A London fashion week where beauty was a balm

There was no runway, however, or front row or backstage scrum. Like all but two of the designers showing as part of a pared-back schedule here, Beckham had dispensed with a fashion show. Instead, she welcomed three journalists at a time, all wearing matching VB-branded striped silk masks provided at the door, as she talked through just 20 looks that hung on nearby clothes rails.

Several weeks ago, she said, the tentative plan had been to host a salon presentation like the ones she held in New York in the earliest days of her brand. But after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new coronavirus restrictions that banned gatherings larger than six people (barring a handful of exceptions, including the English country pursuit of grouse shooting), she had returned to the drawing board.

“Still, I’ve always felt the best way to really see fashion is up close,” Beckham said, smiling as she leafed through items like vintage-style high-waist jeans with wide legs, frilled knitwear separates in shades of “banana” and superlong tailored pants in “hollandaise,” palette names inspired by the cooking hobby her husband, David Beckham, had developed during lockdown.

“Next season, perhaps we will get back to something a bit more normal,” she said. “But showing the collection to you like this feels so much more intimate and appropriate for this moment. Lockdown gave me a moment to pause, think and remember why I fell in love with making clothes in the first place.”

Similar sentiments could be heard in other studios, galleries and hotels across London. In recent years, the fashion week carousel has spun madly, pushing the business almost permanently off balance with the pace of relentless newness it demanded. Now, in London anyway, it had been forced to stop. Interestingly, no one really appeared to miss the fashion shows, not for now anyway.

In their place were scores of videos and digital presentations, staggered and streamed on the London Fashion Week website on a tight digital schedule that tried to mirror the way things had once been done.

For a handful of editors and buyers, after signing a medical declaration form, dosing up on hand sanitizer and a submitting to a temperature reading, designers in masks were on hand, sharing candid stories about how lockdown had reshaped their lives and businesses.

Few appeared keen to dwell on any darkness. Instead, most seemed determined to move onward, conscious that while beauty is not a solution, it can still be a balm.

Osman Yousefzada built a scaled-back collection out of his signature draping and tailoring and a new blueprint for his business, using “last yards” of fabric and artisanal communities in India and Pakistan to whom he would pay a proportion of proceeds from sales. Emilia Wickstead continued to precisely plot an elegant course via ladylike separates — tailored maxi-skirts, bralettes and Bermuda shorts — in block pinks, yellows and ochers or inky sailboat prints inspired by “Faery Lands of the South Seas,” a 1920s travel diary.

Roksanda Ilincic took things home, offering fine fashion — and conversation — in a Kings Cross apartment for which she had designed the interior. Each guest walked alone through the rooms, encountering not just models but artists, dancers and activists in the designer’s signature hues like raspberry pinks, burnt ambers and cobalt blues who drew them into conversation, at the dinner table or in bed, discussing the climate crisis and mental health, migration and literature.

“What do women need now?” Ilincic asked from the balcony, the still largely empty streets of London below. “Who do we dress for? Where will we wear that? How do I make my clothes feel relevant for the spheres we now live in?” Needing for a sip of water, she stood at a distance so she could safely remove her mask. (Food and drink, although occasionally offered by awkward-looking masked waiters, was not a feature of the season.)

“These questions have been my focus,” Ilincic said. “But so has a hope that confusion and grief can give way to unexpected positivity, and dreams. It has been a moment of reset, but also resolve.”

As the week progressed, however, it became impossible to forget that for thousands in fashion, this remains a frightening time. London is home to a vibrant spring of talent that surfaces from its fashion schools.

This season felt lesser without their runway shows filled with the kicky, fearless exuberance of youth, even though some still presented on the digital calendar. Several designers who hosted appointments, Beckham among them, have laid off employees since March; all said they had scaled back their collections.

Pity, too, the freelance makeup artists, drivers, security guards and photographers for whom fashion weeks are usually a lifeline. This season there were no parties, backstage scenes or gatherings of stylish masses on sidewalks.

A model presents a look during the Osman spring 2021 presentation in London, Sept. 21, 2020. Most collections were shown online this season, but some designers in masks held in-person appointments, sharing stories of how lockdown had shaped their lives and businesses. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

A model presents a look during the Osman spring 2021 presentation in London, Sept. 21, 2020. Most collections were shown online this season, but some designers in masks held in-person appointments, sharing stories of how lockdown had shaped their lives and businesses. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

“It is really tough out there right now,” said Anna Stokland, a photographer lingering outside Goddard’s studio, who often relies on street-style shots to boost her earnings. Every 20 minutes or so, a lone masked visitor would arrive or leave the building. Then the wait began again.

“We do what we can, but it feels like the scene we make our money from has simply disappeared in a swish,” Stokland said.

Simone Rocha was up front about the battle for an independent fashion business to stay the course, particularly when her studio was closed and her stores in London and New York were shuttered in the spring. But, she said, the adaptability shown by her team had both wowed and humbled her, hardening her commitment to them and to her business.

The latest collection continued her meditations on contemporary and historical portrayals of the female form, with ornate brocades, embroidery, pearl beading and taffeta on simple fabrics given modern wearability on cocooning, exploded silhouettes. Given the imagination and craft poured into the pieces, she was determined to have a physical presentation, which she hosted on Saturday in the round at a studio on Savile Row.

“What we do is a trade, but what I do is so tactile and textured that I really needed to share it in a physical way that was safe,” Rocha said. “It’s our challenge to see how you can do it in a way that feels right. And ultimately, to keep moving things forward.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company


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