London Fashion Week: Brexit, protest and a new femininity

London CNN  — 

In recent years, London has lost ground to the rest of the “big four” fashion weeks, ceding column inches to the legacy brands showing at Milan or Paris, and no longer considered as commercially viable as New York.

Yet the British capital remains, perhaps, the city where designers are at their most outspoken, using fashion as a tool for resistance by bringing new perspectives, subcultures and renegade ideas to the runway.

This season, designers had a lot to say across over 100 scheduled events. Here are five of the key takeaways from the Autumn-Winter 2019 edition of London Fashion Week.

Protest on and off the runway

We are navigating uncertain times, both politically and socially, and the spirit of activism pulsed through London Fashion Week.

The opening Friday saw a peaceful protest, staged by campaign group Justice4Grenfell, that was aimed at drawing attention to the lack of progress made in the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.

A group of 72 activists – including models Adwoa Aboah and Clara Paget, and musician Emeli Sande, alongside survivors of the blaze – gathered silently on the runway at an official Fashion Week venue, 180 The Strand, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “72 dead and still no arrests? How come?” (A version of this “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”-inspired slogan was also appeared on posters last year.)

Simultaneously, a group of body positivity activists, including plus-size model Felicity Hayward, gathered to protest fashion’s traditional and often outdated approach to the female form, holding placards with messages like “Fashion should empower us.”

A look from Gareth Wrighton at the Fashion East show.

Activism was alive on the runway too. Sustainable womenswear brand Mother of Pearl partnered with BBC Earth to campaign against the use of plastic in the fashion industry, while Fashion East newcomer Gareth Wrighton debuted with a collection inspired by dystopias and the contradictions of modern America. The latter dressed models in MAGA-esque baseball caps reading “God Bless America,” with one sporting knitwear depicting material from Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks footage.

Vivienne Westwood's show featured models wearing T-shirts that berated politicians and carrying bags reading "I Heart Crap."

Of course, Vivienne Westwood also unabashedly flew the protest flag at her Sunday afternoon spectacle. Part fashion show, part theater, models and activists – including #MeToo pioneer Rose McGowan and executive director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven – wore T-shirts berating politicians, carried bags reading “I Heart Crap” and gave impassioned speeches lamenting the death of democracy and the threat of climate change.

Femininity in the wake of #MeToo

Last season, #MeToo permeated many of the collections at London Fashion Week, leaving designers grappling with fashion’s place within the movement. This season, at least, many labels came to more solid conclusions about the future of femininity, embracing the multi-layered complexity of modern womanhood.

Marta Jakubowski celebrated the liberation of female sexuality with a collection of languid, draped silhouettes in contrast with tailored suiting – softness and structure. Each model carried a stemmed Anthurium flower in her mouth, juxtaposing with the final line of the show notes: “she will not be silenced.”

Models at Marta Jakubowski's show carried Anthurium flowers in their mouths.

Fashion East’s Charlotte Knowles used her show to address culturally constructed codes of femininity. Playing with notions of public versus intimate, and vulnerability versus combat, her collection subverted stereotyped perceptions of women’s dress. The designer turned the sexualized idea of push-up bras and mini skirts on its head by recreating them in puffer material – underwear as armor. Elsewhere, Knowles’ tiny cardigans appeared as harnesses, while coats featured large hidden pockets for a woman’s tools.

On Saturday, the ever-ethereal Simone Rocha put on a show at the Royal Academy of Arts that championed female diversity and empowerment. Wearing silk and sequined dresses with sheer trenches inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois, the runway featured models of all ages and sizes, including actress Chloë Sevigny, model turned director Lily Cole, artist Conie Vallese and 1980s model Jeny Howorth.

Simone Rocha's show at the Royal Academy of Arts championed female diversity and empowerment.

“I was thinking about all these women and it was all about their shapes, and how to make them look their most beautiful,” Rocha told Vogue after the show.

The return of glamour

After several seasons, it looks like – whisper it – fashion’s love affair with minimalism may be coming to an end. In place of paired back palettes and sleek silhouettes, maximalism reigned supreme in London.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at Halpern – unsurprising, given that Michael Halpern began advocating a return to glamour with his debut show back in 2017. This season, he showed high-shine sequins alongside rainbow silk column dresses with jeweled chokers and glitter-covered platforms.

Fashion week stalwart Mary Katrantzou too showed a collection to stand out in. Inspired by the four classical elements – earth, wind, fire and water – the collection opened with what has been described as London’s “Sesame Street” moment: a rare runway appearance by supermodel Natalia Vodianova wearing a yellow feathered gown so high that only her eyes could be seen peeking over the top.

What followed was a lesson in grown up glamour: sequined gowns with keyhole backs, pastel feathered floor sweeping dresses and crystal embellished coats.

Glamour wasn’t in short supply at Erdem either, with dresses featuring full ’50s skirts, nipped in waists and floral trains. Then Molly Goddard sent social media into overdrive with what might be the frothiest, most voluminous hot pink tulle gown that Fashion Week has ever seen.

Young blood

London is a city traditionally seen as the hotbed for emerging fashion talent, and the rising stars were out in force this season.

Staging its first ever on-schedule presentation, womenswear brand 16 Arlington (comprising Marco Capaldo and Federica “Kikka” Cavenati, Italian designers who studied together in London) showed an accomplished collection influenced by the work of German-American pop artist Richard Lindner and his friend, the actress Marlene Dietrich. This manifested itself in pieces heavy on dramatics – multi-colored, ostrich feather wide-brimmed hats; sequined mini dresses with feathered hems; and velvet and leopard print suits paired with exaggerated shirts and platforms.