Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The London Underground: Please mind the gap between the talent and hype

I am sitting in the basement of an abandoned warehouse space in Covent Garden, waiting for the Marios Schwab show to start. The old Gardening Club nightclub, the space has been converted for this week only into an on-schedule, off-site show venue for up-and-coming Brit designers, with the tab picked up by TopShop - the phenomenally successful British high street retailer whose name seems to be all over this event. So-called "New Generation" designers, they include Schwab, Christopher Kane, Richard Nicoll, Peter Jensen and Ann-Sofie Back.

There are three show spaces here but the basement deserves special mention. I am not the only person to have commented on just how claustrophobic it feels - especially once 400 people are crammed inside.

There are only two exits. The organisers say they have carefully vetted the safety issues and closely monitor numbers. But on every occasion I descend into this space, I find myself making a mental check of the exits. I guess someone thinks it adds to the "edgy" vibe of the shows.

Schwab's is the third show I have seen here today. In between I, along with other media delegates, have been ping-ponged across town all day in shuttle buses between this building, the main show tent in South Kensington and a myriad of other off-site venues.

In spite of the efficiency of the service, it strikes me as odd that they don't try to corrall more back-to-back shows together in the same venue.

The breakout fashion star of the Spring/Summer 2007 season Christopher Kane showed just after midday.

Like Kane's first collection of fluorescent, lace-embellished micro bandage dresses, the dresses in this collection are also ultra-short, but this time fashioned from heavy leather and panne velvet. In mostly black or rust, nearly all have full swing skirts with exaggerated peplums, like a series of micro prom dresses, with intricate contoured bodices and 'tough chic' motifs in the form of silver S&M-like hardware details and a quirky 'ruff'-like motif that features on hems, sleeves, bodices and shoulders - which in fact appears to be modelled on the bullet cartridge of a gun.

Ann-Sofie Back picks up Kane's cue - and the moment's urban sport theme - with some of her own bandage dresses and a series of assymetric, draped garments, in actual grey neoprene, all held together with industrial trims, such as Velcro and backpack straps.

Schwab also uses neoprene, cutting into it using a hexagonal seamwork motif that looks like it's based on soccer ball construction, and features throughout the mostly black collection in everything from tuxedo jackets with exaggerated, padded hips, to cocktail dresses.

If summer was all about the dress - any dress - next winter is about a few specific dresses. From first New York to now, London, one in particular has come to the fore. Let's call it the shell: a simple, sleeveless, fitted dress for either day or evening.

Schwab's come in many guises: one version is fashioned from panels of fabric that are fastened together across the bodice, Frankenstein-like, using exposed brass hooks. The front of another style, for evening, is festooned with crystals.

Yet more bling at Sinha-Stanic - not at the TopShop venue, but another off-site space sponsored in fact by Westfield London. And yes, it's in another claustrophobic basement.

I didn't manage to clock the fabric of this label's suits and bodydresses, but most boast contoured seamwork, and exposed, industrial-look zippers, just like wetsuits. Franciso Costa seems to have started something of a ripple effect with his neoprene tailleurs for Calvin Klein last summer. The show closes with a series of, you guessed it, dazzling, crystal-encrusted shell dresses.

These designers are what London Fashion Week is all about: young and unabashedly creative. It's this creativity which both attracts people to the event - and keeps them away in droves. Big retailers tend to want clothing that they think is going to sell.

"There's a lot of talent in London at the moment" notes Julie Gilhart, the fashion director of Barneys New York, which nevertheless sends a rep each season just to keep an eye on the talent - and will pick up Kane's collection for winter, says Gilhart.

"I think it's just one of those cyclical things, you know - the art schools are producing a bunch of good people" says wellknown British fashion historian Colin McDowell who is helping foster new British fashion talent via a competition called Fashion Fringe. "But my worry is, will it be sustained? And I'm not convinced about that" he added.

On Thursday, London creativity will reach its nadir in two shows: Gareth Pugh, the club kid who creates spectacular shows of freakish costumes - but doesn't actually sell anything - and Giles Deacon, who even the British Fashion Council accuses of being "overhyped" by publicists.

Deacon's ludicrously exclusive shows - this season rumoured to be for just 60 people - don't help London Fashion Week keep international media on side.

"Everyone thinks we're stiff upper lip, but in fact we're not - we're probably the most hysterical nation in Europe" says McDowell.

He added, "We get terribly, terribly overexcited. And I'm afraid that that's whats happening now. There are some good designers who are being hailed as great and that's very dangerous - and very unfair to them".

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