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The Globe and Mail

All eyes on London for fashion with energy and (literally) brains

A model presents a creation from the Burberry Prorsum Autumn/Winter 2013 collection during London Fashion Week, February 18, 2013.


On the same day that word spread about a decade-long, multibillion- dollar plan by the Obama administration to map human brain activity, fashion designer Christopher Kane showed an embroidered intarsia sweater bearing a stylized MRI-like print of a healthy brain as part of his fall/winter 2013 collection.

The colourful beaded organ was preceded by dresses with openwork stitching meant to mimic the curved tissues in the brain and followed by a grouping of looks covered in sparkly bits that were actually spiralled beadwork.

Squint just so and they looked like firing neuron images seen in science journals.

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Of all the shows during the five days of London Fashion Week, which concluded on Feb. 19, Kane's might have been the most anticipated. Just last month, luxury conglomerate PPR acquired a 51-per-cent stake in the Scottish designer's brand. This will allow Kane to expand and diversify: standalone stores, a fragrance, footwear – all are possible now that he has corporate muscle behind him.

That Kane attracted PPR confirms that all eyes – media, buyers, investors – are now on London fashion. And given the calibre of shows by other designers this season – especially Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha, J.W. Anderson, Giles Deacon, Peter Pilotto and Canada's Thomas Tait and Erdem Moralioglu – London's creative brainwave is like the city itself: rarely short on energy, unabashed and eccentric yet well-put-together.

This season, though, that energy felt different. For starters, black became a stronger presence. And it needed to – especially since Paris designers began moving in that direction for their spring collections.

After sending out 35 looks, all dominated by the non-colour, Morialioglu conceded backstage that he had always been scared by black. But he had Ingmar Bergman's Persona on his brain and so he set textural black fabrics against 1960s silhouettes. Some dresses and coats showed his signatures – embroidery and digitally rendered florals – on the front only to transform into a solid panel of patent around the back. For all the propriety – high necklines and knee-length skirts – he also cached a subversive message in the sheer black panels. "I like the idea of secrets," he said coyly, having just been congratulated by Downton Abbey's Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael).

Katrantzou also embraced black as she turned to the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White and Edward Steichen for her starting point. Colour was not altogether absent, though; it often appeared as a rinse of sunset hues across the sky. More important, she constructed her garments so that they would accommodate a maximum amount of the image she used – a wet sidewalk framed by trees in bloom. In one instance, it stretched out across a strapless dress with angular side extensions; the shoulders of another dress rounded in such a way to follow the branches. If some shapes were less wearable than others, the material innovation – woven lace that mimicked a bridge lattice, needle-punched felt and graphic embossed leather – proves Katrantzou is able to push herself time and again.

While reinvention might not have been the end goal for Tait, the young Canadian took a radically different turn for his latest collection. Whereas his spring line was an impeccable exercise in volume, fall suggested the sleek pursuit of speed with colour-blocked leggings, graphic windbreakers and sweatshirts with puffed cuffs that resembled water wings. In terms of sourcing, the down filling was done locally in Hackney, while the deceivingly luxe polyester taffeta came from an activewear mill in Italy.

"We've had such a miserable winter," he explained. "I kind of wanted to make something that feels like inside a pillow."

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Combined with last season's meticulous tailoring, the collection underscores Tait's potential. If he receives the right commercial positioning, it's exciting to consider what his future might hold.

As the Burberry Prorsum show was about to begin, guests received an e-mail from Christopher Bailey, the brand's chief creative officer, titled "Trench Kisses."

Sure enough, the collection featured a classic raincoat adorned in a heart pattern and giant metal hearts adorning evening wear. If this sounds overly romantic, he also hybridized trenches with translucent latex – as fetishistic as it was practical – and made a fiercer statement with rows of metal eyelets and giant animal spots. It was meant as an homage to British showgirl Christine Keeler, famous for her tryst with a government minister.

Ultimately, though, the collection was more retail friendly than risqué.

Tom Ford, meanwhile, stopped just shy of adorning his evening gowns with – Ka-pow! – comic-book action words. But he pretty much tried his hand at everything else: fuchsia patchwork fur, flashy sequined hoodies, floral beaded boots, Vasarely patterns. His description of the collection: "cross-cultural multi-ethnic."

Other words – gaudy, bonkers, fun, Lacroix – were overheard as the crowd descended a grand staircase flanked by strapping Ford footmen. Here's one more: gotcha. As in, it remains unclear whether the clothes were to be taken seriously or not. Ford, though, is right to understand that there's a market for this stuff – and he'll corner it.

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Simone Rocha, finally, applied sinuous pleats to her skirts, modernizing her grandmothers' closets, while J.W. Anderson, who strapped (single) arms to bodies with a band across his shirts, explored "hypernormality" and "textural bipolarness." Although the two have diametrically opposed aesthetics, both designers provided a similar amount of stimulation. Rocha showed faux fur in the hue of baby chick, not to relay a message on fur but to provide denseness in a youthful way. "I just like that it made you think," she said. "It felt nostalgic but it had some fullness to it."

Even with a men's trouser in Pepto-Bismol pink and ivory mesh planted with a pattern of mini embroidered daisies, Rocha made a strong case for black with glossy patent and tinsel woven into tweed. For The Bay's fashion director, Suzanne Timmins, the collection expressed the evolution of London fashion.

"This group has really put its mark on pattern explosions and yet they're moving away from it," she said. "You sort of think, 'How are these guys going to do it?' And yet they're doing it amazingly."

For the moment, at least, they remain fashion's beautiful minds.

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