The Season of Big Ideas and No Expectations

LONDON — The curtain has fallen on the fashion week circus.

London Fashion Week, which starts in earnest on Friday and runs until Sept. 22, is taking place as a second wave of COVID-19 threatens the U.K. — and many other countries, as the weather turns cold and a new set of government restrictions forbids social gatherings of more than six people.

That means the industry has had to bid farewell to the group street-style shots outside show venues, the fanfare of celebrity attendees and front-row guests, the party hopping and Champagne-swilling before lunch time.

Even designers who had small-scale salon shows planned have had to adjust them in favor of one-on-one appointments, in order to adhere to the new regulations. They will all be welcoming a very local group of editors and buyers, given Britain’s self-isolation requirements for travelers from countries including France, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal.

The mood may be spooky, but with all that external noise gone, there’s also a new opportunity to focus on the collections and the designers’ visions of what the future of fashion might look like.

Indeed, London’s designers appear excited to press restart — and relieved they have the opportunity to detach themselves from what had become a broken system, with too many shows, too much product, cost and waste.

This will also be their first time showcasing new designs, as the first digital London Fashion Week — which took place in June while the U.K. was still very much in lockdown — was more focused on panel discussions, book or ‘zine launches, and overall experimenting.

There is much creativity waiting to be unleashed, especially from London’s up-and-comers, most of whom developed their spring 2021 collections at home, and used the opportunity to get crafty and turn limitations into new ideas. What’s been happening harks back to Nineties London, when budgets were tiny and designers relied on raw creativity — and their own wits — when they presented their collections.

“Creativity really peaked outside the studio this season. We returned to such a pure way of working, almost like our college days and the experimentation was really exciting as it felt like a pressure had been lifted,” said Marco Capaldo and Federica Cavenati, the design duo behind the buzzy young label 16Arlington.

“We found ourselves dyeing fabrics in the bath with coffee, which led to one of our most exciting prints of the season and there was a lot of focus on crafting and manipulating things by hand.

“The restrictions and limitations that first felt so suffocating actually became the most vital and interesting ideas within the collection. At the peak of lockdown, real beauty emerged from being forced to use the things we had around us. We played with the duvets and sheets and vintage pieces that we had in the house and that led to some of our favorite looks within the spring 2021 collection,” they said.

In February, the brand hosted its first runway show, with Lena Dunham making a flash appearance in a sparkly, feather-embellished party number. But now, the designers are stripping things back, focusing more on the minimalist components of their brand’s DNA and releasing a simple look book in place of a physical event.

“This season, more than ever, felt really appropriate to strip back on excess, so showcasing digitally felt appropriate,” Capaldo and Cavenati added.

Matty Bovan, another London darling known for his eccentric material mixes and over-the-top silhouettes, is also getting ready to debut his first film and look book showcasing an array of new ideas that emerged while in lockdown.

“In these troubled times, I feel creativity needs to be on show and needs to be applied. Personally, for me, it’s important to work through my anxieties and fears through my work, process and craft,” said Bovan, who created mannequins on which to showcase his new collection and filmed them using everything from vintage VHS cameras, to phone and body cameras to create a collage-like video.

“The latest season is extreme, in a way. I would have never presented [my clothes] on figures, but it has worked really well. These figures are very still and showcase this season’s character very well,” he said.

Designing spring 2021 while in lockdown has meant the process was more streamlined and less wasteful — something London designers have been keen to address this season, as the sustainability conversation reaches a new crescendo given the growing evidence of climate change, from a hotter-than-normal summer in Europe to the wildfires in California and hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Since we were developing and sampling during lockdown, we had to be much more organized, focused and streamlined with the fabric selection, development of silhouettes, and overall critical path. It was kind of great having to make decisions quickly and I think I will continue to work this way. It felt more prolific,” said Michael Halpern, who is known for his love of sequins, voluminous evening wear and decadent runways.

This season, he’s turning to a film and intimate appointments, and creating more pieces that can be transformed into wardrobe classics.

Matthew Harding and Levi Palmer of Palmer Harding are making one of the strongest statements when it comes to sustainability: They used the pause in production and deliveries caused by the pandemic at the beginning of the year as an opportunity to reset their seasonal calendar.

They gave their fall 2020 collection — the one that couldn’t be produced or delivered on time after January market — a new lease on life by reshooting it on a cross-continental group of family and friends and presenting it with a new perspective.

“[The crisis] forced the seasonal schedules to be in line with the weather patterns and we have seen sell through actually improve during this time because of it. Being able to deliver a wool coat in winter should have been obvious, but for so long now the industry has been discounting summer merchandise when spring hasn’t even ended and delivering winter collections in the height of summer. It made no sense, so this forced pause has meant that we had to postpone deliveries to allow stores to catch up with lost time and in the process realigned the delivery with the calendar,” Palmer said.

He pointed to some other environmental and social responsibility efforts the brand has been working on throughout lockdown, including eliminating single-use brand boxes, offsetting the business’ carbon footprint as well as donating a pound for every spring 2021 garment sold to Chayn, a charity fighting against gender-based violence.

Another recurring theme in London this season is the crafty, experimental approach these designers were all willing to take, be it when designing from home or preparing their digital presentations.

For Levi and Palmer, there was a socially distanced shoot in London and multiple Zoom calls to shoot Palmer’s family and friends in Texas.

“On the day we discovered numerous hiccups ranging from phones overheating, Wi-Fi dropping out and data limitations — climaxing with the drama of me almost fainting from a mixture of jet lag, dehydration, production panic and direct Texas sun on my back for three hours,” Palmer said. “[But] it gave a wonderful memory for loved ones to keep and a fantastic story of honesty that will resonate with all our audiences no matter where they are in the world.”

For his part, Bovan sent out surveys asking his audience what England means to them: “The response was fascinating, although this isn’t a direct inspiration for my new collection, it’s part of an ongoing idea of questioning what England means to people. It’s been really important for me to work out my own design DNA in lockdown, and really consider what I want to put out in the world going forward,” he explained.

This more low-brow, raw approach is what seems to be speaking to the industry the most right now.

“I have been blown away with how innovative and creative they have all been and in many ways we have preferred their showroom experiences to what has been done by the big houses,” said Ida Petersson, men’s and women’s wear buying director at Browns.

For Petersson, the upside of digital or hybrid fashion showcases is that they help eliminate access or time management issues, meaning there’s more flexibility to get acquainted with everyone on the schedule, including the smaller names that could have been overshadowed in the past.

“Digital activations are inclusive: It’s not just a select portion of the team that can see the collection, everyone is now welcome, which I love, so we are taking advantage of that. With most events now being recorded, there’s a lot more flexibility, making it possible to see both the scheduled collections and the off-schedule activations,” said Petersson, who plans on tuning in online and also supporting the physical presentations still going on, including Graduate Fashion Week.

Could this then be the moment for smaller businesses to shine, with fewer big-scale productions by larger brands overshadowing the schedule?

There’s definitely a robust demand for supporting independent labels, both on the part of the retailer and the consumer.

“During this period, we’ve been listening to our customers and one of the things that came through is the want to support new talent and independent designers,” said Net-a-porter global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz, during a Zoom event to unveil the new, emerging names the retailer is planning to mentor as part of its Vanguard program.

“We see these brands as the future of our industry, they will be the big players of tomorrow.”

Matchesfashion has also amped up its Innovators support program, committing to backing 12 young labels and helping them through this challenging time.

“They are rewriting the rules and taking this time to pause and really think about how we are living our lives, what we are going to want to wear and how it will make us feel. Whether it is upcycling and sustainability or gender-fluid designs, [this approach] is increasingly important at this time,” said Natalie Kingham, Matchesfashion’s buying director, who will also be taking most of her appointments on Zoom this season, as well as meeting a handful of the London designers in person.

Ditto with Browns, which has just debuted a capsule collection with Molly Goddard and which is working to put integrate young designers even further into its buys and content.

“Continuing to support the new and young designers with pre-payment where needed is key, as well as working on special projects to help promote them and display a different side of their creativity such as lifestyle projects and, above all, being patient with deliveries,” Petersson said.

This newly found interest to support independents could finally give the London fashion industry a leg up, as its fashion week has always been known for its young talent and abundance of ideas, but which had often lacked the financial wherewithal, social media cachet of other fashion capitals and the backing of big luxury groups and investors.

The new hybrid fashion week format and need for smaller-scale, intimate presentations is now leveling the playing field between cities.

“Shows are great because of their immediacy and the buzz, but it can never be exactly how you want it to be unless you have a $5 million budget,” said Edward Crutchley, who will also be releasing a video for his spring 2021 collection, designed to mimic the catwalk experience.

“The digital format is interesting because you can work within your schedule, you don’t have to be [located] within a mile radius of the official show venue and it’s democratic. I can put it out to everyone and just say ‘Here’s my interpretation and you can have yours.’”

It remains to be seen whether engagement and sales will come in like they used to, but designers are keeping an open mind and a test-and-learn approach.

“It’s an experiment and the interesting part is to see how it works,” Crutchley added.

For Halpern, there’s also the possibility of reaching a bigger audience through the online format.

“I don’t think I’ve had to adjust my expectations [as to what this fashion week can bring]. In fact, I have grown them a little bit, which I found interesting. There will not be the huge international audience here in London in person, but since we are showing outside the classical runway format, we have seen a lot more pickup before the show,” the designer said. “This season is a lovely mix of intimate appointments with blistering digital assets and I would just love to see how it goes.”

There might be plenty of question marks and designers are unsure about what to expect, but the consensus from London remains a positive one — that creativity will prevail.

“Fashion is a wonderful historical reference of what is going on at any particular time in the world. That’s not going to change. How they show their collections will no doubt evolve but these are creative people and the direction they push it will be very exciting to see,” Kingham said.

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