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London Fashion Week Spring-Summer 2023: Touching tributes and a rallied community

Leah Dolan and Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN

While London Fashion Week is no stranger to the influence of weighty external forces in recent years — including Brexit and the global Covid-19 pandemic — this season’s Spring-Summer 2023 shows once again took place against an extraordinary backdrop.

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, much of the schedule was thrown into disarray — especially around her state funeral, which took place on September 19. Shows and events planned for that day were either postponed or canceled. Burberry — a royal warrant holder and one of the tentpole British labels on the calendar — was the first brand to announce it would not be staging its show (later following up with a rescheduled date). Celebrated Belgian designer Raf Simons, due to make his highly anticipated London debut with his namesake brand, also issued a statement confirming his show would not be going ahead as planned.

Speaking ahead of opening day, British Fashion Council Chief Executive Caroline Rush told CNN in a phone interview that she “absolutely” understood brands’ reasons for changing plans.

Still, the industry was quick to rally around many younger, emerging brands and designers for whom disruption could be critical.

“London is always known as a global capital for creativity. It’s the place where we have more emerging and independent businesses than any other fashion capital,” Rush said. “I think the sense of community that comes through those designers has been born out of the last couple of years and again we have seen it now through this period of adversity following the Queen’s death.”

Harris Reed, just this week unveiled as the new creative director of French fashion house Nina Ricci, is one young designer who has managed to succeed against these odds. After graduating from Central Saint Martins during the height of the global pandemic, Reed at first largely relied on social media to generate interest in his designs. It led to Harry Styles wearing one of his pieces (a suit jacket and hoop-skirt suit) on the December 2020 cover of American Vogue, and Reed dressing supermodel Iman for the 2021 Met Gala.

On September 12, he was one of the first designers to announce his Spring-Summer 2023 show would go ahead — and posted on Instagram about the importance of “being there for small brands in London this week.”

In the run-up to the event, Reed’s Instagram stories teased snippets of late-night catwalk prep, emphasizing the often unglamorous and grueling reality of staging a show. On Thursday night, inside a renovated 16th-century church in the City of London, Reed set the tone for London Fashion Week with presentation that included a moving live performance by Adam Lambert and a collection oozing with elegance and sculptural artistry.

And despite events coinciding with a period of national mourning, there was much to celebrate. Simone Rocha unveiled her first menswear collection, while J.W. Anderson returned to the London schedule for the first time since 2020. Asian American designer Chet Lo made his solo fashion week debut with an array of spiky separates and accessories; back-to-back LVMH Prize winners Nensi Dojaka and S.S. Daley were also among those representing the best of emerging talent.

Turkish-British designer Dilara Findikoglu went viral for her silent catwalk show on Saturday which included a selection of vampiric Victorian-inspired looks (some modeled by Amelia Gray, influencer and daughter of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reality star Lisa Rinna). And at Susan Fang, models even walked on water — thanks to a floating runway built on the surface of an indoor swimming pool.

Read on for highlights from London Fashion Week.

A week of tributes

Designers who chose to pay respects to the passing of Britain’s longest reigning monarch did so in a number of ways. For smaller labels unable to alter the bulk of their physical collections, music (or a lack thereof) often became a form of eulogy. Adam Lambert sang a rendition of Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever?” at Reed’s show, while Michael Halpern opted for silence during his collection’s opening look — an homage to the late queen. That sartorial tribute was an undulating cerulean cape draped over a turquoise gown and head scarf, inspired by an outfit the Queen wore in 1957 while attending the opera with former French President René Coty.

“We wanted to do something that felt really respectful,” Halpern told CNN at his studio ahead of the show. “No music, no fancy lights, no nothing. Just a really beautiful, concise and modest walk with one girl on the runway at the beginning of the show.”

“She wore this really beautiful blue gown, and that’s the exact color of the (first look),” he added.

During the finale of Dojaka’s show, models each carried a sprig of lily of the valley — reportedly a favorite bloom of Queen Elizabeth II, and one that featured in her coronation bouquet in 1953. Christopher Kane, who returned to the schedule for the first time since before the pandemic, created a gray sweatshirt and skirt look that nods to the former monarch’s last official photograph, according to the show notes.

Perhaps the most extensive tribute, however, came courtesy of Richard Quinn. His career in fashion is inextricably linked with the monarch, who — after presenting him with the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in 2018 — sat front row at his Autumn-Winter 2018 show. Quinn was quickly cemented as one of the country’s top talents, and in honor of his royal supporter, this season he opened his show with a funereal procession of 22 all-black looks — including long crystal-trimmed veils, jeweled crowns and a black wide-brimmed hat reminiscent of the queen’s style.

As models walked, a melancholic video montage of the monarch as a young child and woman played on suspended screens: rotating glimpses of the queen laughing off-duty, at her wedding to Prince Philip and, of course, footage from Monday’s state funeral flashed by. The entire collection was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, “who touched him among so many others with her grace and kindness,” according to the show notes.

The female gaze

Rocha — a renegade romanticist whose subversive and often gothic take on femininity has won her many accolades, including the prestigious British Womenswear Designer Award in 2016 — made her menswear debut with a gender-inclusive collection this season. In the fresco-covered halls of London’s Old Bailey criminal court, the Irish-British designer offered a new spin on masculine dressing, with tutus, ribbon-laced ballet flats and bow-strewn backpacks. Khaki trench coats were adorned with red and green crystals arranged into poppies, while chunky belt-chains (like those typical of late aughts emo fashion) contrasted with delicate ruching.

Molly Goddard, another linchpin of the womenswear circuit, similarly extended her signature frothy frills to the male population. Known for her candy-colored, diaphanous tulle creations, Goddard first launched her menswear line in 2020 with a largely conservative collection of tartan suits and Fair Isle knit cardigans. On Saturday, she turned it up a notch with t-shirts, shirts and suit jackets trimmed with her trademark ruffles. She even waded further into the men’s skirt movement with a full-length pinstripe kilt.

All across the Spring-Summer 2023 schedule, collections were thrumming with feminine energy. Chinese designer Yuhan Wang found inspiration in female pilots, as she reimagined aviator uniforms and helmets in florid prints and ethereal fabrics like silk organza. For Halpern, the enduring glamour of his mother — who continued to host, and dress accordingly for, lavish house parties fit for a New York City socialite, even after the family relocated upstate — shaped his Spring-Summer designs. Rejina Pyo presented this season on the 28th floor of a London skyscraper, with an array of office-appropriate tailoring, evening dresses and mules made for walking — all against a spoken soundscape exalting the beauty of working women.

Brazilian designer Karoline Vitto’s collection of cut-out mini dresses and off-beat evening wear, staged by the nonprofit talent incubator Fashion East, was a love letter to “the most controversial and overlooked aspects of the female form,” according to the show notes. In a partnership with the casting agency AAMO, Vitto’s show exclusively featured curvy and plus-size models between UK sizes 10 and 20, in the hopes of setting a precedent for the industry.

Haute hardware

Buckles, straps and harnesses were inescapable this season. Poster Girl, creator of the peek-a-boo It-Girl party dress beloved by Kylie Jenner and Dua Lipa, sent a slew of looks down the runway often featuring three belts at a time. Rocha recreated garter belts from oversized parachute straps that dangled beneath dresses, while Yuhan Wang made body-strapped backpacks complete with utility pouches in pink lace and chintz fabric.

Kane, who took cues from science and human anatomy for Spring-Summer 2023, fashioned multi-strapped corsets out of clear plastic and tiny metal buckles. The “skeletal structures,” as Kane referred to them in his show notes, “emphasize the strength and importance of the abdominal area and exterior muscles.”

Top image: Harris Reed Spring-Summer 2023 at London Fashion Week.

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