After two seasons of digital fashion presentations owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the physical experience of attending runway shows – at the fashion weeks in New York, London and Milan – is cause for celebration.
However, the return has not been without its headaches for organisers and designers, with fewer buyers and members of press travelling due to constantly changing quarantine rules, plus last-minute cancellations and confirmations. At London Fashion Week, for example, big names such as Burberry and Christopher Kane were missing, although Erdem, Simone Rocha, Richard Quinn and Roksanda staged captivating shows.
London designers are nothing if not innovative and resourceful. Many created a physical-digital hybrid with films and presentations, and worked with other arts, noticeably dance. Halpern’s film and Roksanda’s live show provided compelling performances with their vibrant, voluminous silk dresses swirling and billowing in tandem with the dancers’ movements.
Rejina Pyo thrilled her audience with Team GB divers performing at the London Aquatic Centre to introduce swimwear to her line, while young menswear designer SS Daley presented a small theatre production with actors wearing his collection.
Conspicuous by their absence, though, were the young international designers who usually choose London Fashion Week as the platform to launch their careers. The city’s vibrant creative scene has always been a huge attraction for emerging talent with NEWGEN (an initiative by the British Fashion Council) in partnership with TikTok, Discovery LAB and accompanying events such as Fashion Scout giving them a showcase, but the pandemic meant many stayed home, others organised a digital event while some migrated to Milan and other fashion events.
Covid-19 has changed the world order, with greater emphasis being placed by emerging designers on their local markets, for instance the Chinese. Where once they enjoyed the kudos back home of presenting their collections and gaining recognition in the West, they are now focusing on Shanghai Fashion Week as a showcase instead, partly because of quarantine restrictions imposed on their return to China and, as one Chinese public relations expert put it, because they consider the market in Europe is shrinking. They see bigger opportunities in their own country.
Where London was always chosen as the stepping stone for launching a brand, Milan is now elbowing its way into that role. Brexit has added to London’s challenges as a fashion capital, with smaller labels suffering. London designer Roland Mouret has been outspoken in his views of how the political scenario is failing the fashion industry, which has been crippled by lockdowns, Brexit and the expiration of duty-free shopping at the start of the year. “We [as an industry] have been treated like we do not exist,” he said at the Financial Times Business of Luxury summit in May.
Freedom of movement within Europe has made it easier for emerging designers and small independent brands across the continent to get to Milan to present their collections, and experience the opportunity of sharing the fashion week schedule with major brands such as Prada, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, which were out on the runway in force this season with seductive body-conscious collections worn by a supermodel cast list.
Camera Nazionale della Moda Italia (CNMI), which organises Milan Fashion Week, supported digital and runway events and fashion hubs such as Budapest Select, Black Lives Matter in Italian Fashion, Vogue Talents and Fashion Bridges, which brings together Italian graduates and young South African designers.
Vogue Talents, established in 2009 as a scouting project by Vogue Italia, usually provides a physical platform for a new generation of creatives worldwide; this season it was mostly digital. Among the international labels featuring in the platform’s Spotlight on Talents section this time were designers from Canada, China, France, Britain and Cynthia Merhej’s Lebanese label, Renaissance Renaissance (as an aside, Merhej was a semi-finalist for the 2021 LVMH Prize and is a name to watch).
Always with an eye for designers who can revolutionise the market, Sara Sozzani Maino, deputy director of Vogue Italia and head of Vogue Talents, says: “We have a duty to continue to support the new generation in all its creative forms.”
Those opportunities come with collaborations such as Vogue Talents joining forces with Dubai’s Al Futtaim group, which, through its network of malls, is launching a long-term initiative to support the next generation of designers.
The return of the catwalk shows feels like a rebirth for Milan, says Carlo Capasa, chairman of CNMI, who has set out the organisation's ambitious objectives such as contributing to accelerating sustainable change in the fashion sector, boosting the multicultural evolution of Italy in terms of diversity and inclusion, “and promoting the talent of the best emerging designers on the national and international scenes”.
CNMI’s partners and members are, he says, facing these challenges “with enthusiasm and courage, delighted to have become [a] landmark on the global scene”.
However, London is resilient and there were a few new names who chose to present their collections at the fashion week in the British capital, including Noon by Noor, the Bahraini label founded by cousins Shaikha Noor Al Khalifa and Shaikha Haya Al Khalifa.
They were not in London themselves, but creative consultant Michael Herz hosted an enchanting all-day picnic with models milling about in fresh white embroidered cotton dresses in one of London’s coolest neighbourhoods, Shoreditch.
“It might have made sense to show in New York, but we are looking at the European market for the brand,” says Herz. “I am based here, and so it felt more natural to show in London.”
As London Fashion Week was limited to a catwalk and digital hybrid for this season, though, there was also no official showroom for designers to meet buyers and so the BFC accepted the invitation from Milan to take its London Show Rooms, a showcase of 11 young designers, to Milan Fashion Week as part of the White trade show event.
“Much of the work that the BFC does centres around strengthening British fashion in the global economy – being able to support British designer businesses and promote them on the international stage is at the core of what we do,” explains Caroline Rush, chief executive of the BFC. “It is important that we seize the opportunities presented,” she says, viewing the occasion as a chance for buyers to learn more about the creative energy currently emanating from London.
White’s founder Massimiliano Bizzi was equally pleased to host the BFC in Milan. “Their contribution is highly valuable for the entire Milan Fashion Week,” he says, implying young designers such as Ahluwahlia, Edward Crutchley and Completedworks bring some “London buzz” with them to Milan.
Some designers, too, reckoned they would see more buyers in Milan than they would in Paris or London. Alice Temperley, known for her bohemian 1930s-meets-1970s aesthetic, had 10 days of back-to-back appointments lined up in Milan with Temperley London’s European, Middle Eastern and Asian stockists.
Traditionally, London’s major designers take a showroom in Paris for buying appointments, but given Paris Fashion Week closes the season, Temperley believes that is too late because most buyer budgets are committed. “It’s all happening in Milan, it’s the place to be,” she says.