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London Fashion Week: Designers put to the test against a struggling market and more social restrictions

Updated 23rd September 2020
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London Fashion Week: Designers put to the test against a struggling market and more social restrictions
Written by Ananda Pellerin, CNN, Ana Rosado, CNNLondon
During London Fashion Week (LFW) this season, which came to a close yesterday, a lot of attention was put on the presentations, and not just the clothes.
While stage dressing and setting are usually key elements of any fashion event, now, whether designers choose to put on a live show at all, or go online -- with a film, a digital runway -- remains a point of interest, and with pandemic-related restrictions recently tightened in the UK, even controversy. Is this the moment the fashion industry should be slowing down -- maybe rethinking the fashion week schedule entirely?
Another big question was: Who is buying luxury clothing and for what reason? Coronavirus infection rates continue to rise in many parts of the world, meaning that people are still limiting their out-of-doors activities, and the luxury clothing market is floundering.
Despite this grim outlook, a gender-neutral LFW still hosted 50 digital presentations, 21 physical-digital hybrids, and seven live events, according to the British Fashion Council. Only three designers -- Bora Aksu, Mark Fast, and Pronounce -- held physical runway shows.
Bora Aksu Spring-Summer 2021
Bora Aksu Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Chris Yates
LFW also saw the return of some familiar faces, like JW Anderson, always a hot ticket, who presented a video teaser for his Spring-Summer 2021 collection, which will be revealed on September 28, and Richard Quinn, who was presented the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for Design in 2018, showed a very short teaser for his new collection, to be released on October 9.
London has historically been seen as the more edgy and innovative fashion week of the big four -- next to New York, Milan and Paris -- so it was no surprise that both young and more established designers, like Burberry, chose to experiment with technology as a way to keep their audiences and woo buyers, though whether this has been successful is yet to be seen.
Another new development was the return of the salon. Before fashion weeks had become heavily attended affairs with international press, influencers and celebrities all turning out to see and be seen, many labels hosted small, exclusive events; gatherings of select editors and buyers, a trend that seems to be returning in light of social restrictions.
Molly Goddard Spring-Summer 2021
Molly Goddard Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Ben Broomfield/Molly Goddard
Designer Molly Goddard was one of the designers who held a salon, showing a collection she says started with a sombre palette. But then things changed as lockdown lifted. "As we returned slowly to the studio, after months of working as a team over zoom, I realised how dark and depressing the last few months had been and more and more color crept into the collection," she said in a statement. Paired with her signature ruffled dresses and skirts, in an explosion of neon pink and green, there were also soft cardigans offering a touch of comfort.
Simone Rocha also designed a collection built on contrasts, both majestic and practical, with functional shoes and opulent silhouettes -- a move towards more dressy ensemble that also have easy style.
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Burberry

Burberry x Twitch

Kicking things off with a twist, British legacy label Burberry held a live show in the woods, hosted on popular live-streaming platform Twitch, known primarily as a hub for gamers to meet, play and watch each other play. This event marks the first time a luxury brand has collaborated with Twitch, in a pairing that might be only slightly less confusing to unassuming audiences than when a documentary about notoriously shy designer Martin Margiela was reportedly leaked on Pornhub in April, in advance of its official premiere.
In a pre-show chat on Burberry's Twitch channel, musician Erykah Badu appeared on screen to speak with musicians Rosalía and Steve Lacy and model Bella Hadid, who dialed in for what appeared to be an unscripted discussion that perhaps was intended to add some personality and urgency to the proceedings, but which ultimately fell flat.
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Burberry
At its apex nearly 43k people were watching the Burberry show on Twitch, an atmospheric affair with hints of idyllic fancy and the looming spirits of nature, a scene that was punctuated by the piercing vocals of performance artist Anne Imhof, who collaborated with Burberry's creative officer Riccardo Tisci on the show.
Inspired by earthly elements, the clothes, a mix of structured outerwear, exquisite dresses and light shirts, in tones of blue, orange and navy green, were made with contrasting materials, like sturdy natural canvas, denim, and rubberized fabric paired with soft chiffon and embroidered crystals.
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021.
Burberry Spring-Summer 2021. Credit: Burberry
"It began with a thought of British summertime; embracing the elements with a trench coat on the beach mixing with the sand and the water," Tisci said in a statement.
In fact, the trench coat, Burberry's quintessential piece, was the star of the show. It made several appearances, through various iterations -- including in full black and in a patchwork of denim and canvas -- a statement about Tisci's masterful re-engineering of Burberry's style DNA.

Key workers

Michael Halpern's namesake label may only be four years old but his 1970s-inspired party silhouettes quickly caught the eye of Donatella Versace, who took him on as a consultant after seeing his graduate collection in 2016. For his Spring-Summer 2021 collection Halpern's celebratory style was brought to life by a group of key workers, including women in health care and transport, who have been on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.
Halpern Spring-Summer 2021
Halpern Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Chris Sutton/Halpern
Among eight workers featured in a short film there was Latifah, a train operator for Transport for London, who wore a pink and black dégradé puffball dress from which her head elegantly emerged, and Arianna, a senior staff nurse at Homerton Hospital in London, who showed off her tattooed collarbone in an off-the-shoulder plume dress.
A slightly softer more romantic approach was taken by Bora Aksu, whose collection was inspired by World War I nurses. In one of the only live runways this season, models walked through the courtyard of St Paul's Church in Covent Garden in soft-ruffled skirts and dresses in hues of cream, pink and blue, with Sacred Heart badges and translucent gauze masks. Some of the looks had a more layered, unisex feel, a hint to the progression of women's fashion after the war.

Performance wear

"People should always have their second layer of skin as an armor for whatever is going on outside in the world," young designer Paria Farzaneh told CNN. "Whether that be something water resistant, whether that be something that is completely breathable, whether that's something that cools down when you're hot or gets warmer when you're cold. For me, that's just practicality and common sense."
Presented in a field outside of Amersham, which is a part of the London commuter belt, 24-year-old Farzaneh's show, which wasn't part of the official LFW calendar, kicked off with explosions, while drones captured the small group of men and women who emerged into the field, wearing utilitarian-inspired ensembles with strong camouflage, khaki and other military references, including a puffed multi-pocketed skirt that resembled a parachute.
Paria Farzaneh Spring-Summer 2021
Paria Farzaneh Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: David M. Benett/Getty Images
The set-up was a reference to the social unrest happening, especially in the US, and her designs reflect a desire to be ready for anything. "If 'm not wearing something that I feel comfortable in and that's not just when it comes to aesthetics, but if the garment can't perform how I need it to, then I feel a lot slower and I can't achieve the things that I want to achieve," Farzaneh said.
Influenced by his Irish background, London-based designer Robyn Lynch's collection was also peppered with utilitarian tropes, in this case, cycling wear and the Tour of Ireland. Maybe it was also a response to the steep increase in bike sales during lockdown, as many people steered clear of public transportation.

Ready for my close-up?

Short fashion films are likely to grow in importance as labels find new ways of promoting themselves beyond live shows. Victoria Beckham shot her video runway in a London gallery. Models walked by bold, colorful sculptures that contrasted with her new collection's shades of soft yellow, lilac, green and lashings of leopard print. Core pieces included elongated cut-seam pants, gently tailoring separates, slip dresses with open backs and jeans paired with structured long jackets.
Art School's tremendously diverse group of models wore gender-neutral outfits, often made of reclaimed and reconstituted materials, as they walked down a garden path. True to DNA of this brand that celebrates inclusivity and frayed, unfinished beauty, the film, posted on YouTube, already garnered over 10k views within its first two days of posting.
Art School Spring-Summer 2021
Art School Spring-Summer 2021 Credit: Chris Yates/Art School
JW Anderson's film featured two friends (actress Emma Corrin and stylist Harry Lambert) engaged in socially distanced fun in Soho, including a trip to the JW Anderson store. It was a nice reminder of the Northern Irish designer's way with overcoats and knitwear, and the joy of shopping with a friend -- even if you're both wearing masks.
Finally Christopher Kane wore an apron that said "More Joy," as he was interviewed by BBC newsreader Kirsty Wark, telling her he had spent £2k on glitter art products over a single week during lockdown, to make a series glittery portraits that then inspired a small collection of painterly new garments, including a high-waisted dress in duchess satin. He talked about the sobering reality of the fashion industry today, calling clothing sales "hardcore." "The retail environment is really suffering," he said.

Statement collections

Several key London Fashion Week players continue to show clothing made with ethical-minded practices. Sustainability and social justice advocate Bethany Williams focused her collection on her work with the Magpie Project, a charity that supports homeless mothers and children. The clan spirit was powerfully captured in a photoshoot, by photographer Ruth Ossai, which featured five families in front of the charity's east London office in the borough of Newham. This was the first time Williams had presented childrenswear, but other elements remain constant in her work, like the designer's use of deadstock, organic and recycled materials.
Portuguese duo Marques Almeida presented the brand's manifesto during London Fashion Week, vowing to make a difference in the fashion industry. Their three-part commitment focused on the environment, social and workplace responsibility, as well as day-to-day goals.
This article was updated throughout London Fashion Week.