At London Fashion Week, New Ideas for Grown-Up Clothes

Two weeks into fashion month, some themes are emerging. In New York, designers propositioned us to think differently about the classics, taking ladylike separates and twerking them into something much more indicative of how women want to and need to dress today. Many brands also began to look inward and do away with over-marketed ideas of nostalgia and fantasy, providing a fresh, self-expressive sartorial palette. Designers at London Fashion Week, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this season, are steering us in these converging directions, too, with the best of them challenging us to ask: What does it mean to make grown-up clothes in 2024?

Rebelliousness has always been at the core of British fashion. Think of Mary Quant giving us mod mini-skirts, Vivienne Westwood defining what it meant to be a punk, or Lee McQueen using oft-controversial storylines to present exquisite, boundary-breaking clothes. On the other side, there’s also Saville Row tailoring and strict tweeds and tartans, long favored by the monarchy and the elite tiers of high society. London Fashion Week has thus always had a bit of a split personality—one similar to New York, where the underground and overground are two very separate entities. But now, a middle ground is emerging in both cities, and in London, it’s manifesting in designs that amalgamate sophistication with subversion.

london, england february 16 a model walks the runway at the tolu coker show during london fashion week february 2024 at the bfc newgen show space on february 16, 2024 in london, england photo by joe maherbfcgetty images

Tolu Coker opened the week with one of the most exciting takes. The young designer’s collection was inspired by her mother and the street hawkers in their native Ghana. Suiting was cut in varying proportions, and shirting was cut into long dresses with exaggerated collars and corseted waists, the likes of which could be worn by any number of people who aren’t in the market for a simple cotton poplin shirt dress or a standard-cut boring blazer. The clothes were inspired by the people Coker knew growing up who couldn’t afford expensive fashion but could get crafty with draping, styling, and layering. In other words, it’s the beauty of “make do and mend” for a new and clever generation.

While Coker drew her inspiration from her real life, Priya Ahluwalia and 16Arlington’s Marco Capaldo looked to storybook fantasies for their impactful collections. Ahluwalia spun striking, graphic print and woven pieces from allegories and folk tales from her Nigerian and Indian heritage, creating sustainably-minded garments that felt perfectly balanced between this world and one that exists only in dreams. The patchwork denim jacket and skirt (a new collaboration with Levi’s); embellished, hooded silk top; and matching trousers felt like uniforms for some warrior princess living in the now. Capaldo went a bit darker, borrowing from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 2017 book This Young Monster by Charlie Fox. Sheer paneled dresses were gothic and sexy, and the silver fringe detail on scarves and skirts gave a striking substance to a monochromatic black set of ready-to-wear staples.

Speaking of substance, no one is more adept at making grown-up clothes for women in London today than Erdem Moralioglu. Over the last couple of seasons, the designer has hit a stride in adding more flourish and unexpected detail to his elegant repertoire–how about that Barbour patchworked coat for spring?–and he’s doing it again for fall.

Moralioglu looked to the opera singer Maria Callas and her complex existence, which evolved from a defining era as a glamorous music and style icon to something more tragic after she experienced heartbreak and became a recluse later in life. The opening look said it all: a spectacularly-crafted pistachio opera coat worn open to reveal a white 1950s-style brassiere and high-wait pencil skirt with a slit that showed the undergarment slip. The model wore feather-trimmed shoes that looked like very fancy house slippers. It was at once undone and pulled together, the kind of thing women want to wear now because it marries ease and imperfection with elevated flair.

A similar construct was on view in the collections of Molly Goddard and Simone Rocha. Whereas Goddard toyed with the idea of shape via her signature ballooning skirts and waists not quite so cinched with drawstrings, Rocha used corsetry and sheer fabrics to emphasize a fresh, liberated perspective on sensuality. “Perverse” was a word she used to describe the collection in her show notes, and it’s certainly a fitting moniker, not just for Rocha but for many of the designers in London this season who are redefining feminine style.

Jonathan Anderson knows the allure of the perverse all too well. He’s known for his surrealist approach to banal fashion, taking a simple pair of pants, shorts, or a hoodie and rendering them in clay or stretching their proportions to comical lengths. This season for JW Anderson, he used the humble sweater as a starting point and then morphed it into various unassuming shapes: a mini dress pin-tucked at the waist, a bulbous, knotted skirt and top set, an ultra-low v-neck jumper worn with a floral belt and ribbon skirt. This is not a collection for the woman who habitually wears cashmere polos, jeans, and flats. This is something much more imaginative but still severe, a wardrobe for those who want to shop beyond newsletters and scream at quiet luxury.

Anderson solidified the notion of new grown-up dressing this week. In London, aspiration is about the courage of your convictions and the power that cheeky clothes can bring out in us. We can be pretty and perverse, expensive-looking and playful. That same rebelliousness that once defined London fashion is still here. Even better, it’s gotten more balanced—attainable, relatable, elevated, but still the best kind of naughty.

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