How Britain's designers turned fashion into art

Monday 23 May 2016

“Fashion is a big bubble and sometimes I feel like popping it.” − Alexander McQueen. 

The fashion that comes out of the United Kingdom has long been in a league of its own. From haute couture to the high street, the country has channelled its independent spirit and street cred into a dynamic and ever-evolving style landscape. 

Those in the know call it one of the most influential hubs in the world. Why? Because it has a knack of merging creative individuality with keen commercial success. All you have to do is ask Suzy Menkes, one of the best-known journalists in the game who, after spending 25 years commenting on fashion for the International Herald Tribune, is now international editor at Vogue. 

Menkes says the “dynamism of London and its international status as the New York of Europe makes the fashion scene here so energetic.” That pulse has born and bred some of the most iconic brands and enigmatic designers ever. Think (Alexander) McQueen, (Vivienne) Westwood and (Stella) McCartney: all trailblazers who have earned their right to shortened monikers.

And it doesn’t stop there. More contemporary counterparts are fast and furiously on their tale: House of Holland, Christopher Kane and Matthew Williamson, to name but a few. Younger, and bringing a fresh and fearless aesthetic to the British tradition. 

Even Montreal-born Erdem Moralioglu – he of those fantastical floral prints – has landed quite literally and figuratively on the map. A self-professed Londoner, he quickly caught the attention of the Duchess of Cambridge and acts as a designer BFF, having dressed her for state dinners, galas and her summer royal tour in Canada.

“British designers have influenced the fabric of history,” says Kim Newport-Mimran, designer and founder of Canadian fashion label, Pink Tartan. “They have a unique point of view on style and design. Culturally, they have contributed to fashion by making it art.” 

There is definitely a dynamic at work, but it’s a trend that stretches way back. In the 19th century, London (not Paris) was the epicentre of the fashion world. Women’s fashion – think corsets, bonnets, bustles and petticoats – dominated the Victorian period. Fast forward several decades and the post-war period of the late 1950s was exclusive to dressmakers and their wealthy clientele – looking to the French capital for inspiration, but their works and lives were centred in the West End of London. 

The style was distinctive: sharp tailoring with a very English sense of grace. Who epitomized this better than Queen Elizabeth II herself? Since taking the throne in 1952 her fashion play has been her hats: during her reign it is estimated she’s worn over 5,000 of them. 
In celebration of The Queen’s 90th birthday, three special exhibitions Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe will be staged across each of her official residences during 2016 - constituting the largest display of The Queen's dress ever mounted.

With the sixties came the swing: The wealthy and snobby Mayfair generation was fading, which, in turn, introduced a new wave of bohemian artistes who were ebullient in their rebellion. Kings Road became their Mecca; known to the media as the Chelsea Set, they made the name synonymous with a new way of dressing. 

Designer Mary Quant, pioneer of the mini-skirt, led that charge. Manufacturing her own clothes, she was contemporary and believed fashion should be affordable and accessible. “Part of the Mary Quant movement was to inspire people to dress for themselves and to have fun with fashion,” says Elisa Dahan, co-creative director of Canadian fashion label Mackage. Her partner, Eran Elfassy concurs: “We’re inspired by her movement in our own line, in particular creating outerwear that is functional but fashionable – styles that still highlight our customer’s unique personalities.” 

Quant’s retail boutique Bazaar on the Kings Road proffered a new “London Look”: White, patent knee-high boots were on order, as was skin-tight ribbed sweaters and the mini-skirt. This was Mod, and its heady influence meant fashion boutiques popped up at a rapid pace. Women were loyal to the Kings Road while men flocked to Carnaby Street district and its independent shops, or to Piccadilly Circus, once famous for dressing British gentleman, which shifted its style to a more flamboyant figure with patterns, velvet and a certain dandy nonchalance. 

Outside of London, there was Ben Sherman. From his origins in the seaside resort of Brighton, the late shirtmaker has become a global brand. His distinctive button down shirts – the Oxford – caught the Mod boom and soon every national pop group from The Who to The Kinks sported the look, as did the young kids inspired by the American Ivy League. 

“It’s amazing to see how a style originally seen as trend or fad has transcended decades and has grown to be a staple aesthetic widely referenced and used within the fashion scene,” says Elfassy. “Take a look at some of the more ‘traditional’ haute couture brands globally and I guarantee you will see hints of this genre woven throughout their collections.”

From this pedigree transpired a new skinhead subculture: working class youths in London who chose clean-cut, mod-influenced styles with straight-leg jeans and buttoned up shirts to match. An essential was the army boot, and Dr. Marten’s 8-holed versions became that symbol of pride. The “Docs” brand is now huge in Britain and across the world. “We dressed our models in Dr. Marten boots for our spring/summer 2016 collection.” says Dahan. “Visually it allowed us to stay loyal to our aesthetic, but also adding that perfect amount of rebellion.”

Another iconic British boot, though associated with a more upmarket clientele (the brand is a long-time favourite of royals), is the Hunter. The classic w ellington boot has become a big global fashion brand seen on the feet of dozens of celebrities. 

Jenny Packham is a contemporary designer who has also ridden royal coattails to huge success. After The Duchess of Cambridge wore her dresses to several prominent Royal Family events, Packham’s couture has been seen on many a Hollywood actress on the red carpet.

Meanwhile, a label from a different kind of royalty is also on the rise: Victoria Beckham’s modern take on women’s wear has won this former Spice Girl critical acclaim and commercial success, and she boasts a flagship store on London's upscale Dover Street.

Fashion is etched into the fabric of the U.K., but it is also a big business. The industry’s contribution to the economy is estimated at over $50-billion a year, twice the size of the car industry. In the five days of London Fashion Week, almost $200-million of orders are placed for that season and two thirds of buyers are international. 

“What makes the British succeed in the world of fashion is their individuality,” says Elfassy. “They honour their heritage but stay loyal to their personal style.” Dahan adds: “The British designers have their finger on the pulse – we all look to them for inspiration and as long as they continue to work as that muse, they will forever be successful.” 

Don’t think you can afford designer labels? Think again. A bevy of discount outlets await you. 

Bicester Village
Take the train from Marylebone station in London or Oxford Parkway to this designer outlet in Oxfordshire, which offers 60 percent off European and internationally acclaimed designer fashion and lifestyle brands. Balenciaga, Belstaff or Burberry anyone? 

For fashion lovers, these designer outlets in Ashford, Cheshire Oaks and Bridgend, Wales offer popular high street brands and discount designer labels. 

Burberry Factory Outlet
This outlet store is exclusive to the brand’s range of clothing and accessories for men, women, even children. A short walk from Hackney Central railway station in London, expect a lot of their classic (and timeless) trench coats and traditional Burberry check scarves. 

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