x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Olympic catwalk: Britain gets all nostalgic

Throughout the Olympics, you will be constantly reminded why London remains a magnet for fashion lovers.

With the 2012 Olympics looming, global attention is starting to swivel towards London.

The city appears to be in two minds about how to present itself, however. While keen – and proud – to showcase the obvious tradition, heritage and patriotic pomp during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June, two months later the Olympics seem intent on flagging up Britain's modern identity.

In truth, when it comes to "Britishness", old and new work best together, blended like a fine tea from Harrods. Or a Vivienne Westwood Harris tweed mini crinoline.

You need only to look at current hot British exports to see the dilemma. One Direction, the cute British boy band whipping the US into a frenzy, represent modern Britain with its classless, multicultural society. Then you have the Duchess of Cambridge with her plummy accent and sensible frocks and hats, who embodies what everyone wants the UK to be about: cucumber sandwiches and Harry Potter. I visited two pre-Olympic/Jubilee events this week, where fashion was high on the agenda and which highlighted this very British mash-up between old and new, and the sense of modernity and technology Britain is keen to promote to the rest of the world during this Olympic year.

(Actually it was three, if you include the launch of Stella McCartney's design of Team GB's kit, which daringly reworks the red, white and blue of the Union flag, blurring it with yet more blue, into the tightest, skinniest Lycra you have ever seen.)

London's Victoria & Albert Museum is drawing vast crowds for its exhibition Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration. This features 100 photographs of the queen, including an iconic Beaton image of her in an ermine-trimmed coronation robe worn over a Hardy Amies twinkling ball gown, which can still be found on Scout hut walls and primary schools nationwide.

Something that couldn't be said about an equally iconic image housed in the newly opened exhibit British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age.

Here, the queen has her eyes and mouth covered by lettering seemingly torn from tabloid newspapers in the style of a ransom note. This is Jamie Read's God Save the Queen screen print created for the punk rock group the Sex Pistols in 1977.

What initially strikes you as nostalgia throughout this show - which includes the original design for David Bowie's Aladdin Sane album (1973), an E-Type Jaguar (1961), David Bailey 1960s snaps, Jonathan Ives' Apple iMac (1998) and dresses from McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Mary Quant – you realise is here because it was not just nationally but globally ground-breaking.

The question is, does Britain still cut it now? Throughout the Olympics, you will be constantly reminded of why London remains a magnet for fashion-lovers.

From the moment the Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle puts on his opening ceremony show (watched by 15 per cent of the planet's population) and every time shots of the Olympic village are beamed across the world, one building in particular will remain in view.

No, it's not the Tower of London or Zahar Hadid's Aquatics Centre. I'm talking about the £1.45 billion (Dh8.44bn) Westfield Stratford City shopping mall, the largest in Europe, which is at the gateway to the Olympic Park.

A pop-up event I witnessed at its sibling Westfield London site, called futurefashion, heads east to Stratford this week. This sets out to show the public (and some of the Olympic teams already ensconced in London) the very latest digital and virtual retail technology, much of which has been developed in the UK.

It includes 103-inch touch-screens (the width of a Mini Cooper) where you can screen-grab images of clothes, a tweet mirror, social photo booth and making its commercial debut, a 3D catwalk. Housed in a small cinema pod that seats 15, the latter not only makes you feel like you've nabbed Anna Wintour's front-row perch, but models come at you so near you almost have to duck. It's utterly amazing and it's set to become mainstream.

Thinking up ways to draw in customers (rather than let them shop online), it's no wonder Westfield's footfall continues to grow.

Meanwhile, this week in London, newspaper headlines were about how the superstar Rihanna had not only been using the Tube to get to her own concert but had been on a marathon five-hour shopping spree at Topshop in Oxford Street.

Make no mistake, shopping is the jewel in the crown of London. If this was included in the Olympics, Britain might actually win gold.

 

Julia Robson is a London-based fashion journalist, broadcaster and stylist

 

artslife@thenational.ae