No-one goes to Westminster on a Sunday, except for churchgoers and sightseers. It’s a reliable weekend ghost-town — except, twice a year, when the womenswear shows roll into town and the district’s magnificent palaces, parliamentary buildings and places of worship get put to use for services of an altogether different kind. (‘TUTTO beige’ one soaking Italian tourist murmured admiringly, watching from a nearby pavement as editors in immaculate neutrals descended from their cars, Sunday-miracle-dry.)
The juxtaposition between worlds was thrown into sharp relief at Preen, staged in the Church of England’s vast Assembly Hall. High above, a ring of giant letters read ‘Holy Is The True Light And Passing Wonderful’, below, a floor covered in dark gold foil, and walls lit by a pulsing band of blood-red neon. Designers Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi can normally be relied on to stick close to their signature bohemian romanticism, but this season things took an altogether darker turn. Inspired by the classic Venetian-set horror movie ‘Don’t Look Now’, the collection came drenched in that city’s doomed grandeur — from panels of gilded Byzantine mosaic to pixillated religious icons, from sweaters stamped with ornamental tile patterns to dresses dripping in flaking metallics. There was even a nod to the film’s most iconic costume, a red coat, in the searingly-bright, high-gloss trench modelled by Lindsay Wixson-Young. As a whole, the collection managed to be both lavish and subtly restrained. Even in the more prosaic moments - bluntly-cut grayscale suits, clinging LBDs, cropped camouflage bombers — Preen seemed to be signalling a coming change.
At Roland Mouret, the sense of change came more subtly. The designer was back in his usual space this season, across the river, in the labyrinthine undercroft of the National Theatre. But, instead of his usual, chanteuse-heavy soundtrack, Mouret went for David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’, sung, chanted or remixed by everyone from Lea DeLaria to Marilyn Manson. And, on the runway, he ramped up his menswear content (seven looks out of forty) — whilst simultaneously bringing a sleeker approach to his womenswear offering. There was a clarity about it all that reminded me of his earliest, early-Naughties collections, when he was known for cut — and nothing but. Even the flurries of heliotrope and midnight-black chiffon-organza that punctuated the collection with moments of seductive romance came with a certain sharpness of line. Elsewhere, glossy equestrian boots and flat caps anchored a largely daywear-driven offering with top-heavy Eighties tailoring and draped, keyhole-neck tops all executed in a sharply drawn palette of navys, russets, red, olive and powdery pinks.
It wasn’t till after I left the Margaret Howell that, putting my ticket away, I saw the monogram MH50 — a characteristically quiet celebration of the label’s fiftieth year in existence. (Reprinted on the same side was an image from Howell’s 1995 show; her brand’s first runway outing, which took place 25 years after she first went into business.) Like Paul Smith, who is also celebrating a half-century in the industry this year, the designer set her aesthetic decades ago. So each season, now, is less a striving for newness than it is for patient perfection, as evidenced by the show’s opener, a model wearing only a pristine white shirt — a quiet nod to the label’s foundation, sparked when a man’s shirt in a second-hand store first caught Howell’s fastidious eye. The news — for those looking for some amidst the collection’s considered classics — was its timely focus on rainwear and Howell’s willingness to play secondary shares against each other; khaki and caramel, fawn and dusty rose, burgundy and duck-egg blue.
It’s long past being a cliché to say that Roksanda Ilincic has a painter’s way with colour. It’s a cliché that Ilincic herself seemed open to avoiding, given that her show notes offered a range of uber-edible alternatives: sangria, cherry, sage, cantaloupe, butterscotch, cumin, morel. Collaborating with Rana Begum transformed the Edwardian grandeur of the Foreign Office’s Durban Hall — one the heart of the British Empire — with vast, neon-sprayed fishermen’s nets, creating an installation that could easily have dominated the whole show. But Ilincic rose to the occasion, and the setting. Her clothes have, quite literally, expanded over the years and today’s collection exuded volume and power. Dresses skimmed the floor, before swooping back on themselves to create vast sleeve shapes. Coats slumped from the shoulder to create cocoons of pooled fabric. Knits exploded in all directions, with giant, plaited stripes in splashes of rainbow colour. And the sweeping extravaganzas that closed the show, with their cascades of ruffles in violet, orange and electric blue, were positively papal in their scale and drama.