LONDON — In 1139 Archbishop Malachy of Armagh supposedly had a vision of the future that became known as the “prophesy of popes.” In it, the Irish saint predicted the names of 112 pontiffs who would rule until the end of days. Though it was later shown to be a 16th-century forgery, the second to last pope on the list was Benedict, which has suggested to some in the Roman Catholic world that the final pope could be the current pope, and the apocalypse is nigh.
Actually, not just the Catholic world but, apparently, the fashion world, too.
Over the weekend, Simone Rocha put the idea front and center on a dress. It was lovely — royal purple splashed with a gold scripted rendering of the saint’s name, draped in swathes of black satin — and it was sandwiched between piles of baptismal lace and tulle; watery fisherman knits and oyster satin slithers; elaborately embroidered cross-topped sacred hearts: the semiology of prayer, loss and rebirth. And it was not happenstance.
Brexit has finally been approved. Storm Dennis, officially classified as a “weather bomb,” was lashing Britain as the shows began, flooding roads and wreaking havoc. A designer here could be forgiven for thinking it’s the end of days. It’s definitely the end of something. The issue for everyone is what comes next.
“Of course I’m worried,” said Molly Goddard after her show of tulle extravaganzas mixed with chunky Fair Isle knits and nerdy-cool tailoring that was an ode to her youth in the late 1990s around London’s Portobello Market. “I’m worried about the people in my factories, most of whom aren’t English, even though the factories are nearby.”
That’s to be expected. As was the existential questioning of identity that was an underlying current in so many of the clothes here: What does it mean to be British? What content do these symbols we put on our backs contain any more?
What was less predictable was where such thinking led some designers: not to the depths of despair, but somewhere else entirely. To a world after doomsday. To renewal, and reinvention.
Could cynicism be out of fashion? What an idea.
Identity and Its Discontents
But first, there was a lot of black. A lot of big, swaddling volumes. A lot of covert messaging and a lot of wrestling — some good, some weighed down with angst — with the past. For some: a lot of royal sleevage. For others: argyle, houndstooth, tweed.
Victoria Beckham belted her curving black sheaths and neatly tailored culotte-suits with hands-across-the-hips silver and cut diamond-shaped holes into her sweater vests like a remembrance of things lost. Emilia Wickstead offered big puffed sleeves and even bigger skirts; Roksanda, a safe space of billowing, shimmering drapes of many colors and chunky, patchwork-nation knits.
At Burberry, the chief creative officer, Riccardo Tisci, named his collection “Memories:” of the brand itself, but also of London, when he was a fashion student, living in the Bethnal Green neighborhood, and of his trips to India, where he started his own label; of the melting pot of the capital and the designer mind. That meant — checks! And trench coats! Lots of them with feathers and faux furs, deconstructed into parts and twisted into sari-like assemblages; mixed and matched and also madras for men and women; leopard and contrasting linings thrown in.
Also the occasional big star plastered on the front of a shirt, and a festival’s worth of rugby stripes in cinnamon and turmeric, as if for a game of Quidditch in Mumbai. Also some go-go silver fringe, for evening. Also a lot of green (afterward Burberry announced the show had been certified carbon neutral and that it was creating what it called “a regeneration fund” to support carbon insetting in its supply chain).
If that sounds like it is skating across the surface — not the environmental initiatives, which are laudable, but the fashion interpretations of the national totems — that’s also how it looked: polished, easy to wear, but lacking depth and soul. Which is odd, because Mr. Tisci is nothing if not an emotional designer, and it often takes an outsider (he’s Italian) to really grapple with a country’s imagery. It’s as if he is deliberately denaturing himself to appeal to as many people as possible; going not with his gut, but with his market research.
Of Risk and Reward
In any case, it still made more sense than Tommy Hilfiger’s #TommyNow celebration of Americana, inclusivity and his celebrity connections in stars, stripes, anchors aweigh, neon and slogans — “Just Rise;” “Still Human;” “Loyalty” — via collaborations with the singer H.E.R. and the Formula One star Lewis Hamilton. The effect was of a semi-party in a place that isn’t really in the mood to party any more (and that has increasingly mixed feelings about the “special relationship” between itself and its former colony anyway). The message was meaningful, but the medium confused.
Mr. Hilfiger has never been a thinking person’s designer. That is absolutely fine; not all clothes need a philosophical grounding (that would be exhausting). But a little sensitivity to context and timing is no bad thing.
British fashion — London fashion — has always had an identity more rooted in risk-taking creativity than in page-view calculation and hashtags.
In the willingness, for example, of Hussein Chalayan to not just double down on the idea of a suit and turn a pair of trousers into a cardigan for his Chalayan show, so the legs wrap the shoulders and the hips shadow the back, but to dare to write and sing his own songs, live, as an accompaniment (that’s putting yourself out there). In the explosive romance of Richard Quinn’s Buckingham Palace-size florals and empire drapes; the pointed extravagance of his nod to Pearly Kings and Queens, the cockney performers with mother-of-pearl studded costumes. In a sense of history, and the gumption to turn it on its head.
Which is why it was so striking to see the connections between the 1920s and the 2020s being drawn at Erdem, with his Cecil Beaton-inspired checkerboards and bias frills; his Erté feathers and lamé Wedgewood-print puffers; his flapper dresses dripping loops of pearls. At Christopher Kane, where things took a turn for the sexually subversive (he called his show “Naturotica’) in more Art Deco geometries. Meant, apparently, to reference the love triangle of Adam, Eve and the serpent, and followed by lacy lingerie slips, strait-laced shirt dresses with sheer mesh tops and chain mail apple-red skirts slit to mid-hip on either side.
And at JW Anderson, where in a terrific collection Jonathan Anderson reached across the century to mix the classic with the couture with the sci-fi to create something viscerally, elegantly modern.
“I was thinking about that moment in the ’20s when everything resurged and rebounded,” he said backstage after the show, which he dubbed “nouveau chic.”
So he took heritage swing coats in camel and wool and blew them up to “optimistic volumes,” adding giant swaddling leather collars; crushed fantasy beer-can-print lamé into shift dresses; crafted sleeveless metallic bubble gowns out of fringed metallic knits to mimic a very glamorous Snuffleupagus; and topped the shoulders of flowing flannel capes, curvaceous tweed coats and silver screen siren gowns with fronds of pearly cellophane that wafted gently in the wind.
It is possible, of course, to question whether the 1920s — the years between the wars — is actually the best harbinger for fashion to embrace. They may have represented a great creative flowering, a burst of energy and social revolution, but they did not exactly end well. On the other hand, you can’t argue with the fact that if, indeed, the four horsemen are coming, at least this way we can greet them with aplomb.