London Fashion Week: Brexit, protest and a new femininity

In recent years, London has lost ground to the rest of the “big four” fashion weeks, ceding column inches to the legacy brands showing at Milan or Paris, and no longer considered as commercially viable as New York.

Yet the British capital remains, perhaps, the city where designers are at their most outspoken, using fashion as a tool for resistance by bringing new perspectives, subcultures and renegade ideas to the runway.

This season, designers had a lot to say across over 100 scheduled events. Here are five of the key takeaways from the Autumn-Winter 2019 edition of London Fashion Week.

Protest on and off the runway

We are navigating uncertain times, both politically and socially, and the spirit of activism pulsed through London Fashion Week.

The opening Friday saw a peaceful protest, staged by campaign group Justice4Grenfell, that was aimed at drawing attention to the lack of progress made in the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.

A group of 72 activists — including models Adwoa Aboah and Clara Paget, and musician Emeli Sande, alongside survivors of the blaze — gathered silently on the runway at an official Fashion Week venue, 180 The Strand, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “72 dead and still no arrests? How come?” (A version of this “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”-inspired slogan was also appeared on posters last year.)

Simultaneously, a group of body positivity activists, including plus-size model Felicity Hayward, gathered to protest fashion’s traditional and often outdated approach to the female form, holding placards with messages like “Fashion should empower us.”

Activism was alive on the runway too. Sustainable womenswear brand Mother of Pearl partnered with BBC Earth to campaign against the use of plastic in the fashion industry, while Fashion East newcomer Gareth Wrighton debuted with a collection inspired by dystopias and the contradictions of modern America. The latter dressed models in MAGA-esque baseball caps reading “God Bless America,” with one sporting knitwear depicting material from Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks footage.

Of course, Vivienne Westwood also unabashedly flew the protest flag at her Sunday afternoon spectacle. Part fashion show, part theater, models and activists — including #MeToo pioneer Rose McGowan and executive director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven — wore T-shirts berating politicians, carried bags reading “I Heart Crap” and gave impassioned speeches lamenting the death of democracy and the threat of climate change.

Femininity in the wake of #MeToo

Last season, #MeToo permeated many of the collections at London Fashion Week, leaving designers grappling with fashion’s place within the movement. This season, at least, many labels came to more solid conclusions about the future of femininity, embracing the multi-layered complexity of modern womanhood.

Marta Jakubowski celebrated the liberation of female sexuality with a collection of languid, draped silhouettes in contrast with tailored suiting — softness and structure. Each model carried a stemmed Anthurium flower in her mouth, juxtaposing with the final line of the show notes: “she will not be silenced.”

Fashion East’s Charlotte Knowles used her show to address culturally constructed codes of femininity. Playing with notions of public versus intimate, and vulnerability versus combat, her collection subverted stereotyped perceptions of women’s dress. The designer turned the sexualized idea of push-up bras and mini skirts on its head by recreating them in puffer material — underwear as armor. Elsewhere, Knowles’ tiny cardigans appeared as harnesses, while coats featured large hidden pockets for a woman’s tools.

On Saturday, the ever-ethereal Simone Rocha put on a show at the Royal Academy of Arts that championed female diversity and empowerment. Wearing silk and sequined dresses with sheer trenches inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois, the runway featured models of all ages and sizes, including actress Chloë Sevigny, model turned director Lily Cole, artist Conie Vallese and 1980s model Jeny Howorth.

“I was thinking about all these women and it was all about their shapes, and how to make them look their most beautiful,” Rocha told Vogue after the show.

The return of glamour

After several seasons, it looks like — whisper it — fashion’s love affair with minimalism may be coming to an end. In place of paired back palettes and sleek silhouettes, maximalism reigned supreme in London.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at Halpern — unsurprising, given that Michael Halpern began advocating a return to glamour with his debut show back in 2017. This season, he showed high-shine sequins alongside rainbow silk column dresses with jeweled chokers and glitter-covered platforms.

Fashion week stalwart Mary Katrantzou too showed a collection to stand out in. Inspired by the four classical elements — earth, wind, fire and water — the collection opened with what has been described as London’s “Sesame Street” moment: a rare runway appearance by supermodel Natalia Vodianova wearing a yellow feathered gown so high that only her eyes could be seen peeking over the top.

What followed was a lesson in grown up glamour: sequined gowns with keyhole backs, pastel feathered floor sweeping dresses and crystal embellished coats.

Glamour wasn’t in short supply at Erdem either, with dresses featuring full ’50s skirts, nipped in waists and floral trains. Then Molly Goddard sent social media into overdrive with what might be the frothiest, most voluminous hot pink tulle gown that Fashion Week has ever seen.

Young blood

London is a city traditionally seen as the hotbed for emerging fashion talent, and the rising stars were out in force this season.

Staging its first ever on-schedule presentation, womenswear brand 16 Arlington (comprising Marco Capaldo and Federica “Kikka” Cavenati, Italian designers who studied together in London) showed an accomplished collection influenced by the work of German-American pop artist Richard Lindner and his friend, the actress Marlene Dietrich. This manifested itself in pieces heavy on dramatics — multi-colored, ostrich feather wide-brimmed hats; sequined mini dresses with feathered hems; and velvet and leopard print suits paired with exaggerated shirts and platforms.

One of the most talked-about newcomers was Matty Bovan, a Yorkshire designer who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015 and showed his first solo collection last year. He has already firmly established himself as one of Britain’s most exciting talents, and attendees were practically sitting on top of each other to guarantee their spaces.

Titled “In Uncertain Times, This Is a Sure Thing!” the designer’s Autumn-Winter 2019 collection saw him reveling in creativity as an escape from our tumultuous times, using his interest in folklore as a starting point. Bovan apparently spent several months researching the 17th-century Pendle witch trials, with mysticism of mythology leading to his own exploration of modern magic.

The collection was formed using his signature mash-up of knitwear, clashing prints and eccentric flair — voluminous, bustle-like skirts covered in crochet, or mismatched floral print paired with embellished cropped cardigans and even the occasional top hat.

On Tuesday, two more of the city’s young design stars proved that London is worth the hype. Estonian designer Roberta Einer showed her most personal — and impressive — collection to date, inspired by her grandmother who taught her to knit and embroider. Meanwhile Richard Quinn, who famously had the Queen attend his show this time last year, showed a sumptuously beaded collection that included shimmering puffball dresses and intricately embroidered suits. Set to a live performance by singer-songwriter Freya Ridings, the cinematic show had some on the front row close to tears.

Brexit looms large

Amid the excitement, the threat posed by Brexit loomed overhead, prompting numerous designers to reference our uncertain times. With just over a month left until the UK’s planned exit from the EU, and no agreed plan in place, many in London — both on and off the runway — were contemplating the future of an industry that contributed over £32 billion ($42 billion) to the UK’s GDP in 2017.

Last month, fashion powerhouse Burberry warned of the huge tariffs and severely disrupted supply chains it may face should a no-deal Brexit come to pass. The brand’s show, held at Tate Modern, hinted at a fractured Britain, with Riccardo Tisci stating backstage that the disparate parts of collection “all stem from the same mood, but they are talking to different publics.”

At Fashion Week’s official opening, the head of the British Fashion Council, Caroline Rush, reminded us just how multicultural the lineup is, stating that London Fashion Week is a “big opportunity to prove that London is open.” But while this season has proven the capital’s credentials, for many it will be next season that serves as the real test of London’s place in the fashion industry.