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Fashion has always been, in no small part, about the rich. The industry first sprang to life in the 19th century, to indulge the whims of royalty and aristocrats; decades later, the great houses of Paris couture’s golden age were sustained by a tiny, fiercely loyal (and high-spending) clientele. London, though, has always been more democratic; it’s the city of Mary Quant and Carnaby Street, of paper minidresses and Westwood t-shirts, and of a high street culture that’s become a vital fashion force in its own right.

But the moneyed are still amongst us; gliding through London in sleek cars with tinted windows, dining in a never-ending production line of luxury restaurants, residing in grand enclaves, and generally inhabiting a world that’s shinier, and more softly-upholstered, and, above all, far better-lit than ours. And, whilst stealth-wealth is still a force to be reckoned with here (Gabriela Hearst and The Row are among the capital’s latest retail arrivals), this season’s catwalks are feeding an appetite for a far more extravagant style.

Julien Macdonald has been London’s reigning king of bling for over two decades now, thanks to the sparkling, barely-there concoctions of crystal and thread – part showgirl, part party animal socialite – that anchor his signature style. He’s perhaps best known for his celebrity clientele (Liz! Kylie! Heidi!), and for his successful presence on the high street (thanks to his long-standing partnership with department store group Debenhams). But Macdonald has built equally successful relationships with private customers along the way, creating garments which can retail for well over the £10k barrier. And for Summer 2020, Macdonald took one of those relationships to its natural conclusion, teaming up with Mexican client Gabriela Gonzalez for a collection that expressed her point of view alongside his. In the flesh (of which there was plenty on show), that meant a slightly softer edge to proceedings, with swaying tiers of fringe and watery pastel prints layered onto the designer’s glitzy gowns and bold-shouldered minidresses.

Macdonald’s had some serious competition on the dazzle front of late, thanks to the arrival of New Yorker Michael Halpern. Over the space of a few seasons, Halpern’s collections have become one of London Fashion Week’s highlights, thanks to a reliable blend of showstopping venues (this time out, the grand ballroom of Whitehall’s Institute of Engineers, its vast chandeliers dropped to hover a few feet off the floor), and no-holds-barred glamour. For Summer 2020, the designer was inspired by the Ziegfeld Follies, New York’s legendary troupe of showgirls, whose showstopper routines (and equally showstopping costumes) came to define the Jazz Age’s brittle, sensual style. In Halpern’s hands, that translated into eveningwear with insouciant, hard-edged swagger, from gold lamé opera coats and drop-waisted column gowns to sequin-crusted tuxedos and supple sheaths.

Things were altogether calmer in the plush-carpeted surroundings of Holborn’s Rosewood Hotel, where Huishan Zhang staged his latest show. The Doris Day soundtrack and neatly sleek reworkings of cheongsams and twinsets gave the collection a demurely retro flavour – but it was where Zhang cut loose, with swathes of marabou feather or elaborate organza tiers rimmed in pearl beading in lustrous black and startling, electric blues – that his clothes sprang to opulent life. And that same lavish approach to volume and detail was echoed at Christopher Kane, where tailoring and gowns in violet neon shades came adorned with mirrored buttons and the size of golfballs. Carved shouldered-jackets, slashed bodices and puffed out skirts nodded to the first Elizabethan Age – and to its Queen, the woman who perhaps invented power dressing.

Kane’s show was staged in a canal-side industrial space, just east of Camden Market – the spiritual home of London’s cyperpunk, Goth, and indie tribes, and a decidedly incongruous context for such stately garments. It was, no doubt, a deliberate move for a designer who revels in juxtapositions. But, as Vogue once declared, luxury is a state of mind. And, despite this season’s extravagant surge, those designing for fashion’s upper limits remain outliers here. Ralph & Russo, the London-based duo behind the £56,000 beaded gown the Duchess of Sussex wore for her engagement photos, have decamped to the Paris couture schedule; Mary Katrantzou has moved to Greece this season, showing to an intimate audience at the Temple of Sounion. Internationally, houses like Chanel and Dior are setting the pace, mounting shows in increasingly exotic, exclusive locations. Can London’s designers actually compete, on sheer experience level? Because, when it comes down to it, these days, top-tier clients are buying into far more than just the clothes.


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