"I'm 29 and I'm going to make it this year," said designer John McIntyre as he stood in the stall at the Olympia Convention Center today accepting raves from buyers and friends. "I always said I was going to make it before I was 30."
McIntyre is one of a large number of designers, many of them under 30, whose clothes have lured buyers and press back to London this season. Many of the fashion folk came expecting the flamboyant, often shocking variations on street fashion touted in the past. Instead, they were fairly recent art school graduates with a keen sense and appreciation of textiles used in rather simple, classic clothes.
In fact, for the past six months there has been a mellowing and maturing of London design. The crazies have calmed down a bit, and some of the dreary dull designers have been sparked by the focus on London as a fashion center.
Even the kids on Kings Road, other than the comic punks who peddle their poses for a pound to passing tourist photographers, are far less outrageous. The color black still predominates. The hair is pitch, too, usually cut quite short with a shock of hair pointed forward. The fashion business has so co-opted the hair and makeup of the punks in the past that one has to expect that the blackened eyes and blood-red lipstick is simply another fashion phase.
Even the designers whose clothes are straight from the street seem to have mellowed. Or have we simply gotten used to Body Map's men in ruffles and printed satin, the baby-doll tops, and bow trims that break the barrier on what men can wear and women might want to wear? Body Map now has an American line that Woodies and others carry, and it may be that designers Stevie Stewart and David Holah are pushing for big sales more than big news. Whatever the reason, the outrageousness and pure porn from last season's show was gone and the clothes look, well, almost familiar.
The political anger is still apparent in the Katharine Hamnett clothes, which also have calmed down and become more wearable for fall. She previously created the poster shirts with Save the World and Save the Whales messages she strongly believes in. This year her antinuclear message is "Think Global" and if the message doesn't get out on her shirts -- from which she contributes a percentage of the sales to various charities -- she's creating a magazine with a strong political message.
Hamnett made her point about peace with background noises and loudspeaker messages that made the tent where the clothes were shown sound as though it were on the front lines. In fact, she used combat gear shapes and cartridge belts for some of the clothes done in what seemed to be a terry cloth, knit and quilting.
Everything at Hamnett is far slimmer than it has been before and also a lot more serious. She's even gone as far as to show a fitted jacket and a slim skirt that for her are conservative in the extreme.
Betty Jackson is another skillful designer who has tamed her enthusiasm into a fresh, salable collection that was a hit especially with the American buyers. "You've grown up, girl," Saks Fifth Avenue's vice president Jessica Mitchell told Jackson the day after the show.
While Jackson uses a popular riding habit theme here as well as anyone, she has far more to offer. She's taken the polo shirt and developed it, usually in bright colors with a black knit collar, into dresses, tunics and costumes that will undoubtedly be bought and copied a lot. "The polo shirt is a very comfortable and easy thing to wear," said Jackson.
Jackson's styles are characteristically simple and well cut and it is her sure hand with fabrics that make them stand out. She worked with Brian Bolger, one of four 25-year-olds, all recent graduates of the Royal College of Art with a business called The Cloth, to get the scratchy print she used on Viyella in two of her groups. And a fish with an elephant head she developed with Timney Fowler on the printed crepe de chine.
"I like prints because they become mine exclusively and no one else can have them," said Jackson, whose patterns are far more subtle for next fall than they were for this summer. You have to get real close to figure out the Timney Fowler print. "That's the point," laughed Jackson. "People come up close to you and see it is a fish with an elephant's head and say,'Oh . . . isn't it nice!' "
The Cloth, whose prints are used by other designers and are in the collection at Liberty fabrics as well, now has its own small collection of clothes with its prints. "There is nothing innovative about the clothes," says Fraser Taylor, one of The Cloth's members. "It is just a way to show off our prints."
Some of the best collections are from the printmakers who now make clothes, like Sue Clowes, Anne Smith of Additi and Georgina von Etzdorf. Clowes, 27, who did the occult symbols for the Culture Club collection, now puts big daisies and happy devils on her own satin creations. Von Etzdorf, 29, is partial to abstractions, which she uses, for example, in a smashing printed silk pajama set. Anne Smith, 27, based her prints on the "mythology of the creation," she said.
When Helen Littman was invited as part of a group of young English designers to Japan, her plane stopped in Anchorage. At the airport she saw a large stuffed polar bear that became the print theme for her fall collection called English Eccentrics. She was attracted to the polar bear, she said, smiling, "because he is so sensibly dressed." She stretched the Eskimo theme to include prints like the Victorian wallpaper patterns that explorers who went to Alaska might have had on their living room walls.
Even the old-timers like Paul Costelloe put more emphasis on fabrics and patterns this season. "With the atrocious winter that we had, with a cold spell only in January, I went in for lighter fabrics," says Costelloe, an Irishman who usually concentrates on Irish tweeds for winter. "Once you start using lighter fabrics like these floral prints, everything has to get more fitted."
John McIntyre, who designed for Krizia and Luciano Soprani in Milan straight out of art school, starts his collection with fabrics. "I'm a spy. I like to track down the best fabrics and I always find them before anyone else does."
His theme for fall is based on his vision of Vita Sackville-West, the novelist and poet, which he interprets in simple cuts but splendid fabrics such as a cotton that looked like a Tunisian embroidered carpet, crewel-work wool and cotton, heraldic patterns, rich wools, all quite refined and handsome. He calls his colors "stately home" shades.
He uses jodhpurs, a favorite theme in all collections this season, "because Vita adopted them," he says. "The beauty of Vita is that she hated dressing up, she hated clothes, she wanted to get on with her writing, her garden, her lovers."
This is his third collection with his own label. He also designs successful collections for an English and Italian manufacturer who don't use his name, but pay him well. "I need it. I need to know that people want to wear what I am designing."
McIntyre looked glum as he took his bow after his runway show this week. "I'm worried that the clothes will not be well made because of the archaic machinery here." If need be, he'll have the clothes made in Italy, Yugoslavia, Hong Kong, "wherever that can be beautifully produced at a price that gives us a fair profit and is fair to the customer."
Spoken like a pro, who is about to turn 30.