If the second day of London Fashion Week was all about pushing the pandemic to one side, the third was about bringing it back to centre and ruffling feathers in its face.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, London Fashion Week has been forced to radically overhaul its usual proceedings. In previous seasons, the schedule would be packed with presentations, runway shows, and exhibitions taking place all over the capital. Now, the industry is adapting to a new normal, one that has seen real-life runways replaced with digital ones, while presentations are either conducted in small groups or in one-on-one appointments.
While the second day saw two designers – Bora Aksu and Mark Fast – stage socially-distanced catwalk shows, day three was an entirely digital affair. Things got off to an unexpected start at Richard Malone, who served up an abstract feast of tonal ensembles and materials he’d experimented with in his bathroom during lockdown. Then The Independent visited the fledgeling American talent that is Michael Halpern for an individual appointment following the release of the brand’s heartwarming film starring frontline workers. And finally, it was off to 16Arlington for a retro water-inspired collection.
There was a unifying theme of defiance across the collections on Saturday, the message being that yes, we are in the midst of a global crisis, but that doesn’t mean we should cower in the corner. Now is the time to dig into the fancy dress box, to take sartorial risks, and to be unafraid of diving deep into fashion’s creative rabbit hole. Here are a few of our highlights from day three of London Fashion Week.
While some fashion designers have chosen to turn a blind eye to the pandemic this season, Richard Malone confronts it head on with his abstract spring/summer 2021 collection. Inspired by his backlash to the unrelenting monotony of the UK lockdown, the British design talent has created one of his most opulent collections yet while relying on a limited palette of mustard yellows, sky blues and khaki greens. Almost every look contains just one colour, offering up a masterclass in tonal dressing.
As for the garments themselves, there are the stiff high-neck fitted dresses, crushed velvet blazers, ruched gathered gowns, and corseted lace-up tops, all of which lend themselves to this image of clothing as armour, something that Malone was eager to tap into as a way of expressing the resilience so many of us have developed during the pandemic.
The materials carry a DIY feel, which is perhaps because Malone spent the lockdown rifling through deadstock materials, dying them in his bathtub, and running them through the washing machine to achieve the perfect crinkle.
In the brand’s accompanying film, models move together in robotic formation. Yes, they look incredibly glamorous in Malone’s plush designs, but there is a stiffness to them, too, as if they cannot be broken. Overall, the collection carries a real sense of audacity and strength, qualities we could certainly do with ourselves right now.
At the start of lockdown, Michael Halpern’s mother sent him a book about Victorian women that examined their roles in society alongside the clothes that they wore. That book was the beginning of what would soon become Halpern’s spring/summer 2021 collection, which was partly inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Clueless but is at its core a celebration of frontline workers. The clothes are uplifting, joyous, and quite frankly, a bit bonkers.
Take the spherical “orb” dresses – one made from feathery pink and black degrade, the other emerald green and covered in polka dots – that were inspired by Halpern’s love of lollipops. “I just think it’s such a funny shape, like, how silly is that?” Halpern says. “We just need some silliness. And what’s sillier than covering an orb with polka dots that are also circular? It’s ridiculous, it’s just fun.” There is more to these orb dresses than meets the eye, though. “When you’re going to create something like that, it needs to be rooted in really classical construction. So everything is really beautifully made inside, there’s layers of boning going every way.”
Elsewhere, there are the Cher Horowitz-esque red and black tweed skirts with plume trims and pointed-shoulder blazers. And of course there are plenty more feathers, too, like on the off-the-shoulder pink and black jacquard dress, or on the trims of the decadent fuchsia dressing gown, that Halpern teases is a “remote working” piece. Orb dresses aside, Halpern has taken sculptural silhouettes to new frontiers, with dresses constructed from hand-moulded crystal plissé and fitted with boned bustiers for added shape.
But the collection is of course about much more than clothes, as we can see in its accompanying film that stars eight frontline workers. Most were women Halpern met through friends. There’s Odiri, a train manager for TFL who swans around in one of Halpern’s a black and emerald polka-dot lounge suits. There’s Arianna, a senior nurse at Homerton Hospital who radiates on-screen in a tea-length pink and gold leopard jacquard dress. There’s Ghalia (one of Halpern’s closest friends), an OBGYN who helped pregnant women who’d tested positive for Covid-19 deliver their babies – she wears one of the orb dresses. And there’s Caroline, who Halpern met while volunteering to make PPE for staff at Homerton Hospital. “I would go there for two days a week to sew and then the other five days, I’d go to the studio to create the collection,” he tells me. “Having people who have never been involved in fashion or tailoring is a very strange thing, so we were keen to get to know everyone really well before shooting the video.” Halpern has stayed in touch with all of the women. “It was an honour to be friends with these people. One of them’s cooking me dinner next week.”
It might come as no surprise that the key to Halpern’s vision for this season was much more rooted in fantasy than reality. “Obviously no one’s going to wear a lime green plisse dress or a polka dot bubble for a Zoom call,” he says. “But I would like to bring a little joy at this time, to just create. That’s really important to me.”
“What happens when a young fashion house, typified by out-and-out maximalism is forced to consider ‘easy’?” It’s a good question, one that 16Arlington serves to answer with its spring/summer 2021 collection, which the brand claims to be anchored in the fluidity of ease. But there is absolutely nothing easy about a tight-fitting long-sleeved leather dress, or a bodycon gown with a lace-up back that exposes one’s entire backside. It is, however, unexpected. As is the sheer chocolate brown corseted slip dress that conjures up memories of the famous silver slip Kate Moss wore to an Elite Model Management party in London in the 1990s. Elsewhere, there’s more nostalgic references in bias-cut crushed velvet gowns and oversized pointed collars. But the key pieces are, in true 16Arlington style, those that come covered in feathers. Consider the lemon yellow halter-neck mini dress that boasts a marabou feather trim, or the optic-white floor-length skirt that features rows of feathers all around it. The standout, though, is surely the candy-coloured pink strappy dress that boasts a mermaid-like sheen on the bodice alongside a feathered skirt.
Designers Marco Capaldo and Federica Cavenati were heavily inspired by movement this season, particularly the movement of water, as we can see in the brand’s accompanying video. In the short clip, models are seen clad in 16Arlington’s bombastic designs while pouring water all over themselves in slow-motion. It’s not just a metaphor, either. The water represents the lightness of the delicate materials that feature prominently in the collection, something that allows them to move just as freely. But it is also apparent in the brand’s seashell accessories and the fact that the feathers were hand-treated in the designers’ bathroom.
The collection notes describe Capaldo and Cavenati (who are a real-life couple) as “eternal optimists”. “The drama and the disco will return,” they add, “but the label is forever changed”.