On my first night of Fashion Week, I was told to leave a bar because I’m a woman. I was staying at the Cavalry and Guards Club, a members-only establishment that, in 1890, was the premier club for officers in elite regiments of the British Army. Frequented by the prince of Wales (later the duke of Windsor) in the 1920s and ’30s, it is now open to men and women and provides affordable accommodations on Piccadilly, just steps away from Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and the venues for Fashion Week.
Apparently, the club still retains remnants of its customs from its earlier days when it was considered unladylike to drink cocktails during the day with male officers.
I popped into Geoffrey’s Bar for a cocktail and a bite to eat prior to an evening of catwalk shows and champagne-filled parties. With the exception of a portrait of the queen in the entryway, the walls of the Cavalry and Guards Club are covered in artwork depicting Englishmen in uniform and British military victories. But upon entering Geoffrey’s, my male companion was informed by the bartender, “I’m sorry, no ladies are permitted in the bar until 6 P.M.”
Welcome to London? Well, that scene in the Cavalry and Guards would contrast sharply with the spectacle at London Fashion Week, one of the most non-traditional fashion weeks in the world. From the cutting-edge catwalk fashions to attendees’ avant-garde, often bizarre, clothing ensembles and hairdos, London Fashion Week would seem awfully foreign to the officers of the club’s heyday.
At an evening screening of short films in London’s edgy Shoreditch neighborhood, British Vogue’s art director Jaime Perlman told me that Fashion Week is a “creative hub” featuring “new, emerging, young talent” from Britain and around the world. “Some of the most innovative designs start here,” she added. In addition to her duties for Vogue, Perlman runs Test, a digital experimental company and website that allows her a “creative outlet to work with more up-and-coming designers.” Test produces, among other things, fashion films, many of them with dark storylines to highlight the collections. One showed the Spring/Summer 2011 collection of designer Cecilia Mary Robson, who studied at the London College of Fashion. In the film, translucent young models play tennis and frolic in an eerie, Gatsby-style mansion while wearing Robson’s modern shift dresses. (At the end, all the models are shot on the tennis court by an unseen gunman.)
Over champagne at a pop-up shop in a Mayfair gallery, the French couturier Alexis Mabille explained London Fashion Week by saying it mixes “tradition plus a fresh attitude.” In addition to his eponymous couture, Mabille designs sequin- and fur-adorned down coats and vests for Pyrenex, a family-owned down company that began in the feather business in 1859. In an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, Pyrenex brought its flashy, fashion-forward designs to Fashion Week in London, with its rich history and young designers.
That mix of the traditional and “fresh attitude” can be seen throughout Fashion Week, from the location of the catwalk shows to the catwalks themselves. London Fashion Week is headquartered at Somerset House, the massive neoclassical building overlooking the Thames at the edge of fashionable Covent Garden. The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben can be seen from the entrance. The site is rich with history, dating back to the 12th century when it served as a prime residential area for families looking to gain influence at court. In the 1550s Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, built a mansion on the site where, a century later, Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state. Although it survived the Great Fire of 1666, the original Tudor palace was demolished in 1775 and rebuilt to become London’s center of the arts. The Somerset House courtyard contains the main London Fashion Week tent, housing the British Fashion Council’s catwalk-show space and press lounges. The winding, palatial rooms were filled with the freshest ready-to-wear, jewelry, handbags, accessories, and lingerie. Visitors lounging and smoking in the courtyard ranged from the most stylish Britons in the latest fall fashions to people with bizarro costumes and furs, visible lingerie, colorful hairdos, and giant shoes.
The catwalk fashions, too, mix the traditional and modern. The British designer Jasper Conran, son of Sir Terence Conran, sent airy sundresses and pants fit for a country holiday down the catwalk. The clothes were quite demure, but the tangerine and lime designs were fresh. Meanwhile, the Welsh designer (and former Alexander McQueen intern) Jayne Pierson showed blouses with sleeves and necklines reminiscent of the Tudor era, mixed with sleek gray leather jackets and dresses featuring military details. Other clear trends on the catwalks and in the presentation halls of London included neon colors, sheer fabrics and lingerie details, and baubles with spikes and skulls.
The fresh attitude is sometimes cheeky: The Israeli-born designer Lee Klabin created my favorite collection with its stunning sculptured dresses with corset bodices, sheer blouses, and sassy shorts. I chatted with Charlotte Bishop, Klabin’s PR woman, in the designer’s showroom in a Shoreditch loft space. She told me about Klabin’s beginnings as a bespoke corset designer for celebrities like burlesque dancer and model Dita Von Teese and actress Sarah Jessica Parker. Klabin’s latest ready-to-wear collection features slimming German jersey dresses, sculptured Napa leather skirts, raw-edge details that are “rough and ready,” and, of course, “sensuous, lingerie-inspired details” that create Victorian silhouettes for the modern woman. Sold exclusively at Harrods, the collection, I was informed, is designed for the woman who is “a strong business woman one day, and a fun party girl the next.”
Such a woman, I thought, in her sexy, stunning leather corset-bodice dress, might cause a stir at the Cavalry and Guards Club; but she would epitomize the style and attitude of London Fashion Week. It’s gaining prominence among the fashion weeks of the world, and to echo Jaime Perlman, it’s a hub of creative new designs and a venue for designers who either aren’t sufficiently well known for Paris or commercial enough for New York. London is the breeding ground for cutting-edge fashion now, but most designers would like to build their brand beyond the city. After all, as Bishop told me excitedly, her boss is also showing her Spring/Summer 2011 collection at a pop-up shop during Paris Fashion Week.
London, however, remains a birthplace for fashion trends. When I asked Alexis Mabille why they brought Pyrenex to London, rather than some other destination, he replied: “London is the beginning.”
Samantha Sault is a writer in Washington.