Riff versus rip-off: Tom Ford, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou shine in London

Alexander Fury
tf 300x300 Riff versus rip off: Tom Ford, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou shine in London

A sequinned American football shirt at Tom Ford autumn/winter 2014

Referencing is an odd thing in fashion. After all, there’s virtually nothing that hasn’t been done before when it comes to clothes. It shows: in London, we saw heavy homage paid – read: rip-offs made – to Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, and even Valentino. The latter is a sure-fire commercial hit. The former are the latest mood to seize designers, and the all-important stylists who help them pull their collections together. They pull together quite a few collections. Which is perhaps why the results often end up looking old hat. It’s difficult not to start playing fashion train-spotter, trying to pin the collections and editorials down that designers have been referencing. It’s difficult not to the point the finger, to shout it out.

Personally, I find it lazy. And mildly insulting. When designers copy, say, one of Phoebe Philo’s Celine coats, or clothes by Raf Simons (I’ve seen clodhopping pastiches of his work for Dior and his own label) at a point when the originals have barely gone off sale, it raises my hackles.

It’s the  assumption that fashion has attention defect disorder and wipes their mental slate clean every season that irritates, as does the plain fact that these copycats are taking fashion no-where new at all.

Enough is enough.

Referencing is fine, sometimes. Take Tom Ford’s strong, bold, even brazen ode to himself. There was a red velvet gown reminiscent of his seminal autumn/winter 1996 Gucci collection, a black smocked gypsy number that threw back to his tenure at Yves Saint Laurent. The skinny tailoring, slashed at the ankle, was also quintessentially Fordean, while the cowboy boots hinted at his Texan heritage. Sequinned dresses kitted out as football jerseys emblazoned with “TOM FORD ‘61″ were a kitschy joke, but they had dazzling impact. They were also a bold, obvious reference to the work of the great American designer Geoffrey Beene.

Some would cry copy-cat. they’re wrong. Why? Because Tom Ford has been designing for almost twenty years. Tom Ford has the authority to reference Beene, because he’s of an equal standing – he’s another icon of contemporary American fashion. Hence, those dresses stood as true homage. They were so obvious, the reference was undeniable. They were honest. That was the satisfying part of this entire collection: its honesty. It wasn’t try-hard, or trite, or laboured (despite the considerable labour in making these clothes). It felt unmistakably Tom Ford.

ck 300x300 Riff versus rip off: Tom Ford, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou shine in London

Nylon abattoir shoes and negligee knits at Christopher Kane

Few designers manage to synthesise their influences, remix them, and come up with something fresh. The ingredients are old classics, but the recipe gives us something succulent and different. Look at Christopher Kane, creating lace-trimmed negligees that seemed, at first glance, perfectly ordinary, the kind of glib girly shtick designers turn to every now and again, usually for a pas telly spring collection. Kane crafted his, however, from crinkly nylon that resembled garbage bags. His ruche-top shoes were based on the Tyvek coverlets production teams normally slip on when scrubbing a catwalk clean. Kane referenced abattoir workers instead. He’s a London designer, after all, there’s got to be something dark in there.

The mix – negligees and knacker’s yards, nylon and mink, cheap and expensive (although the whole thing will cost a bomb, don’t be mistaken) – is what makes it seem exciting. We’ve seen the elements, but the bricolage makes us look at them with different eyes. For me, it was epitomised by Kane’s new handbags, featuring a lurid neon stripe of elastic and a giant plastic sports buckle. They referenced his graduation show, and the first collection he cobbled together from cheap elastic bought on market stalls in east London’s Dalston neighbourhood, but elevated them to luxury. That’s clever.

mk 300x300 Riff versus rip off: Tom Ford, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou shine in London

A look from Mary Katrantzou's autumn/winter 2014 collection

Mary Katrantzou has never really done anything other than luxury. She’s been plumping her prints out with gewgaws like Lesage embroidery and intricate beading inspired by Faberge eggs for a few seasons. But the print has always been the base. This season, she rinsed it off her dresses, instead opting for intricate laces, brocades, more embroideries, intarsia knits and jacquards to convey the visual impression. It felt a little like removing the stabilisers from your toddler’s bicycle for the first time. Could she still make it without the print?

Yes. Emphatically so. It was a bit like taking the stabilisers off your toddler’s bike and realising they were Bradley Wiggins. The collection was based around signs and symbols – symbolic exchange, the meaning embedded in emblems with which we adorn ourselves, everything from UPS and TNT insignia embroidered across uniform garments, to the equally immediate identifying clothing of military generals, city boy bankers, butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers, and the rest.

It’s great to know that, and it adds depth to an already rich collection. But you didn’t need to know to read these clothes. Unlike so many other collections, the references behind the clothes weren’t the sum of its message. Mary Katrantzou managed to say something new and strong, about herself, and about how modern women should dress. That was glorious.

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