The fall season of London Fashion Week took place in February, two months before the wedding of Prince William and his longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton. And so I expected the hype about Buckingham Palace’s preparations, and the princess-to-be, to overshadow the city’s biannual display of some of the world’s most innovative runway collections and eclectic street style.
Kate Middleton, after all, is on the cover of tabloids across the globe, and as an attractive and polished woman in the public eye, she’s a candidate to have designers at her feet, as William’s late mother, Princess Diana did. Or, for that matter, as Michelle Obama does across the pond. A former accessories buyer for a mid-priced British boutique chain, Kate has fashion chops and chooses pitch-perfect outfits, such as the royal blue silk jersey dress she wore for the engagement announcement, designed by Daniella Helayel of Issa London.
Despite the media obsession with the royal bride and her every feathered fascinator, and the yet-to-be-named designer of her wedding gown, the fashion industry here isn’t wholly focused on wooing her. London’s insiders seem more dedicated to cementing its place in the world as a creative hub and growing the burgeoning industry. If Kate wears British designers’ clothes—such as the now-sold-out Issa London dress—they’re thrilled, but they aren’t necessarily aiming for the palace in the same way American designers aim for the White House.
On a gray Sunday afternoon, the Royal Courts of Justice crackled with creative energy as a squad of hairstylists, makeup artists, model dressers, and punk-attired assistants prepared for the Vivienne Westwood Red Label show. Dame Vivienne is fashion royalty: Her career took off when she dressed the Sex Pistols in the 1970s, she popularized punk fashion, and invitations to her theatrical runway shows are coveted. While awaiting the designer’s arrival backstage, I browsed the racks filled with her fall collection in the Victorian Gothic home of the Law Courts, a fitting venue for a collection paying deliberate homage to Britishness. The looks—vivid British wool and quirky mismatched prints with a dash of British prep—were inspired by British society, from Portobello Road’s artisans to (as makeup designer Alex Box told me while painting a rainbow-colored face) “a whimsical portrait of royalty” topped with crown-shaped hair pieces.
When the flame-haired Dame Vivienne, shrouded in a purple and turquoise shawl, swept into the dressing area, burly cameramen and high-heeled reporters mobbed her, wanting to know her thoughts on Topic Number One.
“I would love to have dressed Kate Middleton,” she said, “but I have to wait until she catches up a bit somewhere with style”—adding that she’s definitely not designing the wedding dress. Given her penchant for conservative style, Kate Middleton was never likely to wear Vivienne Westwood’s clothes, and the designer did not seem to care. But other designers were more kind to Kate—her traditional wardrobe can surely be attributed, in part, to the need to dress a certain way as she prepares to become a member of the royal family—and a few collections, like Jaeger London’s tomato and camel separates and Paul Smith’s menswear-inspired tailoring, could work well in her official life. The majority of the runways, however, with overwhelming furs, geometric cutouts, and psychedelic prints, were likely too fashion-forward for the future queen. And of all the designers I spoke to or read about here, few even hinted that they would like to dress Kate Middleton, and that included London’s multitude of young, hip designers who could benefit from the notoriety. It only takes one piece to help a career skyrocket.
Fashion Week’s On/Off exhibition showcases many of these emerging designers. Lee Klabin, who began her career designing couture corsets, showed her third ready-to-wear collection. The fall collection is “grown-up and angular,” said spokeswoman Charlotte Bishop, and features the designer’s signature corset bodices with elegant long gowns, fur coats, and hand-braided leather details. In moderation, the collection could work for Princess Kate—although corsets may still be too risqué for the palace. Klabin told me that Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson rank highest on her list of women she wants to dress. As Bishop said, women in positions such as Kate Middleton’s “have a certain way they need to dress. They can’t be known for pushing boundaries.”
Maria Francesca Pepe, a young accessories designer whose work has been worn by Lady Gaga and Rihanna, echoed the sentiment. She showed tribal and futuristic jewelry made of studs, pearls, and crystals, designed primarily for “women in their twenties and thirties who are enjoying fashion.” Although she would love to see Kate wear a “bold, avant-garde” necklace with one of her simple dresses, “it’s easier for her to dress more classic” in her role. Pepe thinks women in the public eye should not be criticized for “enjoying beautiful things and supporting young designers” if they choose.
There is a woman in the public eye, however, who is actively supporting young designers and becoming something of an industry fixture: Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife. As a British Fashion Council ambassador, she was not only spotted in the front row at shows like Burberry, but she also hosted a party at 10 Downing Street for the industry elite, including Westwood, Helayel, Claudia Schiffer, and top editors. And at every event, Mrs. Cameron wore a wide mix of some of Britain’s high-end runway designers and High Street boutiques, including a unique galaxy-print skirt by rising star Christopher Kane.
Samantha Cameron’s enthusiasm for the industry is not so she can be showered with designer garments, or sip champagne with powerful editors, but because (as she said at the Fashion Week opening), “It makes more than £20 billion a year for our country. It sends out a really powerful message about British creativity and it employs hundreds of thousands of people.”
Samantha Sault is a writer in Washington.