how young london designers are conquering the fashion world on their own terms
London is a constantly fluctuating chaos of novelty and iconoclasm.
Molly Goddard, Matty Bovan and Simone Rocha. Photography Mitchell Sams.
No city has the same relentless churn of youth as London. CSM, RCA, Westminster and LCF all rank among the best fashion schools in the world. We have Fashion East, MAN, and NewGen, unrivalled schemes that help turn the hordes of young graduates into a select group of young designers. But of those happy few, even less will make it as sustainable -- economically and creatively -- fashion enterprises. The rest will fade away.
This is the cycle London fashion is impatiently fixed in each season. A tsunami of hype and talent that crashes on the shore every single Fashion Week, and either consumes everything in its path or quietly ebbs away. Each season, we excitedly raise someone up, before quietly moving on when the cloud of OMG hysteria fails to materialise into something solid.
But London is so thrilling a fashion city because of that hype and hysteria; because of the intensity of that search for the brightest young talent; because of the clamouring desire to find the student with the boldest new ideas.
"London is a constantly fluctuating chaos of novelty and iconoclasm."
We don’t have the craft of Milan, the history of Paris, or the commerce of New York. Not in Fashion Week terms anyway; we have Burberry and Mulberry and Aquascutum, Savile Row and Jermyn Street. As the Queen said, presenting Richard Quinn with the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, we have Scottish tweed, Nottingham lace and Carnaby Street. But really what we have is fashion, not luxury.
The conglomerates, artisans and maisons of Milan and Paris are built on a dream of luxury; on stable, unchanging, foundations. Creative directors come-and-go like tears in the rain, but LVMH and Kering are forever.
London is a constantly fluctuating chaos of novelty and iconoclasm; it’s always coming-of-age or growing up and selling out. It’s either exploding with newness, or waiting for the next generation to impudently stomp through. A few designers in recent years have used this cycle to become bona fide Big Important Brands. Christopher Kane went from Young Scot Rebel to being part-owned by Kering. JW Anderson went from pioneering a new feeling of androgyny in fashion, to heading up Loewe. Simone Rocha went from Fashion East to opening stores in London and New York in six years, whilst maintaining financial and spiritual independence.
The trio’s impatient sprint from students to stars opened up the space behind them; but this season it feels like its been filled. A consolidation of the latest generation of wild young fashion provocateurs into genuinely excellent designers. Matty Bovan, Charles Jeffrey, Molly Goddard, Craig Green and Grace Wales Bonner are stylistically, conceptually and commercially nothing alike. Nothing more has brought them together than the circumstance of time and place -- yet these five are offering some of the most insightful and exhilarating new fashion propositions in the world at the moment. These five represent the future of British fashion, the most likely to reach Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane or JW Anderson levels of success.
Their designs are about everything from race to gender to sustainability. They are thoughtful and joyful, and their formal divergences encapsulate the variety of what’s possible in London for a young designer; over the autumn/winter 18 shows it felt that each designer, in their different ways, stepped up a gear and consolidated their positions as the brightest of their generations.
At the menswear shows in January, Charles Jeffrey presented his most riotously fun experiment in melding fashion and theatre together on the catwalk. Working with the Theo Adams Company, this season he explored the social ideas of Velvet Rage -- embracing the anger of being gay in a straight world -- and his personal Scottish heritage. Two divergent ideas maybe, but Charles drew on the punky heritage of tartan, the queerness of the kilt, and the ferociousness of Pictish warpaint to effortlessly combine them. The clothes, the ideas and the catwalk spectacle worked together in harmony; it was an incredibly visceral fashion experience of the kind we are not often witness too.
Charles is an interesting case in point for the primacy of that aforementioned quintet as the standard bearers of London’s new fashion establishment. Charles is a designer who, from the very beginning, was obviously one of the most talented and inventive of his generation. His early shows were such incendiary fun, but there’s a litany of inventive young designers who’ve burnt out then faded away. Without wanting to sound dismissive in any way of Charles earlier shows, it feels like autumn/winter 18 was the season where his grandiose but germinal talent flowered, and matched the scale of the ideas. He has always pushed the possibility of the catwalk as theatre, but the clothes here stood on their own as just as desirable and wearable as the spectacle that encased them. It felt like a “moment”.
Craig Green is operating at a different end of London’s formal and aesthetic spectrum to Charles, so offers a neat counterpoint. His shows trade in quietness, their mood is deeply and solemnly expressive, and they often feel impossible to encapsulate in mere words. As if to describe them will crush their emotional profundity. They have a simplicity, a formal neatness, each season they revel in evolution, rather than messy and loud revolution. What Craig Green has done though, in the last 12 months especially, is sustainably and organically grow his business; introducing denim and a non-seasonal range of core items -- the parka, the shirt, the work jacket -- that Craig made his name by offering fresh poetic takes on.
"Over the autumn/winter 18 shows it felt that each designer, in their different ways, stepped up a gear and consolidated their positions as the brightest of their generations."
The rest sit between these two extremes of approach; from Matty Bovan’s provincial utopian knitwear experimentation, to Grace’s poetic play on the duality of her Anglo-Caribbean identity, to Molly’s thrilling frilly tulle creations, that exude a confidence and joy.
What each are doing in their maturation is refining their conceptual ideas into commercial signatures. What are you trying to say? Which is the item that says it? A finessing of the outlandish attention-grabbing pushing of the formal boundary of the catwalk that we expect of a young London designer -- from Craig Green’s carry-able sculptures to Charles’ provocative queer theatrics -- into a recognisable design signature; the layered parka or the paint splattered jean, say.
The worry now, as its always been, is that this process can reduce London’s raw creativity into over-cooked commercialism. We are content to accept pushing at the boundaries of what we find acceptable to see on a catwalk; it is much harder to find a way to question more conceptually how creativity and commerce can sustainably relate to each other within fashion. Because success for this generation will inevitably mean, in many people's eyes, producing work that sells, that can be commodified. Accessory lines, web presences, perfumes, underwear, artistic half-death...
So a model wearing a blow up paddling pool? Sure thing. A brand questioning the consumption and empty financial exchanges of fashion? Or demanding more considered thinking about the very root of what fashion means and how it works? Well, good luck.
But it feels like this moment is coming too, though. It’s what London fashion needs next. We need more criticality, more distance, more discerning critique. Flat platitudes level everyone out; both good and bad. We are content to talk about issues in the “outside” world and how they relate to fashion -- whether that’s Trump, Brexit, environmental sustainability or #MeToo -- without ever really questioning fashion as an industry itself.
These are designers with a complexity of ideas and positions that are often reduced to dumb buzzwords, incoherent barking and (guilty) poetic rambling. They deserve more than most fashion critique gives them.
For this, maybe fashion needs to be able to exist outside of the strict confine of Fashion Week, which demands a rather toxic mixture of immediate judgement and attention-grabbing gimmick. Do we ever stop to ask if that relentless churn of youth is actually any good for the young London designer? Or if the crushing be-all end-all of the fashion show is any good for fashion as an artform? For example both Martine Rose and Christopher Shannon, opted to skip out on the autumn/winter 18 catwalk altogether. It’s FOMO, but make it freedom, not fear. Both have benefitted in the past from this strategy too. Space to create is the biggest luxury we could afford this generation of fashion designers.
Charles Jeffrey, Craig Green, Matty Bovan, Molly Goddard and Grace Wales Bonner feel like the leading lights of this new generation of exceptional talent, I think to ask all those questions, is the beginning of finding away to keep their independence and creativity flourishing. We need to think about what they do in terms of art, not just the restricting idea of Fashion Week and commerce.