LONDON — Iwas sitting on a bleacher in a converted brewery on Brick Lane, the epicenter of cool in East London, when the first model in the Noki House of Sustainability show walked out. She was wearing a buttocks-baring, fishtail gown made out of a deconstructed concert tee and an old prom dress, and a white baseball hat with a brilliantly sliced, diced, curled brim, her hair sculpted into a ponytail that projected straight up off the top of her head.
The fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Roopal Patel, and I looked at each other and smiled. "I love to see what it means to be a young designer in different places," she said.
How right she is. Most of the young designers in New York were too busy romancing the Conde Nast and Park Avenue princess set to make waves.
But here in London, there's still a rebel spirit. So you have Noki -- a.k.a. club kid "ragger" Jonathan J.J. Hudson -- recycling Mickey Mouse tees, not to sell, but to inspire others to follow him down the green path. And Richard Nicoll sending up the puritan ethos with sheer, peekaboo insets on modest square-collared black dresses, and crinolines peeking out from the slits of modest pencil skirts. Then there's Vivienne Westwood, the oldest young designer in the business, returning to the London catwalk for the first time in nine years, with a cross-dressing model in a pair of "Guantanamo orange" panties with the slogan "Fair Trial My Arse" across the backside.
These are designers who have something to say!
From House of Holland's Technicolor Highlands punk fling, starring Eastside pal and model-of-the-moment Agyness Deyn, to Gareth Pugh's grim reapers in safety pins, goat fur and polyhedral leather jackets, the scene is electrifying.
Not only can they go clubbing all night, the fashion crowd here is literary too. Christopher Kane, London's fastest rising star, was inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando," about a knightly man who wakes up to discover he's been transformed into a woman. At his show, you could see the plot in motion from the first look, a charcoal poncho that morphed into a chunky Aran sweater artfully embroidered with silver studs, and a long Aran knit dress covered not in chain mail, but in oversized black paillettes.
The story wound around to delicate evening wear -- layered organza sheaths and gowns with veiled paillettes and coiled embroidery. But the simplest pieces were the best, and thankfully there were enough of them to keep the Kane buzz going.
Giles Deacon was on a similar wavelength with his gothic disco theme. Setting aside the silly face veils, hooded capes and crystal fetish shoes, there was impressive craftsmanship here, and a new level of refinement for Deacon. Spun-silk cobweb knits seemed to be deteriorating on the body (a la Rodarte), while satin dance skirts with zippered pleats had a great punk rock edge.
A teal satin gown with spiraling sheer insets was made for the red carpet, as was a scarlet gown embellished with feathery cutouts that made the model look as if she had been swept up in the wings of a majestic bird.
Mario Schwab was also in a dark mood, inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 story "The Yellow Wallpaper," about a woman forced into confinement in an attic where the wallpaper drives her mad. He took the season's long, lean silhouette to the extreme with binding jersey tube dresses that sent models hobbling down the runway. The shapes didn't change much, but the technique did, thanks to a collaboration with artist Tom Gallant. One gown appeared to be covered in intricate paper cuttings, another in layers of color and print that evoked peeling wallpaper. It's a shame the craft was almost lost in the high-brow concept.
Roksanda Ilincic is earning a reputation for her slightly edgy, sculptural evening wear, which is reminiscent of a more avant-garde version of Lanvin. Her show had some strong pieces, such as a navy satin three-quarter sleeve dress gathered at the waist, with a nude back left unzipped to reveal a hot pink satin lining, and another sleeveless emerald green style with a pink fold at the back and a spray of pink ostrich feathers. But other pieces could have used more restraint.
Miles away from the trendy East End is Graeme Black, a name you will be hearing more, now that he's returned to Britain after 15 years of working in Italy for Armani and Ferragamo. He launched his collection there two years ago, but is bringing it home to produce in his native Scotland. In a show held at an antique fireplace gallery that was nothing short of exquisite, he tweaked British heritage pieces, adding Celtic-inspired embroidery to a brown tweed shift dress with an ivory cashmere knit bodice and ruffled cashmere cap sleeves, reinterpreting the kilt in tweed with brown suede overstitched pleats, and using a blue-hued Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired print on a sweeping organza skirt and blouse.
As for the establishment, Paul Smith tried to shake things up, mixing paintbrush print tops with pale pink floral dirndl skirts and clever matching print stockings, masculine tailoring with Prada-esque fuzzy coats and sweaters in acidy hues. But there weren't a lot of new ideas.
Westwood's clothes haven't changed much either. But the charged audience at her show Thursday night -- including Lily Allen, Kimberley Stewart, Kelly Osbourne and, strangely, Cuba Gooding Jr. -- didn't mind.
This was her less expensive Red Label, but the naughty spirit and fractured tailoring were the same. A tartan plaid pencil skirt with a bubble bum, and a black cotton suit with asymmetrical hems, as if it had been sewn after a few pints, were as exciting as ever.
Of course, none of it looked as good as Westwood did taking her bow. Orange hair flying, she walked the runway in a sparkly shrug and the highest heels in the room.
A true London original.