London has a reputation for breeding young designers who generally make clothes of the unwearable variety. Their work is called “avant-garde, meaning dresses are made of Saran Wrap or chicken feathers with leather pointy-shouldered blazers and mismatched shoes (although the much-copied Phoebe Philo of Céline showed the latter for spring/summer 2017, so maybe the lopsided look is about to go mainstream.)
But recently something counterintuitive has begun to take shape in the city: Designers are showing clothes with a notable polish and sophistication. They appear to be aimed at older consumers, and are inspired by clothes we already associate with maturity. It became the overriding story of London’s latest fall/winter 2017 collections, where there was, at times, an all-out fuddy-duddiness on a few runways. Think of Christopher Kane’s dresses in a damask that seemed better destined to upholster the drawing-rooms of English stately homes, or Simone Rocha’s clutch of tea dresses with faux fur stoles that, despite their embroidered flowers, skewed towards the distinguished pair of septuagenarians she included in her model casting.
Maybe it’s a flash in the pan for those two — a seasonal whim. But there’s a whole breed of designers who are making that look their stock and trade. Think of Erdem Moralioglu or Roksanda Illincic, who have been making well-behaved clothes cut to sensible lengths for over a decade, to great acclaim. As if to prove it, they each have a grown-up shop of their own clustered around Mount Street, a well-heeled and deep-pocketed area of Mayfair.
Another, Emilia Wickstead, has an atelier on Sloane Street, where she designs her dirndl skirts and billowy mid-calf dresses and, as of this season, high-waisted mom jeans. There’s also Mulberry, which was founded in 1971 (before any of these other designers were born) but has been recently revamped by Johnny Coca, and is now creating clothes colored with English country hues of rust and ginger, with scarf-tied collars and horsey detailing (the models for fall even wore horse-blankets as capes).
Fancy conservative clothes for fancy conservative women? So far, so old. Yet, in contrast to the youth-obsessed, streetwear-heavy focus of many other labels — and the slogan T-shirt, faux-distressing and hooded sweatshirts that have become ubiquitous — the outlook of these labels feels, and looks, oddly fresh.