London’s Sense of Political Rebellion Is Overflowing Into Fashion
“I think it’s really important to be more radical than ever," says Christopher Kane.
I like that things aren’t always straightforward in London,” says Alexa Chung, the veteran British style personality who has worked on both sides of the pond, as they say, having lived in New York City for nearly a decade before returning to her native country two years ago to start her namesake fashion collection.
“In America, if you ask someone, ‘Do you like that?’ The answer is either yes or no,” she says. “Here they’ll say, ‘It’s lovely,’ and that could mean a cornucopia of things. Reading between the lines becomes a daily sport, and it keeps things just really interesting and weird.”
Interesting and weird is a fairly apt description for the U.K. right about now, as the country hurtles toward a March 29 deadline to complete its proposed exit from the European Union, commonly known as Brexit. But with no clear deal in sight and a delay or reversal still possible at press time, the uncertainty is weighing heavily on London’s fashion industry. For decades London has been a factory town for new talent, home to some of the most thrilling, experimental designers in the world, from Mary Quant of miniskirt fame to Vivienne Westwood and the punk movement to Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, brash provocateurs who challenged the very norms of decency in their heydays.
The fear among the fashion community here is that Brexit will make it harder for emerging designers to succeed, as renewed tariffs on imports and exports, untold visa regulations, and other legal complications may isolate them from global markets.
“It’s terrifying,” says Michael Halpern, an American transplant who started his label in London after completing a master’s program at the prestigious Central Saint Martins arts and design college. “We keep asking what is going to happen with our businesses.”
Still, the mood here is anything but grim. The spring collections were among the best of the season, a real fashion moment led by a group of designers who have matured over the past decade to make London Fashion Week a can’t-miss destination for newness. There’s a scrappy survivalist’s instinct in London, where chaos seems to feed creativity. “At times like this,” says Christopher Kane, a Scot whose darkly romantic visions have kept audiences rapt since he launched his label in 2006, “I think it’s really important to be more radical than ever. That’s why people gravitate toward us.”
Last year, at the same time that he was buying back control of his label from parent company Kering after a five-year partnership, Kane revived a more button-pushing tone. His fall collection was filled with imagery and illustrations from the Joy of Sex handbooks, and the subsequent collection, called Sex in Nature, featured whimsical graphics that read “Sexual Cannibalism” or “Foreplay.” Kane says he was looking at human nature, the highs and lows of his own life over the past year, and the moral angst over how women dress, particularly if they choose to look sexy.
“It’s good for people to have a voice and speak out,” he says. “I do that through my work. It’s what I feel is right.”
Fashion often reflects the moment, which helps explain why many designers used the spring season to tell stories about their own sense of identity. For Chung, the theme of her collection was arrivals and departures, with clothes that pointed to her own return to London (think raincoats, capes, and her signature overalls). In a sentimental show Simone Rocha combined elements of her dual Chinese and Irish heritage with prints based on imagery from the Tang dynasty as well as “influences from how my granny used to dress,” she says.
“At the moment there’s a real sense of rebellion,” Rocha says. “The whole climate has made people try to create really interesting work. Being kept in the dark is very confusing, but it’s about looking at your own business and seeing how to navigate it as best as you can. I’m a European and Irish, so I take it very personally.”
Erdem Moralıoğlu’s fluoro-Victorian collection was inspired by a plaque he discovered near a home he purchased in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood that paid tribute to Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, who lived as women — posing as sisters Fanny and Stella — in the 1860s.
“What’s always been so wonderful about London is its strange mix of people,” Moralıoğlu says. “All of us are from so many different places. I was born in Canada, my mom’s from Birmingham [U.K.], my father’s Turkish. And now, of course, we’re on the precipice of a lot of change. It’s scary as much as it is kind of a strangely exciting time.”
When Halpern started his collection in London nearly two years ago, he was amazed by how quickly the industry made him feel part of a community. With the support of the British Fashion Council and key editors, he has been received on the same level as designers with much more experience. Now he worries that he may not be able to produce in the U.K. if fabrics he purchases in Italy — a duchesse satin for €40 per meter, for example — become subject to taxes of 20 percent or more.
“That’s something these politicians don’t understand,” Halpern says. “It’s going to affect not only me as a business but also everyone we work with. If we can’t make the clothes here, I’d have to move the company to Italy or France.”
Chung says she returned to the U.K. to set up shop because she recognized that incorporating a sense of Britishness — that witty attitude and stiff upper lip — was an important element of her overall brand identity. But she looks around her office and sees that, in fact, only about a third of her staff are English, while the rest are French, Belgian, Greek, Spanish, or Dutch. This welcome diversity, more than anything, reminds her of the importance of staying put, to make sure that London remains such a vibrant place.
“It’s quite a British thing to do, to hold steady,” Chung says. “If I’m being optimistic, I hope even as the shit hits the fan, we’ll be able to make something good from it.”
Erdem & Ina Jensen
“What all of us have in London is a great sense of humor,” says designer Erdem Moralıoğlu.
Roksanda & Ashley Adjaye
“I see Ashley as my muse,” says Roksanda Ilinčić (left) of the business consultant and wife of architect
David Adjaye, who designed Ilinčić’s Mayfair store. “She gives my clothes new life and meaning.”
Simone Rocha & Flora Fleming
“At the moment there’s a real sense of rebellion,” says Rocha, whose spring collection is a tribute to her Chinese and Irish heritage. “The whole climate has made people try to create really interesting work.”
Alexa Chung & Valentine Fillol-Cordier
“Valentine is a perfect example of what I love about Britain,” says Chung of the stylist and creative consultant. “She’s someone I keep in the back of my mind as a purveyor of good taste.”
Christopher Kane & Sheila Atim
“Sheila has the most amazing stage presence,” Kane says of the Olivier Award winner for her supporting role in the musical Girl from the North Country. “Her performance gives you shivers.”
Giles Deacon & Hebe Flury
“I’ve always been interested in models as people and characters,” says Deacon, who, long before he started his wildly inventive collection in 2004, was a model himself.
Michael Halpern & Maxim Magnus
“She’s brilliant,” says Halpern of the trans model, who shaved her head as an act of liberation. “She doesn’t worry about doing something that will make her feel less powerful or less elegant.”
Roland Mouret & Sabrina Dhowre Elba
“Sabrina is an amazing woman from Canada who decided to immigrate to Britain for love,” Mouret says of the model and businesswoman, who married actor Idris Elba last year. “Her story is magical.”
Mary Katrantzou & Sara Van der Hoek
For her 10th anniversary collection, Katrantzou showed off her specialty, trompe l’oeil, including dresses embroidered with butterflies, candles, coral, and even postage stamps.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.