The Frill (sic) of the New
NEWGEN seems terribly British: a bit like a fashion version of the NHS but without the administrative snags. And, in a similar way, it's difficult for Brits to appreciate how astounding an initiative until one compares it to similar measures in Milan and Paris - and then realises they don't exist.
Fashion is all about the jolt of the new - or at least going through the motions. After all, styles so often only appear new compared to what immediately precedes it, and predictably so at that. Who couldn't imagine that after a decade of leggings, 'jeggings' and skinnies we'd suddenly slouch into the 'new' Oxford bag? Or that our maximal Minimal moment would end in an orgy of excessive decoration, print, colour and texture. Mary Katrantzou dressed a woman as a Fabergé egg for winter. You don't get more maximal than that.
Funny that I reference Katrantzou, because the one place where new fashion still feels new is London. In fact, 'new' is in the name - NEWGEN, the initiative spearheaded by the British Fashion Council and Topshop, is the backbone of London fashion. As with all the best backbones, its role isn't just supportive - giving designers financial backing, showrooms and show-spaces - but cerebral. NEWGEN is the gold standard of British fashion, underlining the names to watch in a marketplace increasingly saturated with fledgling talent. And what names - Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab, Richard Nicoll, Meadham Kirchhoff and Mary Katrantzou. They're what British fashion is made of.
For Autumn/Winter 2012, there's more new than we've ever seen before - fifteen young designers supported for catwalk, presentation or exhibition, from 'dab hands' like David Koma and Holly Fulton, entering their fourth and fifth seasons of sponsorship respectively, to a number of exciting and (you guess it) new names. 'The calibre and variety of the talent coming up through NEWGEN is a brilliant reflection of exactly why London is shining in 2012,' says US Vogue's Sarah Mower, who also acts as the British fashion Council's Ambassador for Emerging Talent. It seems terribly British: a bit like a fashion version of the NHS but without the administrative snags. And, in a similar way, it's difficult for Brits to appreciate how astounding an initiative until one compares it to similar measures in Milan and Paris - and then realises they don't exist.
Of the talents highlighted this season, three are entirely new to the NEWGEN fold. Chinese-born designer Huishan Zhang creates clothes that are bewilderingly sophisticated for a designer of his youth: think of him as a young Valentino and you'll sort of get his edge-to-edge silk faille coats, lace-smothered organza blouses and crystal-decorated evening gowns. That's not to say China isn't important to him - his work is all about the combination of east and west, many of his clothes manufactured in the far east and many of their decorative themes pulled from their too, albeit reworked into garments with a hint of the boxy simplicity of sixties couture about them. He's also an interesting indication of the next step for China: from importing fashion labels in, they're now exporting expert fashion designers out. Zhang is just the first to come to London.
Lucas Nascimento hails from Brazil: he's a natty knitter, but unlike many of those his garments have an unwavering wearability and a consumer-conscious punch to the price. Namely nothing drifting higher than three figures (and a modest three at that). His garments look pretty on a hanger, but when you investigate the textiles and realise that Nascimento's knit-wittery means he's fabricated every one from scratch, from a seemingly printed black-and-blue trouser (actually a digital intarsia) to a knotty, nubby knit tweed, it's evident that his work is quite exceptional.
The third new name is Simone Rocha, the announcement - but not the decision - coming shortly after Lady Gaga sported a chartreuse tulle peplum dress on the cover of British ELLE. The other cover in that publishing diptych featured Gaga in a five-figure McQueen babydoll, a thrilling comment on how Rocha's profile has risen since her small, off-schedule showing back in September. 'I felt I had something else to say and I really wanted to push it forward,' said Rocha, of her decided gamble of a show, using the fee from her Topshop collaboration and corralling family and friends into helping out. The collection however proved to be no gamble: with chantilly t-shirts, lace trapped between layers of plastic and latex and a new femininity to her silhouettes, Rocha's new sophistication doubled her stockist, rocketed her profile and bagged her a catwalk slot as part of NEWGEN for winter. 'It's one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life,' she said in retrospect. 'But it paid off!'
That must be the way Topshop feel too, entering their tenth year of NEWGEN sponsorship. For Topshop, it's a deal as sweet as one of Simone Rocha's lacy t-shirts: support the hot new designers of tomorrow, associate your brand with the crème de la crème of British fashion, and get them to design spin-off collections for you. To be blunt, who better to rip off a designer than the designer themselves - especially when they can surrender the manufacturing hassles to a high-street behemoth? Rip-off, however, is a flippant term when designers are creating canny, commercial distillations of their greatest hits. For spring, the big fuss and bother is over collabs with Mary Katrantzou and the leap-out talent of Fashion East, Maarten Van Der Horst. The former's egg-shaped, print-strewn dress exploded over Twitter in October, while the latter's trademark nylon ruffles and Hawaiian prints bode well for aesthetic extroverts come the line's proposed launch date in April. Something new to be thrilled (and frilled) by.