Fashion week is now in the entertainment business. Designers of today crave fans, not customers. London – home of the Abbey Road zebra crossing, of 221B Baker Street and of platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station – has world-class heritage as a city where pop culture history gets made. This blockbuster reputation has lured more big beasts of the industry to London than ever before. Giorgio Armani and Tommy Hilfiger are joining Donatella Versace on the catwalk schedule, and Rihanna will visit to showcase her Fenty Beauty line.
Hilfiger, the ultimate stars-and-stripes American designer – his logo even resembles the flag – has previously shown in New York and Los Angeles. This season, his show at the Roundhouse in Camden will serve as the closing party for London fashion week. “London has the most inspiring heritage as a city, and the Roundhouse itself is part of rock’n’roll history,” Hilfiger explains over the phone while preparing to travel to London. The venue has hosted legendary gigs including Jimi Hendrix in 1967 (his Fender Stratocaster was stolen from the side of the stage) and the Ramones in 1976. “The catwalk is just another kind of stage. Fashion has to go beyond clothes and be an experience. This is me taking the brand on the road for a world tour.”
The 66th London fashion week was opened on Friday morning by the British Fashion Council CEO, Caroline Rush, and the the deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons. (Both were wearing long-sleeved, midi-length silk dresses by London-based female designers: Saloni Ladna for Rush, Chloe Lonsdale’s MiH for Simons.) Rush noted how British fashion, seen “on first ladies and red carpets all over the world”, is an important part of Britain’s international identity and contributes £28bn to the national economy. (“More than the car industry,” added Simons.)
Hilfiger’s decision to show in London is telling. An unashamedly commercial designer, Hilfiger has never been at the cutting edge of fashion, but in his instinct for the zeitgeist he has long been ahead of the curve. He forged relationships with hip-hop artists in the 90s, while many other brands were still precious about tarnishing their image with contact beyond the glossy magazine world. He was an early adopter of social media, providing Instagram influencers with an “Instapit” of front row seats from which they could capture the catwalk from their smartphones three seasons ago. “For many years I have viewed my customers as fans of the brand,” he says. “That’s not a new concept, to me.”
The convergence of world-class names on London “comes at an important time for London”, says Rush. “Our businesses are international – literally, in citizenship, but also in outlook. British fashion is a multicultural, inclusive community and we fiercely protect that.” On Brexit, she added: “Our businesses are asking for tariff-free access to the EU and frictionless borders.” And this internationalism is an intellectual as well as a practical stance for the city’s leadership. “Fashion is part of London’s identity. It expresses the fact that you can be yourself in London,” says Simons. Her view was echoed by Roland Mouret, recently decamped from Paris fashion week to London, who during a preview of his collection at his Dalston studio described how the move had affected his collections. “Paris is a conservative city. I think I didn’t question my own status quo when I was there. Being back in London has made me step outside my comfort zone.” The collection he will show on Sunday is inspired by the “free spirit” of Frida Kahlo – the muse of the moment whose style will be the subject of an exhibition at the V&A next year.
Every world tour needs a pin-up frontman or frontwoman, and London’s stadium-sized headliners are bringing with them an influx of supermodels whose fees few British designers can afford. “You need a star of the show,” says Hilfiger, whose show is a collaboration with the supermodel Gigi Hadid. “Gigi is a major influence on my creative process.” Hadid has given a more feminine personality to Hilfiger, and a younger one. “The fans follow her life, like they would a rock star. She has a huge influence. And their passion for her means that the relationship between Gigi and the brand has to be real. The fans want to know Gigi really designs the clothes, really wants to wear them. Really blesses them, y’know?” Last year, Hadid told Hilfiger that she would never wear low-rise jeans, only high-rise ones. “We put those high-rise jeans on the runway and we sold every single pair online before the show had finished streaming,” says the designer. Kaia Gerber, the 16-year-old daughter of the model Cindy Crawford who was the breakout star of New York fashion week, will also walk on the London catwalk this weekend.
The refreshingly idiosyncratic take on fashion for which London is well-known has not been lost in these bright lights. Richard Malone, the first designer to show, dubbed his primary colours “Tesco blue” and “Coop turquoise” in homage to supermarket carrier bags, and soundtracked the show with Dr Dre’s The Next Episode, as played by a string quartet. Later, Kelly Knox was one of two models with visible disabilities on the catwalk for the design duo Teatum Jones, who dedicated their show to the “piercing sense of clarity and calm in the face of challenge” shown by the 11-time Paralympian gold-medallist equestrian Natasha Baker.