson responded to criticism of a revealing shoot in Vanity Fair, defending her feminist credentials and declaring: “I really don’t know what my tits have to do with [feminism]”, McCartney put the spotlight on breasts with pointed bras worn under knitwear, which was darted and seamed to emphasise a conical shape.
“I just wanted to take ownership of our sexuality, as women.” McCartney said backstage, noting how the conical bra was a reminder of the constantly changing ideals and standards around women’s bodies. “It’s about looking at the history of that conversation,” she said.
At Alexander McQueen’s show, held after dark in the orangerie of the Jardins du Luxembourg, the long catwalk was laid with silvery gravel. It crunched under the models’ heavy boots, so they could be heard before being seen.
Sarah Burton’s clothes are full of this kind of sensual suggestion, a highly female sixth sense for impact. The idea for this collection took root when Burton and her team visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio in Cornwall.
“Afterward we walked across a field and came across a ‘Cloutie tree’,” Burton said backstage, where mood boards were covered with images from the raw Cornish landscape. The Cloutie tree – a local name for a wishing tree – “was hung with all these ribbons and charms, people’s hopes and dreams.” In a community coming together to express their most private emotions collectively, Burton and her team found an image which they felt reflected their strong bond “as a collective community.”
On the catwalk, the ribbons and treasures of the Cloutie tree were represented by colourful corset laces which were not pulled tight but left to hang free and by the dancing points of silken handkerchief hem skirts.
The ethereal references were grounded by studded belts and boots and by hair which fell from its centre parting as if after a damp cross country walk home. Long knit dresses fully engineered to the body for comfort and warmth suggested Queen Guinevere’s soft armour with embroidery featuring curative herbs as well as meadow flowers.
The night ended with a glorious eveningwear finale. A silk tulle and dove lace gown was encrusted with tiny beads, the embroidery threads hanging raw at the hem.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010