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Sheer Ambition

A new generation of designers has lifted London Fashion Week to the next level.

September 30, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer


One of the more curious runway shows of the season was held in an industrial space at an old brewery here and could be reached only by climbing three flights of stairs, then winding through a cocktail party, over a rooftop laced with caution tape and across a warehouse full of parkas.

This kind of gritty charm used to characterize London Fashion Week. But this season, the fledgling Fashion East show was the exception. Over the last few years a new generation of designers has emerged, with Christopher Kane, Giles Deacon, Richard Nicoll and Jonathan Saunders leading the way. And they mean business. They're showing in a professional way, and their collections are consistently interesting and salable enough to make London a must-see.

Kane is the hottest designer to come out of the British scene in a long time. Even if he isn't a household name yet, his influence is global. Just a year ago, he showed a collection of neon bandage dresses that helped usher in the slim silhouette now being worn by Victoria Beckham and half of Hollywood.

But for spring, he changed course completely, showing clothes that fell away from the body -- fluttery, off-the-shoulder blouses; airy shirtdresses in a subtle snakeskin print; chiffon biker jackets; and tiered, full length skirts trimmed in leather. He debuted denim in stonewashed blue with frayed knees, and showed the midriff again with cropped cashmere sweaters. (Help!) It was Laura Ingalls Wilder meets heavy-metal groupie, and it set the mood for what turned out to be a surprisingly romantic week in light of last season's 1980s fling.

Giles Deacon went to the prom with party dresses in candy colors. To keep things from being too saccharine, dresses were screen-printed with images of a naked Kate Moss in a pinup pose, festooned with looped rubber bands, rubberized flowers and leaves, or puffed up with crinoline skirts. One dress came in a "Who Killed Bambi" print, inspired by a Sex Pistols album cover. And although not every piece worked, the concept was clever enough to appeal to Deacon's edgy girl customer.

Nathan Jenden, the head designer at Diane von Furstenberg who launched his own collection last season, had crinolines too. He said his inspiration was Aztec priestesses, but the petticoats, lawn stripe knickers and bow-front blouses were more evocative of the court of Versailles. All in all, there was a lot of pomp, but not much practicality.

Which is exactly what you'd expect from Bruno Basso and Christopher Brooke of Basso & Brooke. These are the guys who showed their Fall '06 collection in a vault next to the London Dungeon, where their wildly printed, rock 'n' roll cat suits were almost totally obscured by dry ice. This season, they played it shockingly straight, showing lady suits and draped jersey gowns in painterly pastel prints, some with intricate beading, that could travel straight to the racks of Neiman Marcus. The matching shoes, hats, belts and handbags were fantastic. If these guys keep it up, they could become the Emilio Pucci of the 21st century.

Serbian designer Roksanda Ilincic made some of the week's grandest romantic gestures, pumping up the sleeves of a gold coat like angel's wings, and the single shoulder of a black gown with an enormous pouf. But it was the more subtle surprises, such as having a sleeveless satin top open in the back to reveal a jeweled belt on a skirt, that made the bigger impression.

Richard Nicoll's designs were more streamlined and angular than most anyone else's, but no less sensual. Tailoring was key, with origami-like peplums on boxy jackets, and square collars on sheer blouses. But what was really interesting was how Nicoll softened these hard elements by layering sheer leggings under a Lurex knife-pleat skirt, and adding a draped twist to the back of a shirtdress.

Jonathan Saunders was best when he kept things streamlined. Pastel color-block dresses and coats evoking the Memphis art movement had a sleek athleticism to them. But when he added amoeba-like, crinkled skirts to tank dresses, they started to resemble costumes from "Mars Attacks!"

It wasn't the week's only Hollywood moment. In what may have been the biggest mark of its success, London Fashion Week scored a big-time celebrity guest -- Prince, who jumped out of his front row seat at the Matthew Williamson show to sing "U Got the Look." By the time the models starting coming out in Williamson's trademark ethnic-looking embroidered frocks, ruffled party dresses, short shorts and brightly striped blazers, nobody even cared that they'd seen it all before.


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