KILLING time before a show in Bloomsbury, I wandered into a bookshop here on the aptly named Store Street, where I found a used copy of Peter Ackroyd’s history of London. A photograph of a destitute man in Spitalfields, in the East End, stopped me cold: it was taken in 1969. A wild guess would have said Victorian times.
Of course London has changed dramatically in just the last two decades, and those changes are reflected, perhaps predictably, in the kinds of fashion now produced here.
There are two dominant types: the internationally flavored brands, like Burberry, Tom Ford, Mulberry and Stella McCartney. Some of these brands sell Britishness, but as Justine Picardie, the new editor in chief of British Harper’s Bazaar, observed outside of the Burberry show on Monday, that’s not enough. A heritage brand must also reflect new tastes. Equally, part of London’s allure to foreigners, privileged or not, is its extraordinary sense of tradition.
The success of the Summer Olympics — the city still feels on a high — showed how vital that heritage is. To Ms. Picardie, the author of a well-received biography of Chanel, a connection could easily be made between Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and the creative brilliance of Philip Treacy’s hat show. Even without Lady Gaga, who wore a pink chiffonburqa made by Mr. Treacy for the late Isabella Blow, and costumes once worn by Michael Jackson, the headpieces were a gas on their own: the punk feathers, the lagoons of swirling straw, a huge saucer with a yellow happy face.
“It’s quintessentially British,” Ms. Picardie said of Mr. Treacy’s magisterial wit.
The remarkable thing about Christopher Bailey’s show for Burberry is how he sopped up the city’s energy. He did it with color, the very same metallic tones — inky blue, fuchsia, copper, pink, green — that you see at night from a Thames River bridge. Mr. Bailey returns again and again to the trench coat, making it brighter, glossier for a new marauder. This time he cut the coat corset-tight, in satin and pleated satin. Tinted hard vinyl bags could have been inspired by the city’s glass superstructures.
Mr. Ford is also aware of the international character of London, and his streamlined clothes, his best collection since he started his own women’s line, tap into that, with a new interpretation of biker shorts and, in lieu of a conventional jacket, a trim popover top made slick with patches of black patent leather.
The British Fashion Council, organizer of the shows, is proud of higher attendance figures among foreign buyers and journalists. So punctual were the shows that I missed two of them, though I arrived at, say, 20 minutes after the hour. In Paris or New York, you’d just be sauntering through the door.
A grown-up attitude was widely evident in the clothes, too. Vivienne Westwood may have ended her show by wearing tiny hot pants and waving a banner about the threat of climate change, her ongoing passion, but most designers, even the young, seemed committed to wearable clothes.
Mary Katrantzou’s postage-prints came in easy-to-digest shapes. A new star, Simone Rocha, showed simple well-made dresses and separates in cotton eyelet and embroidered organza. Erdem’s lacy refined dresses delivered that essential neon jolt. Jonathan Saunders dipped into stripes for a strong show, while Paul Smith did a lively bit of color-blocking.
But London, as Gaga’s borrowed shroud reminded people, is a city that thrives on wit and originality. This is the other dominant fashion, the thoroughly creative kind that can stand up on the international stage. Three collections are worth noting: Christopher Kane, Thomas Tait and J. W. Anderson.
Mr. Anderson’s clothes reveal an impressive freehand quality, especially in the cutting, and, at the same time, a great sense of judgment. He knows what looks very uncool. And he had some of the most desirable accessories of the season, like quilted clutch bags rimmed with a silly ruffle.
Mr. Tait’s spirit is utterly contemporary, backed by a solid feeling for couture. This season he got a lot of mileage out of a stretch satin, dyed in different colors and used for airy coats and crisp shorts. A sports/hip-hop aesthetic gently wormed its way through striped knits, lanky jersey pants and an oversize leather motorcycle jacket. His skill is in incorporating those couture shapes in an offhand way, and steering clear of English-garden prettiness.
“There’s such a sea of banality that all you need is one spark,” Mr. Kane said before his superb show. To create that vital spark, he combined a childlike sensitivity to novel textures, like gel squiggles (as in gummy worms) and wing nuts with a sophisticated sense of sensuality.
Lots of designers have tugged at the notion of a woman as a trussed-up package. But Mr. Kane laid out dresses and suits that were at once wearable and piercingly accurate in their sexual tension. Sure, a pale pink coat looked camera-ready for a first lady or princess, but the strange tissue-paper-like fabric dared you to touch it.