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London Fashion Week: a study in opulence and urgency

London Fashion Week: a study in opulence and urgency
At left, a look from the fall and winter 2019 Erdem collection presented at the National Portrait Gallery on Feb. 18. At right, climate change demonstrators stop traffic in central London the previous day. (Vianney Le Caer / Invision (left), Niklas Halle'n / AFP/Getty Images)

For the most part, the collections that came down the runways here were in step with the ones on the New York Fashion Week docket — tons of tulle, enough metallics to set off an airport metal detector, an abundance of A-line silhouettes and trouser legs that flared, billowed and pooled around the ankles.

But two things made London Fashion Week feel markedly different; one was a sense of opulence and excess — in both fabrication and embellishment — that many collections had in common. The other was a feeling of urgency — on both the political and environmental fronts — that manifested itself both on and off the runways here.

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Opulence

Opulent looks from the fall and winter 2019 runway collections of Mary Katrantzou, from left, Christoper Kane and Peter Pilotto.
Opulent looks from the fall and winter 2019 runway collections of Mary Katrantzou, from left, Christoper Kane and Peter Pilotto. (From left, Niklas Halle'n / AFP/Getty Images, Grant Pollard / Invision, Stephen Jaffe / IMF)

You couldn’t throw a gem-festooned brooch this week without hitting a collection full of rich velvets, exquisite brocades and jeweled embellishments, a feeling heightened further by the pumped up volume of the dress and overcoat silhouettes. The fall and winter 2019 Peter Pilotto collection referenced regal opulence specifically in the show notes but barely had to thanks to the abundance of lurex jacquard tuxedos, tiered balloon-sleeve dresses in plisse metallic and a feathery fil coupé that, on one top, called to mind mini Champagne bottles with corks exploding into feather sprays.

Other memorably opulent offerings came by way of Erdem’s tiered lace, tulle and floral-print confections with extensive trains and Mary Katrantzou’s Big Bang of opulence that fired on all cylinders: ombré ruffles, a constellation of Swarovski crystal embroidery, and intricate jacquards inspired by macro photography of fissures in Earth’s surface.

Urgency

At left, Rose McGowan on the runway at Vivienne Westwood. At right, the spring / summer 2019 Mother of Pearl presentation filled Fitzrovia Chapel with 300,000 pearl balls.
At left, Rose McGowan on the runway at Vivienne Westwood. At right, the spring / summer 2019 Mother of Pearl presentation filled Fitzrovia Chapel with 300,000 pearl balls. (Grant Pollard / Invision (left), Mother of Pearl (rigtht))

When it came to focusing on planet Earth, Katrantzou had plenty of company here, the most high-profile of which was a group called Extinction Rebellion that organized several traffic-snarling protests outside a handful of shows (including the Victoria Beckham and Burberry venues) to highlight environmental issues. “Extinction Rebellion calls on culture to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency that is happening now and respond accordingly,” the group’s handout flier read in part, “[t]he fashion industry is not responsible for the unsustainable system it exists within, but it’s a key driver of global trends. In a context of ecological catastrophe and mass extinction, influence like this can and must be used responsibly.”

Vivienne Westwood, a designer who has long used her runway shows as a platform for her political views — Greenpeace, global warming and Leonard Peltier are just a few issues that come to mind — used her Homo Loquax (translation “chattering man”) show to focus on concerns both political and environmental, filling her stage with protest slogan T-shirts and activists (including John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, and actress Rose McGowan) and her show notes with suggestions like “tell children the truth,” and “fashion’s all about styling: buy less, choose well, make it last.”

Reading between the lines, a “buy less/choose well” approach to fashion implies that buying high-end (i.e. built-to-last) goods is more sustainable than the buy, discard and replace hamster-wheel of fast fashion. That certainly seemed to be the tenor of the short film “Can Fashion Be Sustainable?” commissioned by BBC Earth in collaboration with the British Fashion Council (not coincidentally organizers of London Fashion Week) that was screened at a Saturday cocktail party here.

One of the event’s hosts was Amy Powney, creative director of a label called Mother of Pearl, and the presentation of her spring and summer 2019 Vivian collection (named after and taking inspiration from Julia Roberts’ “Pretty Woman” character, Vivian Ward) included a novel way of hammering home fashion’s impact on the environment: 300,000 (recyclable) plastic, pearl-like balls that turned the Fitzrovia Chapel venue for her show into an immense ball pit.

Models at the spring and summer 2019 Mother of Pearl presentation jump into a ball pit that represents the daily amount of plastic microbeads that enter the oceans daily as a result of washing synthetic fibers.
Models at the spring and summer 2019 Mother of Pearl presentation jump into a ball pit that represents the daily amount of plastic microbeads that enter the oceans daily as a result of washing synthetic fibers. (Mother of Pearl)

“The balls represent the plethora of microplastics that are deposited into the oceans each day from the washing of synthetic fibres, which cause serious issues to marine life,” Powney explained in the show notes, noting that’s why she chooses to use natural fibers (though that’s just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg for Powney, who says she’s made it a point to focus on every aspect of her supply chain to minimize its impact on the planet.)

Her collaboration with BBC Earth extends beyond the short film and includes a nine-piece Mother of Pearl X BBC Earth capsule collection (made with organic peace silk and sustainable dyes) that is set to drop exclusively at Net-a-Porter.com in June.

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