Are you a country or a city girl? That was the great divide at the recent London collections.
And so badger hats and antlers - courtesy of Emma Cook at Topshop Unique's very woolly collection - rubbed shoulders with razor-sharp black leather, not of the sporting variety, at Todd Lynn. Trompe l'oeil green-wellie socks at Paul Smith couldn't really have been much more different than the sky-high, patent leather Allen Jones shoes that featured - and threatened to floor - at Antonio Berardi.
When times are hard, hunting/shooting/fishing heritages are something of a trump card for British designers who, after all, understand such things well.
With this in mind, it should come as no great surprise that quite the finest outerwear of the London season came courtesy of Burberry Prorsum, where the audience could have been forgiven for snatching the oversized flight jackets in leather or army green off models' backs as they stalked by. This was a lovely collection, slightly more obviously slick and hard-edged than is usual, although always with the dishevelled languor that is central to the image of the brand running through it. It's not clear quite how the heroine of this particular hour would fare hopping over fences in thigh-high snakeskin boots with suitably extreme heels, but she'll certainly be a sight for sore eyes. And she'll be warm in her jacket, even when worn with severe, buttoned-up lace shirts, skirts and dresses in equally countrified colours.
Those enamoured of an oversized knit will be more than a little happy to know that they can buy them on the high street this coming autumn - at Topshop, in fact, which not only supported shows by much of London's most remarkable young design talent but also came up with an accomplished collection of its own. True, the play on proportions - a huge, chubby cardigan with everything but the kitchen sink dangling from it, and itsy-bitsy sprig-print bloomers and vest worn underneath - was nothing much new. It was, though, sassy, energetic and even funny. A sense of humour in fashion is a commodity just now.
Vivienne Westwood's Red Label collection, now a regular fixture on the London schedule, was, as always, a lesson in how to make less-than-obviously saucy British fabrics - wool, tartan, tweed - sexy. La Westwood, this time using her considerable clout to raise money for Haiti having designed a limited edition T-shirt, was typically proud of herself as she danced down the catwalk to take her bows. As well she might be. There are few British labels with such an immediately recognisable signature, and both the designer herself and those who wear her clothes are guaranteed to raise not only a politically incorrect wolf-whistle but also a fashionably knowing smile.
Paul Smith's womenswear collection followed a similar route. When it wasn't in full tweed cape, knickerbockers, wellie-and-flat cap mode, equally traditional fabrics were tailored into pencil skirts that laced up the back, and were worn with knitted vests. Here, too, were roomy, crocheted dresses reminiscent of brightly coloured patchwork baby blankets, and woollen, 50s-line dresses that a slightly twisted debutante might like to wear.
More voluminous, tufty coats and jumbo cord skirts, trousers and shorts could be found in Betty Jackson's fine collection. The easy, oversized aesthetic that this designer favours looked just right for now, and came in delicious colours - autumnal but not dowdy - and with just a touch of shine to brighten up a rainy day.
Although rising star Christopher Kane gives the world good knit - in fact, his plaid cashmere cardigans for spring/summer have by now proven way ahead of the game - this time he followed a more strictly metropolitan route. Leather and lace was the story, although a sweet, pastoral element came in the form of elaborately embroidered meadow flowers. These appeared as discreet trim at the opening of the show, winding their way round to cover little
black dresses almost entirely by the finale. Once again, Kane took one idea and developed it - which, far from limiting, simply served to show off the fine finish and elaborate workmanship that lie behind each and every look.
Also in the ascendant is Erdem, as worn by everyone from Keira Knightley to Sarah Brown. His collections are increasingly polished, and, again, these were far from rural clothes. This was principally a dress collection, beginning with the small but perfectly formed bell-shaped designs that stood away from the body, separating them from the body-conscious look that still dominates elsewhere, and finishing with floor-sweeping grand entrance gowns that were notable for their modernity. In fact, the most refreshing skirt length across the board was to the floor - as seen also at Richard Nicoll, Aquascutum and peppered across the Central Saint Martin's MA showcase.
Whether it will catch on in a climate that remains obsessed with celebrity - however much fashion frontrunners such as Marc Jacobs might eschew it - remains to be seen.
Plagiarism or homage? There were shades of Rick Owens on Todd Lynn's catwalk, but given that the former is The Designer Who Can Do No Wrong just now that's not necessarily a bad thing; and Lynn is by no means the only one indebted to his aesthetic. Still, the overriding value of this collection could be found in the incredibly-chic-with-a-rock-star-edge wool and leather tailoring that is all this designer's own. Janet Jackson sat front-row here - Lynn has designed costumes for her - and was no doubt as impressed by both execution and finish (a decidedly creative use of armour/harnessing references) as the rest in attendance. Would any of these designs be suited to hiking? That is extremely unlikely, given that it would serve only to hurt the feelings of any unsuspecting cows.
If there were those who found Antonio Berardi's collection overly indebted to early-70s Yves Saint Laurent, the designer himself would - presumably - beg to differ. Of course, very literal interpretations of the infamous sheer black chiffon blouse and feather-skirted dress paved the way, but for his handling of fabrics as diverse as neoprene, chiffon and velvet all in one little black dress moulded to the body in a supremely flattering and sophisticated way, this designer should be applauded. Such garments, worn with talon heels and the sheerest black stockings, would bring out the inner dominatrix in any woman worth her fashion credentials.
There was nothing much to-the-manor-born about Jonathan Saunders' collection, where mid-90s Helmut Lang and Prada both appeared to be reference points. That, of course, is no bad thing, given the distinct lack of old-school minimalism on the circuit for those who like their clothes that way. Elsewhere however, narrow tailored coats with panels of leather snaking round the hips, carwash pleat skirts and zip-fronted jackets were aimed at city-dwellers only.