The arresting images of glamour-puss models on a runway only hint at the significance of this city's Fashion Week, which ended today. Most of the designers who put their fall collections on the runway here do not have familiar names. And unless one scours captions in British Vogue or spends a great deal of time reading labels in Barneys New York or Henri Bendel, there is no reason why these designers should ring a bell.
Often that is because their businesses are young. Or their sales are modest and so they do not reign over significant square footage in U.S. specialty stores. Sometimes, they just can't get themselves organized to make their production efficient, their deliveries timely and their sizing accurate.
The most compelling brands -- Eley Kishimoto, Roland Mouret, Sophia Kokosalaki -- cannot compete with the great corporate behemoths. Often they don't want to.
British institutions such as Paul Smith and Zandra Rhodes, who showed her first runway collection in a decade, sell their history and personal charisma along with the clothes. Smith has been knighted. Rhodes has been around so long that her original designs are now vintage shop treasures.
Nicole Farhi has established a market for her accessible feminine style of chiffon skirts, spare shearlings and lightly adorned evening wear. And her fall collection was more of the same. A popular restaurant in the basement of her New York flagship also raises her profile.
And the design team of Frost French follows the well-worn path of using personal celebrity as a marketing tool for their collection. Sadie Frost, an actress who is married to Jude Law, and Jemima French, a woman about town, have high-profile friends such as model Kate Moss and designer Stella McCartney, both of whom attended their fashion show. The fall collection was presented in the form of a short film, but it was hard to know what to make of it, for all of the scenery, dialogue and the bad acting of model Helena Christensen, but both Frost and French looked splendid in their short, glittery frocks that juxtaposed the sheer and the opaque.
The full story of British fashion moves beyond the clothes to the manner in which they are presented, the way a model will burst into a giggle rather than maintain a stoical glare when someone in the audience whistles at her particularly fine backside. It is the way in which the security guards do not shout, push and threaten -- as is the tendency in Milan and Paris. This is just fashion, everyone here seems to agree. They do not diminish its importance, they simply keep it in perspective. To a great degree, they protect the sheer pleasure of fashion. Crowds do not stampede closed doors. No one tries to muscle his way through a throng of people as if it were all simply a hologram. And when there is a delay, guards suggest killing time in a nearby pub.
There is a different fashion crowd here, too. Most of the cliches are missing -- the aggressively groomed women, the high heels, the competitive dressing. There are women here who have not had a manicure in months, who do not blow out their hair every morning, who drink full-fat lattes, who wear their imperfections as if they are favorite accessories.
The big corporations of fashion -- Gucci Group, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Prada -- are largely absent in London. The Italian manufacturing firm Gibo is here, but its in-house designer line is tiny, designed by the illustrator Julie Verhoeven, and so it doesn't leave an outsize footprint. It is a whimsical line with a dark core -- a jarring cross between the clothing and housewares company April Cornell and German expressionism.
Of course, every fashion city needs a label trying to reinvent itself. In London, it is Pringle of Scotland, an old cashmere house trying to give argyle the panache of Burberry plaid. Design director Stuart Stockdale's argyle trench coat was a charming start. The pleated skirts -- which persisted in looking like skirts even when they were flung around the shoulders like capes -- suggest that the path to a renaissance is a bumpy one.
Paul Smith is the big dog in this town, the one who has the money and manpower to transform a far-flung warehouse with trucked-in carpeting, black gauze draperies and decorative wooden chairs. But entrepreneurial, cottage fashion is the rule rather than the exception here. Many young designers are able to mount shows only because they receive corporate sponsorship. The collections are often recklessly idiosyncratic, sometimes charming, occasionally captivating, and frequently rough around the edges.
"About 20 percent of our designer resources are from London," says Ed Burstell, vice president of Henri Bendel. "You find that spirit here, that entrepreneurial, can-do spirit. You get more original thought. It's less commercial, so as a buyer, you have to work twice as hard. You have to give advice on editing, styling, pricing, production."
In some ways, London's lack of marquee names makes it an insider's market, a place where store executives -- so often forced to be little more than bean counters in nice suits -- can be old-fashioned merchants.
"We work very closely with all of our designers, but specifically in London, with their training, they don't necessarily think of how something will perform at retail," says Anna Garner, fashion director of Henri Bendel. "They don't think about that side of the business."
"We help them think using a business brain," Burstell says.
The effort expended on London designers can result in a significant payoff. McCartney, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen -- among others -- have gone on to influence fashion and, in the case of Galliano with his work at Christian Dior, reap enormous financial rewards as well.
Kokosalaki is often pointed to as the next London designer who will gain international attention. For fall, Kokosalaki works in a palette of black and ivory and uses seams to provide texture and intrigue in otherwise austere garments. Seamed belts wind around the waist and call to mind the elegant spiral of a conch shell. Black tanks are studded with rhinestones the size of glossy, sugared chestnuts. As the models emerged from a light-filled doorway and made their way down a long corridor lined with guests, it was as though they were returning from some otherworldly place. Their clothes evoked the tension between pure light and impenetrable darkness. Kokosalaki's work is by far the best example of the talent that recently has emerged from London and she reaffirms the city's reputation as a place in which creative expression can grow unencumbered.
Roland Mouret has been cited as another Londoner positioned for more global recognition, although his fall collection was not the strongest evidence with which to make that case. He showed his tailoring skills with black coats with black patent leather details or with flakes of silver that recalled the view that a traveler might have as his late-night flight comes in for a landing and dips over the twinkling lights of a city. Mouret has a delicate hand with gauzy wool sweaters and a sense of the lighthearted with sober plaid pants brightened with slashes of pink. But the final notes of his show were modish black dresses with a bodice of sparingly placed geometric shapes offering only the stingiest bit of modesty.
The pleasure of London fashion for fall is in its colors and patterns. The husband-and-wife team of Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto, who work under the name Eley Kishimoto, offered charming flower prints on A-line skirts. It took patience to finally see these delightful patterns, as the two seemed intent on denying their expertise by first sending out a numbing series of dull black frocks.
Suzanne Clements and Ignacio Ribeiro returned to London after showing for several seasons in Paris. They came back with a collection of brightly colored short skirts and a group of festive dresses in which puddles of bold color seemed to slide and flow as the models walked. Ben de Lisi, who designed Kate Winslet's red Oscar gown with its corsage of matching flowers trailing down her shoulder, offered a series of fluid dresses in watercolor prints that were also adorned with silk flowers. Although his color sense is admirable, one has to assume that his workmanship is of a higher caliber when the dress is scheduled to make an appearance on the red carpet rather than on the runway.
Paul Smith offered his usual giddy take on traditional British style, pairing his violet and orange turtlenecks with somber tweed skirts, styling a prim blouse with a flouncy neck bow out of a psychedelic print and leaving the edges of his wool suits raw.
Zandra Rhodes's return to the runway was in the building that is scheduled to open in May as a British fashion museum, a venture that has long been the veteran designer's pet project. In her catwalk presentation, which included live singers, a master of ceremonies and one model more intent on showing off her breasts than the clothes, Rhodes created new versions of the exotically printed, filmy pullovers and caftans that have long been her signature. The show was styled by an editor from the magazine Sleazenation -- one of the many arty magazines in which the models look unwashed and the clothes look self-consciously unattractive -- an effort to give Rhodes's designs a more contemporary and vaguely sleazy feel. That effort was successful on both fronts. But if one can remember to keep the beautifully beaded tunics pulled down over one's bosom rather than hiked up around one's neck, they easily make the transition from vintage novelty to an accompaniment to jeans.
In years past, London's designers struggled more than their counterparts in other cities. Retailers such as Topshop and Debenham's have helped to stabilize the finances of some designers or have at least offered them stopgap security, says Nicholas Coleridge, chairman of the British Fashion Council. In addition to working on their own collections, designers often create less expensive lines for these stores and that "has kept a lot of them from going bankrupt," says Coleridge.
These less expensive lines are in keeping with London's reputation for creative energy that comes from the ingenuity of street style, throwaway fads and personal eccentricity. While New York excels in urban edge and provocative flourishes, London has a particular skill at celebrating and exploiting the peculiar and incorporating the political. It is, after all, the city that popularized punk and gave fashion editor Isabella Blow -- who once wore a lobster on her head -- a profession.
And while there may not be a host of young designers here on the cusp of great things -- how much room is there on the cusp, anyway? -- there is value in the creative exercise.
To see more of Robin Givhan's coverage of the fall collections, go to www.washingtonpost.com/style.