It can sometimes be hard to separate London fashion from the anarchic style spearheaded by Godmother of punk Vivienne Westwood and continually referenced throughout the work of the late Lee Alexander McQueen. The Big Smoke’s penchant for DIY art school aesthetics lives on in Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY and the safety-pinned skirts at Chopova Lowena, whose runway debut dominated the industry headlines this season. Still, it was another debut, that of Standing Ground with its meticulously cut sensual silhouettes, that offered a different perspective to what London fashion could be. In a serene presentation before Fashion East’s runway show – which highlighted the work of Jawara Alleyene and Karoline Vitto – Standing Ground’s immaculate draping was more reminiscent of a great couturier than your typical fresh face on the London scene.
‘I’m not really that interested in fashion to be honest with you’, admits Michael Stewart over coffee one rainy London morning. The Irish designer behind Standing Ground graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2017 but wouldn’t go on to start his label until 2021. Being plucked by Lulu Kennedy’s Fashion East initiative - known for launching the careers of industry greats like JW Anderson and Craig Green - S/S 23 would be Stewart’s first London Fashion Week outing. Already a favourite among industry insiders thanks to his singular references and romantic hand at draping, Stewart is quite literally a designer’s designer having created custom creations for menswear maven and former RCA classmate Bianca Saunders for The Fashion Awards in 2021.
It’s precisely his disinterest in the current fashion landscape that sets him apart from his contemporaries and immediately piques my interest. Living in the Instagram Age, the industry’s accelerated pace has seen brands prioritise spectacle in a constant hunt for virility – something Stewart has no problems avoiding. With a bigger picture in mind, the romantic visionary isn’t on the path to producing a trendy garment or it-accessory to dominate social feeds but is keeping his focus on striving for excellence. ‘I want to do made-to-measure. At the end of the day I want to cut from scratch to someone's body and really consider their proportions. You have to cut beautifully for everyone’, he explains.
Like a couturier plucked from a bygone era, Stewart’s references aren't what you’d expect. ‘I like to know what’s there but not let it influence me. If I think something looks too much like someone else, I’ll scrap it’, he states. Rather than the oft referenced silhouettes of Cristobal Balenciaga or the razor-sharp tailoring of McQueen, Stewart looks to the natural world for inspiration, namely the ancient standing stones of Ireland. ‘It's almost like a gesture. Animating a figure that's standing in the landscape.’ Contrary to the brand's name, movement is important in Stewart's works. Hand draping on a form, the designer finds distinct anchor points to visualise how fabric will hang off the body. The hip is key for Stewart as it denotes notions of movement. 'Stance is depicted a lot in antiquity. Like a striding stance that you see a lot in ancient Greek and Egyptian art’.
Further accentuating these points, his minimal silhouettes are adorned only by padding that snakes around the hips or collaborne, and the occasional hardware moulded into organic shapes. The tension between looking at the past and future plays a vital role in Stewart’s design ethos. ‘I have futuristic ideas as well, about an imagined future or an imagined ancient past and how they aesthetically crossover.’ Indeed the push and pull of these contrasting ideas led to a collection that can't be pinpointed to any particular era. Rather his statuesque creations wouldn’t seem out of place in the regal setting of an otherworldly sci-fi epic like Dune.
Speaking to Stewart about his hopes for the future it's hard not to notice the tinge of frustration coming from the designer about fashion’s present. ‘There shouldn’t just be one aesthetic that comes from London’, he says of the work he’s seen come from the city in recent years. And he isn’t wrong. As the industry's pace continues to hasten, the hankering for digital engagement puts emerging brands at risk of homogenising aesthetics and even worse, burning out. ‘It’s this constant thing with new designers in London who survive for 3 or 4 seasons and then have to shut shop because it’s too expensive to do. I’m trying to avoid that’. By shifting away from the clout chasing aspirations of his peers and focusing on refining his craft, Stewart hopes his work will speak for itself as he carves his own niche by continuing to build a clientele rather than rushing into mass production.
Of course, fashion journalism isn’t innocent in highlighting great branding over great design. Recent years have seen designers be lauded for cultivating easily digestible narratives to help sell jumpers or a pair of shoes, rather than pulling focus on their craft. Making the actual clothes an afterthought doesn’t impress Stewart. ‘A lot of the time it’s not even about the collection, it’s about your concept behind it,’ he explains. ‘I think that’s lovely and everything, but I don’t care what your concept is unless your work is really good as well.’ Circling back to Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, their legacies live on because they were able to find that brilliant balance between impeccable craftsmanship and shaping a brand identity. As one of London’s most exciting emerging talents, here's hoping Stewart will also be afforded the time he deserves to do the same.