Even designers known for their street wear dabbled in after-hours looks this year, and to great effect.
Evening wear takes the lead at London Fashion Week
London. Birthplace of punk, "street" fashion, controversial designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Gareth Pugh, and more recently the sort of hyper-surreal "screen grab" digi-prints that are dominating the spring/summer 2012 trends.
Youth has always been at the heart of the London fashion scene and yet this week, rather shockingly, the British fashion capital has been accused of growing up.
Over the past few days, the catwalk shows of internationally renowned designers such as Christopher Kane, Meadham Kirchhoff, Mary Katrantzou and Erdem, who showed at London Fashion Week, which closed yesterday, looked polished and slick, with beautifully made clothes appropriate not just for an older customer but a certain time of day: that is, evening wear.
All this week, there's not only been a shift in the overall tone of London - which was highly sophisticated even by Paris standards - but the sparkly evening section normally reserved for the last few outfits has kicked in mid-show and in some cases even dominated. There's even been recognition of the over-35-year-old customer who prefers their clothes sophisticated, not girlie.
Although London has always been more about attitude than age, "London designers seem to have suddenly obtained an acute eye regarding pieces that sell", observed British Vogue's Harriet Quick.
Throughout LFW, clothes have been respectful of the female form and mindful of covering up (on arms, neck and legs). The new muse is inspired by Hitchcock heroines. Although often outrageously hourglass, dresses are nothing like the footballer's-wife-style, the second-skin we've come to know over the past few years. The silhouette is strict but fabrics are fussy with couture touches that include lace and panels. Colour is equally rich.
Has London become a grown-up? I asked Mark Holgate as Abba's Dancing Queen faded out on the Meadham Kirchhoff runway finale on Tuesday.
"But what a very interesting grown-up to know," posed the US Vogue writer diplomatically.
"Fashion press and buyers come to London for the incredibly strong point of view of its designers," said Holgate. "It's packaged in a way to look young and yet if you were to pull clothes apart, there have been so many separates that are incredibly wearable, beautiful and covetable."
This season, there has been a nod to cultures beyond those normally catered to in the usual London mindset; an obvious move to please customers in the Middle East and emerging nations, such as India, who have shown they admire the youthful energy that British designers have long been associated with.
The shift in balance from day to evening wear is not new. London, once a thriving go-to for formal ball gowns alongside its other speciality, menswear tailoring on Savile Row, has in fact reclaimed old territory.
Stella McCartney, who was awarded the "Red Carpet" award in the British Fashion Council's "Oscars" in 2011, returned in the nick of time this season (she will show her own label in Paris in 10 days) to preview a new capsule evening wear line.
Her exclusive show, attended by Kate Moss and Rihanna, who was in town for the Brit Awards, included magic acts (featuring Alexa Chung appearing to be cut in half) in-between a show with models young and not so young, including Amber Valletta, Yasmin Le Bon and Shalom Harlow - all fortysomethings.
"Isn't it lovely to have a bit of Stella back in London?" British Vogue's Lucinda Chambers said before Vivienne Westwood's Red Label show kicked off in London, which was almost half evening wear.
"I thought the range of dresses Stella showed, from the marbled balloon-back long gowns to the micro sheaths, was interesting in itself," said Chambers.
Why has evening wear become so important? "There's a huge pressure and necessity to get as many celebrities as possible to wear your clothes, particularly evening wear, which makes for memorable paparazzi shots. Stella's good at this," said Chambers. "This is why there has been a real shift in the balance between day and evening wear with influential designers like Valentino and Giambattista Valli embracing evening wear. The pressure is really on to get celebrities wearing their clothes."
More proof was found at a private presentation of Tom Ford clothes in London, too. Gowns on models were designed to be as beautiful from the back as the front.
Colours at Ford included red, black, white and gold with beige and putty neutrals as well as purple and green. Ford even showed select press guests a piece earmarked for Julianne Moore on Sunday.
The British fashion stylist, Richard Sloane, who sits on the board of Fashion East, the London-based forum founded in 2000, which has been responsible for cultivating talents such as Holly Fulton, Jonathan Saunders and Henry Holland, is also intrigued by how women now wear evening wear slipped into regular day wear.
"Don't call it evening wear, it's more 'wear'. You put on your sparkly dress with a pair of sneakers. There are no rules. The lasting impression I've got from London this season is colour," said Sloane, "and lots of it. Even metallics are colours you wear around the clock.
"There's also been lots of length, which we traditionally associate with evening wear," he said.
Marios Schwab, who once rarely strayed from day wear, this season fully embraced the femme fatale. Highlights included net dresses in eau de nil and black worn over print with "spirograph" embroideries inspired by the "naked" dresses worn by Marlene Dietrich in the latter stages of her career.
Styled by Katie England, who collaborated on shows with the late designer Alexander McQueen, who never tried to conceal his love of evening wear, Schwab showcased multitasking styles.
Emerging trends at LFW - lace, velvet and techniques bordering on couture such as moiré taffeta at Christopher Kane and laser-cut, latex-dipped lace at Erdem - heightened the after-hours dress effect.
When Henry Holland, renowned for streetwear, does embellished jacquard frocks that he calls "almost evening", you know this is not just a fad.
Shows by Issa, Matthew Williamson and Alice Temperley included plenty of sparkly red-carpet numbers. And the star-studded Burberry show even included fabulous velvet frocks that could span day to evening wear.
London might have embraced evening wear but the big question is, come Oscar night, will the actresses that count give London their backing? Red carpet dressing has just become a whole lot more interesting.
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