Five days. Forty five designers of international repute. And about a billion mobile phones chirping, bleeping ringing and basically driving everybody mad. London Fashion Week kicked off last week and hordes of fashion junkies dressed in basic black, Prada bags, Joseph overcoats and must-have Jackie O shades descend on the usually pristine venue of the London Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Spearheaded by superdesigners like Alexander McQueen , old favourites like Red or Dead, Nicole Farhi and Michiko Koshino, and hot new talents like Hussein Chalayan and Tristan Weber, it is now more popular than ever before, an essential part of the Cool Britannia tag that Britain has been reveling in for the past couple of years. Next seasons Spring/Summer collections are lead by London, with Paris, Milan and New York coming in the next few months - and fashion's travelling circus of journalists, fans and buyers for major chain and department stores go into a frenzy of ecstacy as they try to figure out the next new trend.
This is the way it works. There are around ten shows a day, most of which are in two huge tents set up in the lawns of the Natural History Museum. The rest are held in selected venues which have to be within thirty minutes of the main tents. Each show takes anywhere from fifteen to forty minutes and there is a mad scramble to get from one to the other, with the cognoscenti and the media lugging their rucksacks and cameras around the streets and hailing every black cab in sight. Everything works according to London Fashion Week Time, which is to say late. Shows are always delayed by an hour or two, while a designer waits for a favoured fashion editor to show up or a model to stop having a tantrum or something. There are hundreds of people trying to blag their way into the shows - since it is closed to the public, there is a tremendous amount of bluffing, cajoloing, bullying, flirting and generalised posterior kissing going on. Once you get in, harried looking PR reps with microphones try to get everyone to sit down without causing any major diplomatic incidents. God forbid you sit down two doyens of fashion who hate each other. Kruschev and Kennedy facing off ? Pah. A storm in a teacup , my dear.
The week kicked off with a show by Bibi Russell, former model and currenty a Bangladeshi designer who is trying to raise funds to support 35,000 weavers of traditional cotton and silk handlooms. Thursday night sees one of the most fun shows of the season, as the traditional pouty faced models mingled with exuberant young students that Russell brought along as models. They sang Bangladeshi folk songs, played the dolok and the veenar, and generally bought amused smiles to the jaded fashion pack that had turned up. Definitely the most colourful show of a season dominated by greys and beiges - vibrant reds, blues and greens shone from the runaway, toped off by rural festival head dresses. Barbara Sansoni would have gone down a treat. Lots of infinitely wearable lungis and sarongs, and loose cotton drawstring pants - so rare to find men's fashion on the catwalks.
The next day sees the eagerly awaited second collection from Anthony Symonds, a graduate of the by-now legendary Central St. Martins college of fashion and design , whose alumni include an amazingly talented array of designers like Antonio Berardi, Clements Ribeiro, and dozens more who are showing this week. Symonds entitles his show 'Club Tropicana' in reference to the Wham song of the same name, and his collection was a direct throwback to Eighties trashy styles ; lots of denim, huge gold necklaces and conservative black outfits with missing flaps and panels - 'Dynasty' meets 'Friday the 13th'.
The noise from a hundred cameras clicking away sounds like a forest of crickets rustling their legs together. The Amanda Wakely Show pulls the Sloane Square crowd, the ladies who lunch and shop at Harvey Nichols - never Harrods darling, far too downmarket now. Wakely is probably best known as one of Princess Diana's favourite designers and it is easy to see why - elegant and understated describe her style, just this side of austere. Strong simple shapes and luxurious fabrics are shown off by glacially beautiful models who remind me of Greek temple maidens, their hair bound back in sheafs and chignons. Beautiful bias cuts in sheer fabric draped over a more modest sheath, contrasted by some exciting swimwear. The very next show by Red or Dead couldn't be more different. Around since 1982, designer Wayne Hemingway always puts on a good show and the audience settles in anticipation. It kicks off with Mott the Hoople's 'Oh You Pretty Thing' as sung by Bowie and then goes into overdrive with a fun, funky show that highlights the best of eclectic London street style that is never predictable, passionately non-elitist and always affordable. There are three pedestals at the front of the catwalk and a multi-cultural bunch of male and female models strut their stuff, leaping from one to the other and striking ludicrous poses - it looked like the show was choreographed by the Spice Girls. Big beat boogie pounds out of the speakers overhead as they show off
So, the net result ? Grey is the new black. Pearl grey, charcoal, pinstriped, whatever, grey is it. Or could it be orange ? Burnt sienna tones, flashy Florida orange, fun, flirty citrus ? I have no idea. But that's the whole point. Nobody does. Every season , the beauty press sorts through hundreds of shots and tries to identify a theme, tries to isolate the zeitgeist of what's happening out there, what will percolate down from the rarefied climes of the designers imaginations and enter the high street stores - Kookai, Oasis, Marks and Spencers, Principles. What will the public take to, and what will they just laugh at ? Peddle pushers (sorry, demipants as they are now being called) , chunky clogs, gunmetal scarves , henna tattoos...the list of fashion hits and near misses is nigh endless. The retailers are now trying to take the upper hand by actually sponsoring the high priests of fashion and getting them to design exclusive chains for them - Chalayan for Marks and Spencers, Wakely for Debenhams. This way everyone's happy. The high street retailers get the cachet of having a big name designer , the designers get cash to go out and do the wild, wacky things that they want to do and the consumer feels just that little bit closer to the pulse of fashion's artery.