London fashion week: Covid forces conversations about industry's future

·4-min read

What does London fashion week look like in the new normal? Picture Davos, but with different shoes.

There were barely any catwalk shows. Instead, there were discussions about sustainability, inclusivity and the meaning of citizenship post-pandemic. Live events were ultra-exclusive: wary of the reputational damage to an already poleaxed industry if fashion events were seen to be flouting social distancing at an infection tipping point, brands limited audiences to tiny groups.

“The world is having big conversations right now, and fashion only makes sense if we think about it in that context,” said designer Roksanda Ilinčić. She brought beautifully dressed women to a glamorous venue – so far, so business as usual – but instead of having them parade a catwalk in silence, invited them to spend the day chatting. Body image activist Honey Ross, dressed in raspberry satin, talked about the Susan Sontag book she was reading; author Chanté Joseph told journalists about her new book about the British history of the black power movement. Wearing a floor length yellow silk gown Awuor Dit, a political science graduate and former refugee, discussed feminism with Noëlla Musunka, founder and CEO of the Malaika Foundation.

Related: The show must go on: fashion faces up to its Covid moment

This version of fashion week was fashion as Ted talk, fashion as group therapy – and fashion as entertainment. Osman Yousefzada made clothes out of “last yards” of fabric (“I don’t like the name deadstock”), filmed them on models on the beach at Dungeness and spliced the footage with clips from the Black Lives Matter protests and from the 1970s protests by female factory workers of Asian heritage. “I still make clothes, but I don’t think of myself as a fashion designer,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is to bring value and wealth all the way from the weaver to the wearer.”

Edeline Lee made a one-minute lockdown-themed film of a model in 21 different outfits, “dancing or exhausted, reading and cleaning, baking cakes and eating – all the things we all did in that time.” JW Anderson released online a paparazzi-style film of actor and Vogue cover girl Emma Corrin shopping the new season’s looks at his Soho store.

Designers are in desperate need of the orders that come in the slipstream of a buzzy fashion week. Christopher Kane has made 14 of his 45 staff redundant, and says business is really tough, but that he still doesn’t “want to create stuff just for the sake of it. We are going to halve the amount of collections from now on.” Having started painting again for the first time since art school during lockdown, for fashion week he filled his Mayfair boutique with portraits made in glue and glitter. “I do want to show again, and I hope we can get to that point, but right now the health of the nation is more important.”

Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter, was one of Kane’s fashion week visitors. “For me, it’s been a moment to really catch up with designers, and that’s been special. I can’t say whether this kind of fashion week is better or worse. I love the spectacle of shows, but right now these intimate moments feel like the appropriate scale.” Writer and influencer Susie Lau described the schedule as “fashion back in action, but in a very genteel way”. Fashion week photographer Darren Gerrish, usually booked solid for a month of shows, reports that “in terms of what I do, fashion week simply isn’t happening. There is no front row, no parties – no scene.”

Related: Reuse, renew, recycle! Is making new from old the future of fashion?

But not everyone is downbeat. Since stores have reopened, Edeline Lee has seen her most recent collection sell out in some territories. “My customer is on Zoom calls all day and we make good clothes for that sort of thing. My clothes are aesthetically forward but practical,” she says. She has “doubled down on to making core pieces that always do well” such as bias-cut skirts with asymmetric details, blouses with interesting necklines, and wrap dresses in jewel colours.

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