Fed up but dressed up: How coronavirus has impacted the catwalk at London Fashion Week

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t’s a strange time to be thinking about fashion. Coronavirus cases are rising at a worrying rate, local lockdowns have been imposed in England, and Boris Johnson has warned that the UK is now seeing a second wave of infections. Amid all of this, it just so happens to be London Fashion Week, and so think about fashion we must.

In normal circumstances, the biannual trade event would see hundreds of editors, buyers and influencers flock to the capital to get a first look at what British designers are planning for the season ahead. Of course, that is not the case this season. Instead, the British Fashion Council has published an almost entirely digital schedule filled with live-streamed runways where real-life ones would normally be.

This follows on from a similarly online-only event in New York, where designers mostly debuted their collections via digital presentations. The lay of the land remains unclear for upcoming fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, where quarantine restrictions render any kind of physical event for UK guests incredibly difficult. But one thing is certain: you cannot just press pause on an entire industry, not least one that’s worth £1.1tn globally and employs 430 million people worldwide.

Back to London, where the mood might have been sombre and subdued off the runways, but has proven a different matter altogether on them, figuratively speaking, considering that just three designers staged real-life catwalks.

The majority of British designers produced their spring/summer 2021 collections in lockdown. But it seems that this has sparked more of a sartorial rebellion rather than a resignation. Take Molly Goddard, who initially emerged from lockdown set on designing a mostly neutral collection, but was soon galvanised to do the exact opposite. “I realised how dark and depressing the last few months had been and more and more colour crept into the collection,” she said of the checkerboard zip-ups, fuchsia frothy frocks, and yellow polka dot prints that she produced. “In the end, it became an explosion of colour, prints and joy.”

Molly Goddard spring/summer 2021
Molly Goddard spring/summer 2021(Ben Broomfield @photobenphoto)

Sure, if the UK does enter into another lockdown, we might not have anywhere to wear such flamboyant clothes, but maybe that doesn’t matter: in these dark times, it’s the fantasy that counts. At least, that’s the underlying message that many of the designers showing at London Fashion Week seem to have adopted.

Consider Mark Fast’s neon rave garb. There were graffiti-covered hoodies, striped bodycon dresses, and razor-sharp stilettos, all of which were ready to take us to a warehouse party somewhere in the distant future. Then there were the glitzy gowns at Temperley. Slip dresses were soaked in sequins and evening gowns shimmered with elaborate embroidery, providing a heady dose of escapism. We saw similarly impractical but imaginative items over at 16Arlington, like a chocolate brown mesh slip dress and a black cross-stitched dress that exposed one’s entire backside.

Mark Fast spring/summer 2021
Mark Fast spring/summer 2021(Chris Yates)

Very few designers have addressed the pandemic head on. At Halpern, we saw a celebration of frontline workers, with cleaners, nurses, and train managers all starring in the brand’s campaign video. But that was where the coronavirus influences began and ended, because Halpern’s spring/summer 2021 collection was, like Fast and Goddard, an entirely fantastical affair. Fuzzy orb dresses, feather-trimmed dressing gowns and giant plisses strengthened London Fashion Week’s underlying message that now is not a time to dwell but to dress up.

Bethany Williams took a different approach with her collection. Titled All Our Children, it paid tribute to the Magpie Project, an organisation supporting homeless families at which the menswear designer volunteers. The clothes were still dazzling — colourful co-ords and corsets splashed with primary colours — but they drove home the message that fashion can serve a philanthropic purpose as well as a fanciful one, and that perhaps, given the current climate, the former is more important. Generally speaking, though, designers focused on the latter.

At Burberry, for example, while we saw an elaborate performance art fashion show staged in the middle of a hauntingly beautiful forest, we saw very little consideration of the pandemic. Social distancing was abandoned as mask-free models wrestled in slow motion while the hypnotic vocals of musician Eliza Douglas rang out. The clothing — think elevated streetwear fringed with crystal and tulle — seemed serendipitous, as did claims in the show notes that the collection referenced an imagined “love affair between a mermaid and a shark”.

Burberry spring/summer 2021
Burberry spring/summer 2021(Burberry)

There were face coverings elsewhere, though. Like at Bora Aksu, whose First World War-inspired collection offered a thoughtful commentary on the pandemic and saw models glide down the runway in Organza masks. They might not have served much of a medical purpose, but they did allow the models’ pops of brightly coloured lipstick to show from underneath: a creative flourish that was noticeably lacking in other collections.

The only other British designer to toy with face coverings so far has been fledgling NewGen talent Matty Bovan, who crafted his entire collection on mannequins, draping their faces in heraldic shields and lace veils and colourful crochet.

Matty Bovan spring/summer 2021
Matty Bovan spring/summer 2021(Matty Bovan)

Overall, London designers veered away from experimenting with the pandemic’s signature look. The majority chose instead to simply hand out complimentary medical masks at their socially distanced presentations or one-on-one appointments. This was not the case in New York, where the few designers who did choose to present new collections experimented with texture and form to produce an array of artistic masks. At Christian Siriano, we saw lace-covered masks, gingham masks, masks with pearls, and masks with 3D applique florals. We also saw carefully constructed masks at Anna Sui, where they matched the outfits below them. Clearly, it is possible to have fun with such an ostensibly drab garment.

There is still more to come in London, with major brands like JW Anderson, Christopher Kane and Victoria Beckham, all scheduled to debut their collections on Monday. The way things have gone so far, it’s likely that they will fall into one of two camps: those that have provided a distraction from the pandemic and those that have used it to fuel their artistic sensibilities. As for which way the chips will fall, only time will tell. Let’s just hope they maintain some social distancing when they do.

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