For the wrinkled, weary press not-so-fresh off the red eye from New York, the big draw of London Fashion Week is ideas. That’s what’s pulled in Donatella Versace too, who chose the city to show the latest collection from Versus – the sexy, teenaged sister of the grown-up Versace label, designed by young buck Anthony Vaccarello.
Fresh ideas aren’t the draw at Hunter, of course. It’s a jumped-up Wellington-boot brand manned by Stella McCartney’s husband that once had one half-good conceit – high-fashion galoshes. Granted, it has milked that cash cow for far more than its worth – to the tune of a 2014 turnover of more than £80m. That is what justified the presence of the press at the latest show, of much the same stuff, by Alasdhair Willis, spouse of said McCartney, who was also there. I mean familiar stuff both for Hunter and the spring/summer 2016 season as a whole, but the latter is far more interesting to talk about.
The leitmotif of Hunter’s show was the dangling strap, like loose guy ropes on a wayward two-man tent. They tried to introduce a new “icon” (their word, decidedly not mine) – a clog. They resembled those rubberised clogs that are an essential component of nurses uniforms – both aesthetically and by the fact that you could only imagine someone wearing them if they had to.
Anyway. The interesting things were those tangled ties, a design motif we’ve seen plenty of in New York, and will doubtless see far too much of in London. They make it look a bit like designers either haven’t quite finished, or just haven’t made up their minds what to do. Both are a major issue with fashion right now, highlighted by a season that, by and large, feels weak and undecided.
Neither is true of Jonathan Anderson, whose own-label collection felt like a return to form. Backstage, Anderson raked his hand through his hair and pontificated, asserting that his woman this season looked like a new kind of army, and that it was about “a woman’s odyssey”. It sounded like gumpf, but when you thought about it, you got it, with the waxed cottons and camouflage-ish patterns, and saddle-bags slung two-at-a-time over the torso to hang at the hip. There was an air of Lara Croft to all that, but it was Croft meeting Gloria von Thurn und Taxis – otherwise known as Princess TNT, the dynamite socialite of the Eighties, most often clad in puffed-out, over-the-top ball gowns. Her presence was felt in Anderson’s generous gigot sleeves, ballooning his models’ skinny shoulders to gargantuan proportions. There was a touch of Jean Paul Gaultier to the exposed brassieres and waist cinchers over clinging knit skirts and dresses, emphasising curves. So if Anderson was thinking of a feminine odyssey, it was about the rediscovery of the landscape of the female body, or perhaps its reengineering.
Those gowns reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s “social X-rays”, society women whose flounced and tucked and ruched surfaces compensated for the concupiscence missing from their bodies. There was a lustiness to this JW Anderson offering, a lust not only for the body, but for fashion itself. The American hyper-intellectual Fran Lebowitz grumbled over the show’s soundtrack – in snippets selected from Scorsese’s documentary on Lebovitz, Public Speaking – about Andy Warhol’s act of making fame famous, griping “that’s what happens when an inside joke gets into the water supply”. You’ve sometimes felt that about Anderson’s shows, with their sometimes alienating clothing (I half-though he said a woman’s “oddity” rather than “odyssey” backstage).
Two models in JW Anderson creations (Getty)
According to Anderson, it “changed his perspective” on his creativity. What it boiled down to, though, was something more concrete and less cerebral. Maybe he was thinking about Warhol’s cult of fame, and its impact on society and creativity, of fashion designers as superstars, and of bringing it back to the craft? Or maybe he was just thinking about Warhol silk-screening socialites in their Christian Lacroix dresses, and making a lot of money?…
Despite his diminutive stature – he stands just five feet three inches tall, allegedly – I didnt measure him myself, but it seems about right – Azzedine Alaïa is a giant in the fashion world. Its just one of a knotty bundle of contradictions that make up his character, his career, and consequently his legend. He refuses to show his clothes at fashion week, but everyone wants to see them; he chafes against the confines of the fashion system, while being one of its defining figures. He creates garments that eschew the relentless novelty of contemporary fashion, instead offering gradual developments of idea and technique. But women clamour, season after season, to buy them. In Harrods, Alaïa outperforms all other international brands. He doesnt advertise, and doesnt loan to celebrities – although they buy his clothes.
The brand flies in the face of all convention, as complex as the riddle of the Sphinx. And Alaïa sometimes deflects questions about his age – somewhere around 75 – by declaring himself as old as the Pharaohs, so thats appropriate.
Alaïa was born in Tunisia, is based in Paris, and makes clothes. I mean, he really makes them. He is one of the few designers who takes up needle and thread himself to work on his garments. He always has. When he used to present his fashion on a seasonal basis, the shows were frequently weeks late. spring/summer 1990, one of his last, was shown a month and a half after every other Paris label, because he insisted on steaming every garment and sewing every prototype himself. I am loath to call him a designer at all, because really Alaïa is first and foremost a craftsman, a couturier. Today, he presents occasionally, quietly, in his headquarters in the Marais in Paris. The audience is made up of friends, like the artist Julian Schnabel, the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and Alaïas gargantuan St Bernard, Didine. Its still shown a few days after everyone else.
Why? Because Azzedine Alaïa stands apart from fashion – literally and ideologically. His clothes are frequently characterised as sexy – even by Alaïa himself – and often are. But for me, a more telling notion is of the corporeal. Alaïa is fixated with the body; we in turn associate that with sex. At one point, Alaïa created clothes for the showgirls of Pariss Crazy Horse cabaret: look at the way his seams delineate zones of the body, like an external musculature mapping the flesh. Many sneer, with not a little salaciousness, that you dont have to wear underwear when you wear Alaïa. What that illustrates is that his work is about dressing a body, not constructing a dress. Those are the words of the great Madeleine Vionnet, inventor of the bias cut, describing her own approach. Alaïa is a passionate admirer; if she were alive, I suspect that admiration would be mutual.
Alaïas garments seem engineered rather than simply sewn, their fluctuating, distinctly physical relationship with the individual beneath them the real mark of his mastery of craft. They flare and wrap and grip and knead the human body, as if the flesh were clay ready to be sculpted. Like sculpture, they belong in a museum.Many of them end up there. Thats where I meet Azzedine Alaïa for the first time.
We were in Rome, where an exhibition of his clothing – or, to borrow the phrase of the curators, Mark Wilson and Anna Coliva, his soft sculpture – has been installed at the citys Galleria Borghese. Erected in the 1600s for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, patron of Bernini and something of a Caravaggio fanatic, its one hell of a backdrop for his work. Alaïas clothes are, arguably, the only ones that could stand the test. Exquisitely realised, timeless, the product of obsessive devotion to the act of creation, theyre the closest fashion comes to a masterpiece.
Alaïa himself trained as a sculptor at the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunis. Un peu, he says, smiling wide, his fingers pinching the air to indicate the brevity of time spent in that pursuit. Alaïa does not speak English, and my French is as ropey as one of Alaïas macramé dresses, so we speak through Caroline Fabre, his commercial director and confidante. He continues: When I realised I couldnt be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction.
Not entirely, though. Rather than representing the body like traditional sculptors, Alaïa chose to mould on to it. His work is in the tradition of ancient Greek sculptors, who chose the perfect components from imperfect sitters to fashion their own superhuman ideals.
Alaïa at the exhibition Azzedine Alaias Soft Sculpture at the Galleria Borghese in Rome (Getty)
He did much the same with the supermodels of the 1980s, a decade he helped to shape stylistically. Linda Evangelista, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford – all broke other bookings and flew to Paris to model for Alaïa, for little more than his clingy little dresses. Naomi Campbell, whose career Alaïa helped launch, would sleep on his floor during the Paris shows. When I ask if she would say something about Alaïa, the notoriously tardy Campbell responds in an uncharacteristic instant. Azzedine is one of the most unique designers in the world, he has an unparalleled work ethic, she says. I am honoured to have watched him work and to have worked for him. He has been my papa since I was 16, and I love him very much. Many in the fashion industry, and beyond, feel the same overwhelming affection for the man, and his clothes.
Back to Rome and the Borghese Berninis. Nestled among the grand marbles and gilt-framed masterpieces are leather jackets and velvet dresses; others woven or knitted from bands of fabric to resemble mummies or especially elegant crustaceans. There are 60-odd Maison Alaïa interlopers on show until the end of October. Wilson, who has worked on five exhibitions with Alaïa over the past 15 years, suggested that he was a visitor to the Borghese; How can he be a great visitor? Wilson asked, rhetorically. By making himself at home, but also being respectful.
Its a neat inversion of Alaïa tradition: the couturier is known for hosting dinner parties during Paris fashion week, where the likes of Rihanna, Rei Kawakubo, the designer Marc Newson, a few international fashion editors and a number of dogs all cram around a table in Alaïas atelier for a home-cooked meal. Obviously at ease in someone elses home, Alaïa looks about the gallery. At the beginning I was a little afraid to have so many masterpieces, he says, carefully. Because fashion next to Bernini can be dangerous. I tried to respect that. I was praying at lot, that Bernini would accept me into his house. And he agreed.
Alaïa grins again. He grins a lot – thats another paradox, because his clothes, on the whole, can be seen as fierce, imposing, aggressive even. He exploded on to the fashion scene in the Eighties with an eyelet-studded leather coat and matching gauntlets. He dressed Grace Jones and Tina Turner. He had, in fact, been making clothes for years in Paris before then. He first came to work with Dior in 1957, just as the Algerian war intensified. Fresh off the boat, he was dismissed for having incorrect immigration papers (ironically, following the departure of John Galliano in 2011, Alaïa reputedly declined an offer of the Dior reins).
After his Dior dismissal, Alaïa worked for Guy Laroche for two seasons, taking up residence with the first of a series of high-society patrons, the Comtesse de Blegiers, who offered him a temporary home in exchange for services as dressmaker and occasional babysitter. Alaïa has said: From two seasons at Guy Laroche I learned how. From the last elegant women in the world, I learned what.
Alaia with Rula Jebreal at Couture/Sculpture Vernissage Cocktail in Rome, held in honour of the designer in July (Getty)
Alaïas What dressed the demanding clients of French haute couture – Picassos, Rothschilds, Mitterands – as well as odder types. Besides those Crazy Horse showgirls, the reclusive Greta Garbo had him sew a pair of trousers and a navy cashmere overcoat big enough for two. Once more, the body – this time, swamped and swaddled and moving inside a cocoon of material.
Alaïa isnt just the King of Cling – a misleading moniker bestowed upon him in the Eighties, which reduces his wide oeuvre of semi-fitted or unfitted tailoring in boiled wool and leather (still a large swathe of his business); his experimentations with Vionnets bias-cutting techniques (ahead of the curve of a mid-Nineties revival); and his ground-breaking development of fabrics (for 40 years Alaïa has worked with the knitwear factory of Silvia Bocchese in Florence to devise new textiles), to a tight skirt on a skimpy dress. Although he loves those too.
Not much has changed, really, since the Eighties, for Alaïa. His exhibition at the Galleria Borghese juxtaposes dresses made in the Eighties and Nineties with those from last year. Time has no meaning here, just as Alaïa has no age. There is an evolution, but fashion hasnt changed so much, he says, looking around at his work. For women, there is the body. The body is the most important thing. Technically, some dresses are more modern than others, because of the technique of the knitwear. The evolution of the technique and of the fabric is very important, And how you wear it too. You maybe have to be more comfortable today. This is the difference.
The handcraft, however, hasnt changed. Just as when he lived in the back-room of the Comtesse, Alaïa still handles each sample himself. I take care of the fabric, the pattern, I do all the patterns myself, all the fittings, he states. From the idea to the reality. Im not very often satisfied by what I do. Nevertheless, there isnt a sense of frustration with what he does, but there is a drive to go beyond fashion – which, at its most basic, is about hawking as many clothes as possible.
Alaïas business isnt small: the annual turnover is around £40m. It could be much bigger, but Alaïa doesnt want that. When I ask him if he considers himself part of fashion today, the grin vanishes. Pas de tout. I do not agree at all with the system of fashion today. He doesnt like the speed, he says, the dismissal of ideas as worthless when the seasons expire.
How to reconcile, then, that the anti-fashion Alaïa just launched his first fragrance, with the backing of Beauté Prestige International and luxury conglomerate Richemont, who partnered (but didnt buy out) Alaïa in 2007? Perfume is the most conventional mass-fashion move possible. Cant afford one of Alaïas eyelet-cotton shirts (around £1,000) or a leather coat (five times that)? Try a spritz of Alaïas essence at 1 per cent of the price (well, £62 for 50ml). His fragrance bottle comes topped with a cap to resemble a golden spool of thread, and stamped with a relief of the vaguely North African shapes that often make up his laces, and are punched through the iron doors of his Paris headquarters.
The Galleria Borghese in Rome has an exhibition of Azzedine Alaïa clothes cheek by jowl with classical sculpture (Ilvio Gallo)
Back to the riddle of the Sphinx-like Alaïa: why launch perfume, if you dont want to be part of the big, bad fashion industry? He shakes his head violently. Non, non, non. Perfume was always in fashion, by couturiers, always. I think, immediately, of Parfums Rosine – the first designer perfume line launched in 1911 by the great couturier Paul Poiret, of whom Alaïa is both an admirer and a collector. I have been working on it for a long time, several ideas have been proposed to make perfume. I didnt think that the time was right. The smell – the first briefing I did, I said, Comme de leau!’ Water? Alaïa grins wider. I wanted something light and fresh. Ive been trying for years and years. So, I imagine, has the long-suffering Nose of BPI, Marie Salamagne, responsible for the final fragrance. It doesnt smell like water – rather pink pepper, freesia and peony – although it is fresh. I know a few people who dont like it. I know more who have bought it in bulk.
Coming as it does two years after the flush of publicity around a major retrospective at the Palais Galliera in Paris (the Rome affair is smaller, quieter, off the beaten track), I wonder why Alaïa decided to launch his perfume now. Its the right time, he states, simply. And also because of Richemont. They offer possibilities to develop it properly. Before, I was not as free. I couldnt do anything. Today its easier, because I have the backing of a big corporation. Alaïa is, genuinely, the first designer I have ever heard espouse, unprompted, the wonders of working with a conglomerate. Generally, theres an uneasy silence when you ask that, unless its already been ironed out in a pre-vetting of the questions. (Alaïa didnt ask for anything like that, despite the language barrier).
He continues, I always feel free – I feel really free. When I dont want something, I dont make it. Even if theres finance behind it, if I dont feel it, I dont do it. I always feel free, this is my strength. Truly, I dont need much to live.
That much is true. Id been warned, beforehand, that he may be late, or not show up at all. The next day, he did just that at a dinner hosted in the French embassy, following a contretemps with a diplomat. Alaïa, in short, doesnt do anything he doesnt want to do. Hes reached an age – and, more importantly, a stage – where he can please himself. It isnt indulgence, rather practicality.
Hence, dont be hoodwinked into thinking anyone is making Alaïa do perfume, besides Alaïa himself. I love perfume, he declares, emphatically. Having a perfume with my name – everyone who is wearing my perfume, its like I am sleeping with them all!
Azzedine Alaïa grins, wider than ever before. Just to let you know.…
Is it facetious to say London Fashion Week has grown up, when its sliding into its fourth decade this year? I dont think so, given that the shows have frequently been marked by a juvenile delinquency, by designers aesthetically sniggering and delivering clothes that seem not only unwearable (which sometimes isnt an issue) but unbuyable (which always is).
Something switched for spring/summer 2016. When you have Anya Hindmarch, Londons queen of the visual gag, telling you four days before her show that shes tired of the funny, punny stickers that have made her upwards of £12m in the past year, you know theres a sea change afoot.
Its nice to see designers taking themselves seriously – especially when that includes Hindmarch. She wanted the funny in her show this season to feel odd rather than laugh-out-loud, and while those stickers will still be there, they werent the main story for a collection of reappropriated high street slogans and logos (John Lewiss graphic strips, the Nationwide and Mothercare logos) intricately worked with elaborate inlaid leather, on handbags made by the same factory as Chanels 2.55. They werent laughable, though they did make you smile. Hindmarch kicked it up a gear.
So did the rest of the best of London, for spring/summer 2016. Or maybe its just me that thinks that. The great thing about London is how it divides opinion, with shows being decried and hurrahed in equal measure. Maybe its because, by and large, designers showing here dont have the Damoclean sword of advertising to wield to ensure favourable reviews. Perhaps thats why debate swirled around shows such as JW Andersons, which would have been cheered if it came with a hefty ad spend, but was instead challenged: do women really want to look like this? Will anyone really wear this? I suspect they do, because its so definite in what its doing. Anderson fused Lara Stones Tomb Raider aggression with overblown Eighties gigot sleeves, short, tight skirts clenching their way up models thighs, and the occasional exposed brassière. Backstage, he dedicated the show to a womans odyssey, but really it was about oddity and, I like to think, about taste. Questioning what constitutes good and bad taste, and how to overturn those notions.
Thats the difference between a good designer, and a great one. Which was the issue with the much-feted Erdem Moralioglu. His show was an example of adroit dressmaking, not fashion. There was no attempt to challenge, or to experiment, just very many very pretty dresses, flaccid echoes of the work of Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, or the Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli. Erdem is often dubbed Londons Valentino, which sometimes feels like a sideswipe at how familiar his clothes can seem. At their best, theyre good, not great. And the same with the designers Roksanda and Emilia Wickstead, the latter showing her best, the former not so much.
Burberry Prorsum isnt really about good design – although Christopher Bailey can do that, and did this season. Its about big-top showmanship. This season, he recruited Alison Moyet to belt out a few greatest hits, a welcome respite from the anodyne newcomers designers have enlisted to warble live with all the energy of piped-in music in a shopping centre lift. The richness of Moyets voice mimicked the richness of the collection, frogged in gold braid, Burberry trenches in technical silk, studded with faux regimental buttons. That fusion of pomp and practicality was dubbed, by Bailey, Functionregalia. All one word, as if typed out on Snapchat. Which was, incidentally, where Burberry actually premiered these clothes on Sunday, ahead of a show that became just that – the pomp of the presentation overwhelming the practicality of showing clothes. I guess we can all catch up on it all online afterwards, so why not ignore the clothes, enjoy the spectacle. And tweet it, please.
Credit where credits due, Moyet has one hell of a set of pipes.
is a different matter altogether. She takes risks, and sometimes it doesnt quite work out. She dubbed this season an exploration of exploration, doublespeak for a collection that mashed together Romany and Balkan styles as if, somehow, reflecting the turbulent socioeconomic climate of Europe circa right now. Katrantzou is Greek, but her clothes, unlike that country, were rich, and a safe investment. There was a niggling sense of an opportunity unfulfilled, though, because Katrantzous exploration seemed to occur entirely after night fell. Where was the day? Maybe she didnt feel it was interesting to explore? Regardless, this collection was astute, assured.
Christopher Kane (Rex)
Christopher Kanes was, perhaps, also thinking of bigger things. His collection was, he said, about crash and repair. With Chinese markets hurtling downwards, I wondered if his crash metaphor was financial, and how that may impact his still-young business even with the Kering conglomerates considerable backing. The repair is the more interesting element, here represented by fractured, patched-together dresses, windowed with PVC and swatched in neon laces. Damaged goods was an interesting phrase, applied to frayed knits, darned and embroidered with scribbled motifs, to fringes swaying like unravelling fabric at the hem of dresses or randomly spray-painted dresses. Kanes work offered a striking alternative to the polished perfection that so preoccupied other designers. Maybe it was that genius rediscovery of the innocence of childhood. It wasnt the conglomerate manipulating these clothes, but Kanes hand. It was strong.
Versus Versace, by contrast, was all about perfection, and there wasnt much to think about there. Its short, sexy, brazen, skinny and permanently, preternaturally young. Its designer is young, too, a barely 30-year-old Belgian-Italian by the name of Anthony Vaccarello, whose gambit consists of suctioned-in cocktail dresses clanging with metal whatsits, very much in the very Versace mould of Gianni and Donatellas finest. This Versus show – the first staged in London – whizzed by in a blur of energy, binliner-shine patent leather, bouncing blonde Donatella hair and exposed skin. I sat opposite the original Ms Versace, who had the odd experience of watching a show executed under her own name (well, part of it). You like? she mouthed at me across the catwalk. I did…
Ditch the holdall and decant your belongings into a tiny minaudière. For winter, the most desirable handbags are hand-held numbers barely big enough to clutch an iPhone and credit card. Nicolas Ghesquière sets the pace – and defines the silhouette – with his dinky Petite Malle (pictured above), a Lilliputian Louis Vuitton trunk reimagined as a hand-held objet dart made of interlaid leather and metal. It is as intricate and precious as a Fabergé egg – but, thank goodness, a touch more hardy.
Volatile stock-markets abound, but one thing never becomes worthless: gold. Perhaps thats why, as traders tear their hair out, carats are still to be seen on the necks of the richest women in the world. Chanel placed them centre-stage at its winter haute couture show, while Fendi coated the fronds of a sable in the precious metal. Why? Because this stuff stands outside the fluctuating world of fashion. Gold never really gets old (see gallery below).Decadence? Divine! So thinks Marc Jacobs, who launched his latest perfume in a bottle adorned with gold chain and faux-snakeskin, like a disco-primed evening bag. Packed with plum, saffron and iris, its an ode to excess. What else would you expect from a designer who recently upped his notoriety a few notches with a risqué instagram selfie. The caption on that photo could even be the strapline for this new fragrance: its yours to try.
Velvets and satins are the only suitable covering for after-dark shoes this winter. Miuccia Prada shod her ladies like debutantes in low-heeled silk satin slippers in a macaron box of colours, occasionally enlivened with Fauvist shades of chartreuse, cyclamen and an acidic limoncello. If youre investing, treat them with kid gloves and wear at night, adding a bit of daring to plain black dresses.…
The elevation of the everyday is sort of what fashion is all about – we all wear clothes, everyday. Good fashion designers manage to convince us that we need theirs, rather than other peoples.
The elevation element is most important when it comes to ideas, rather than price – although those are generally elevated too, given the materials and the workmanship in the really good stuff. Brilliant fashion designers should be able to (re)design a T-shirt and make it exciting, and interesting, and inventive. Vivienne Westwood actually did that in the Seventies, deconstructing its already simplified form, turning it inside out to expose scruffy seams. She was looking for something new, in the familiar.
Its not on the same level, but I cant help but ally that with the work of designer
Anya Hindmarch: politically Westwoods diametric opposite (she has signed photographs of Margaret Thatcher in her office; Westwood once dragged up as Maggie on an April Fool cover of Tatler), but with designs that also questions that status quo. Hindmarchs work is rooted in luxury though, not changing culture like Westwoods.
Perhaps this whole idea – of elevating the everyday – is characteristically British. It would explain the fact its preying on my mind while were are knee-deep in the final flurry of London Fashion Week, before the action moves across to Milan and everything gets far more precious.
I cant help but contrast Italian and French fashion with ours – theres a long history of them razzing things up far more jazzily than we do, and a tradition of the British drawing on working clothes for even the most formal of garments. The tailcoat, for instance, was a result of revers being cut further and further apart to facilitate riding on a horse. Its fashion born of function – although a mink scrubbing sponge is something different.
I wonder if thats why I, personally, react so violently against clothes that seem crafted just for decoration, or to reduce women (and sometimes men) to the same. Theres been plenty of that this season, ruffles and florals and flounced skirts that grip and impede movement, slithery slips that threaten to expose the models undercarriage, or make it look like theyve dressed in haste, and forgotten to put their top layer on. Stupid stuff. Stuff that gives fashion a bad name.
Maybe youd lump that lump of fur in with that notion. But at least it makes you laugh. Thats another essential component of British fashion, after all.…