Last September, in the middle of its 25-year celebrations, London Fashion Week finally shed its Peter Pan image and grew up. It wasn't just the fact that the five-day event had moved into swanky premises at Somerset House, the former dwelling of British Admiralty officials. Or that several big-cheese international brands - including Burberry, Antonio Berardi, Matthew Williamson and Jonathan Saunders - had returned to the fold.
Nor was it that the body behind fashion week - the British Fashion Council (BFC) - having undergone a restructuring, had drawn up a spectacularly ambitious schedule featuring venues from palaces to dungeons, and everything from catwalk shows to installations, to ensure that there was never a dull moment. What grabbed headlines was not the shock-value frocks but the emergence of a new super-league of British-based (although not necessarily British) designers who delivered the sort of polished, beautifully executed, trailblazing collections that Paris or New York would kill for.
"London's gone luxe!" shrieked one website, describing Erdem's demi-couture frocks. Luckily for London, American Vogue's Anna Wintour, French Vogue's Carine Roitfeld and buyers from international department stores and boutiques were on hand to witness this extraordinary renaissance. Five months later, the big question is: can London do it again? This is especially because now the industry is in mourning for one of its greatest home-grown success stories: the late Alexander McQueen. Yet the city remains bullish. "London has never been as relevant," says the renowned fashion journalist and commentator Sarah Mower.
In her capacity as ambassador for emerging talent at the BFC, Mower not only heads a committee that decides who's in and who's out of the catwalk line-up, she also oversees who gets backing on one of the two BFC initiatives to help emerging designers: New Gen (where up to 20 designers receive from £500-£10,000 (Dh2,895-Dh57,905) towards their show costs) and Fashion Forward (which gifts one designer substantial business funding and mentoring). Past New Gen recipients include McQueen, Boudicca and Williamson. This season, the line-up includes Mark Fast and Meadham Kirchhoff, Wintour's favourite London brand, who are inspired by "Gypsies, junkies and blue roses" in their autumn/winter 2010/2011 collection.
Louise Goldin is the recipient of this year's Fashion Forward award, following in the footsteps of the previous winners Christopher Kane, Erdem and Marios Schwab. Although it is impossible to compare London with, say, New York - Ralph Lauren has a turnover of £2 billion (Dh11.3bn) a year; in comparison, the UK's biggest designer is Sir Paul Smith, whose global sales are a mere £332 million (Dh1.9bn) - London has an edge on its rivals, being the -undisputed spawning ground of design talent.
"The way they teach fashion in London is different than other learning academies worldwide," says Caroline Rush, the joint CEO of the BFC. "The likes of Louise Wilson [the head of the Central Saint Martins' MA programme] teach it as an art -rather than a business. "What's been missing, however, is a lack of development in the business side of things. We've been addressing this for some time and now are seeing results." "London is where you always see trends first, including consumer trends," says Mower, who is also a contributing editor to US Vogue and Style.com.
"Store buyers come to London to discover emerging designers who make their stores look more exciting. As well as buying big brands that have been around for decades, like Dries van Noten, customers now want not-so-well-known brands that are different. "We don't do scary and aggressive any more in London." she says. "It's no longer about making clothes out of dead flies and being vile to the audience. Paris can keep Gareth Pugh [the avant-garde British designer], who is a throwback to the days when British designers made clothes for kids in squats." According to Mower: "The new generation of London designers, like Kane, aspires to make beautiful clothes, ideally manufactured in ateliers in London, that will end up hanging in luxury department stores like Barneys in New York and be worn by sophisticates, not pop stars. Although it's good to see stylists picking up on London designers like Hannah Marshall, who are known as much for creative styles as beautifully made clothes. Or Michael van der Ham [a Dutch designer whose clothes resemble a 3D collage] and the Russian David Koma, who dresses Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Cheryl Cole."
London continues to benefit from the internet, which has given its designers an even greater platform and helped put them on an equal footing globally. This season, it becomes the first fashion capital to go digital, with live catwalk shows online and collaborations on short films with creative thinkers such as Hussein Chalayan and Boudicca. "We must keep on coming up with new ideas and pushing forward," says Caroline Rush. Glamour is also on the menu: -Roitfeld flew in for the Turkish newcomer Hakaan's debut show on Friday, which was followed by a Bafta fashion party hosted by Kate Winslet. On Saturday night, the supermodel Naomi Campbell threw a charity catwalk event in aid of Haiti. Burberry closes the week on Tuesday with the first 3D catwalk show, screened live online in five cities, including Dubai. "So long as London stays focused and keeps on proving our designers are not just a flash in the pan, we'll be OK," Sarah Mower. Ironically, less than a week before the untimely death of McQueen, I asked Sarah what would be her ultimate dream for London. She didn't hesitate: "To get Alexander McQueen back."