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Pants on Fire

How Fashion Week dealt with London’s summer riots.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By SAMANTHA SAULT
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London

Photo of high heeled shoes lying on smashed glass

Looted shoes discarded from Debenhams, August 8, 2011

Getty Images

Between the riots in August and the ongoing recession that led to the highest quarterly loss of jobs in two years, times are tough here. It was certainly not the ideal climate for Fashion Week.

The mood at Fashion Week last February was festive, in advance of the royal wedding—and the industry still has reasons to celebrate. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is becoming a global style icon after getting married in a gown designed by Sarah Burton for the Alexander McQueen label. And London recently defeated New York, Milan, and Paris to be named “Top Global Fashion Capital” by the Global Language Monitor.

But could the city defeat the dour political and economic mood and put on a successful Fashion Week?

It took place, as planned, last month, and like previous Fashion Weeks, the clothing was luxurious and the parties were stocked with champagne. But it was apparent that many in the industry have been touched by the political and economic situation—and are working to show that the industry does more for London than make it look pretty.

Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman and Mayor Boris Johnson kicked it off by announcing Fashion 2012, a platform to promote the industry in the Olympic year with exhibitions and events, and Johnson encouraged fashion to employ “young Londoners” in an effort to reduce rising unemployment and grow the £21 billion industry. (It was reported that same week that unemployment among 16-24-year-olds in Britain had increased 20.8 percent from May through July.) It was “young Londoners” who had rioted the previous month, and while the violence had ended by Fashion Week, it was not forgotten—especially by emerging designers who have everything to lose. 

Kevin Muscat, who presented the first Muscat Vielma collection with Gabriel Vielma, said the riots were too close to Fashion Week to really have an impact on the designs. But, he said, “We lost our [photo] studio to the riots, so we had to change at last minute.” And women will be grateful that the riots didn’t affect the ethereal drapery and flattering accordion pleats in filmy blush pink and cream. Ada Zanditon, who designs an eponymous sustainable line inspired by mythology, discussed the riots’ effects during a champagne brunch celebrating the fifth anniversary of Estethica, the Fashion Council’s group of ethical designers. There were riots “in her neighborhood,” she said, and throughout East London where much of the industry lives and works; but they had a silver lining in that they “pulled people together and reminded everyone what community is for.”

So, despite the broken storefronts and lost jobs, the industry, likewise, pulled itself together for Fashion Week. And though Britons continue to struggle, the catwalks were illuminated with electric hues, inventive prints, and flashy metallics. “Business goes on, shows go on, parties go on,” said Marida Sperandeo, group project manager for leather goods at the Italian label Fendi, at a glitzy party celebrating the brand’s new Sloane Street store and collaboration with the Royal College of Arts. Fashion Week must go on, she added, because it is “not only about the U.K. economy, but about the global economy.”

Vivienne Westwood has often woven her support for environmental causes into her runway shows, and this year she used her collection to introduce a fundraising project for Cool Earth, a charity that secures rainforest land at risk for deforestation. In fact, Cool Earth got more buzz than her spring collection, which featured her signature draped necklines and suiting separates in grays, blues, and beiges.

Meanwhile, the Fashion Council heavily promoted the fifth anniversary of Estethica. The government got involved, as well: Gregory Barker, minister of state for energy and climate change, thanked the designers for their work in light of his boss David Cameron’s pledge to be the greenest government in history. “It’s not about what the government can do to help you,” said Barker, “but about what you can do to help the government and fight man-made climate change.”

Orsola de Castro, co-curator of Estethica and a sustainable designer who uses excess banned Speedo swimsuits to create sporty dresses, says she doesn’t think the industry could do “so much” for government. But the industry will survive the hardship: “There is a surge of creativity that’s typically English, and it comes out at a time of crisis,” she said.

Indeed, London’s fashion industry is resolutely not discontent. With its growth and glamour and creativity, it’s helping the government far beyond issues of climate change. As Barker told a crowd of press and designers, “Great fashion by world standards has a power to inspire, to challenge, and to lead.”

Samantha Sault is a writer in Washington. This is her third season covering London Fashion Week.

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