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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jess Cartner-Morley

Patchwork and pearls: London fashion week embraces folk heritage

The Priya Ahluwalia show during London fashion week on Saturday.
The Priya Ahluwalia show during London fashion week on Saturday. Photograph: Matt Keeble/Dave Benett/Getty Images

“The idea of trends has always been alien to me,” the designer Simone Rocha said before her London fashion week show on Saturday.

Her collection will go on sale in the autumn – so Dublin-born Rocha stuffed the skirts of puffball dresses with raffia to represent Lughnasadh, the Irish harvest festival that marks the beginning of that season. Other designers might have plumped for more straightforward leaf prints or conker colours, but Rocha makes clothes that tell romantic Irish stories while looking bracingly modern, which is why her label is worn by offbeat style icons from Billie Eilish to FKA twigs.

Fashion follows Rocha, even though she does not follow trends. If you have noticed pearls taking over from gold hoop earrings as streetwear’s favourite jewellery, or wondered when sleeves stopped being utilitarian arm-shaped cylinders and became teardrop-shaped fashion flourishes, you will have noticed the impact Rocha has had on fashion. Last September, she featured an oversized bomber jacket on her catwalk; a similar dropped-sleeve style that went on sale at Zara last month has already sold out. Rocha’s esoteric, craft-led fashion has proved surprisingly influential on our wardrobes.

“The pearl is our logo without saying our name,” Rocha said of her favourite embellishment. “It has become part of our identity. It has to do with Ireland as an island, because the pearl is the stone of the sea.”

The Priya Ahluwalia show during London fashion week.
The Priya Ahluwalia show during London fashion week. Photograph: Matt Keeble/Dave Benett/Getty Images

London fashion week is grappling with how to sell Brand Britain on the world stage at a time when Britannia is far from cool. Brexit, a scandal-mired Westminster and a looming recession are not proving conducive to Britishness as an aspirational brand. Irishness, always central to her identity, was very much front of mind for Rocha at a preview before this week’s show. “Ireland is my home,” she said, “and it is the inspiration for this collection. I wanted to ground this collection there.” The Irish graphic designer Oscar Torrans drew the designer’s initials as standing stones for the invitation. Dublin contemporary folk quartet Lankum were a live soundtrack to the show, singing four-part harmonies, and playing traditional Irish instruments.

“I came from Ireland to study at Central Saint Martins a decade ago because it was a place where people from all over the world come together and say what they want to say. I still believe in that idea of London, and London is still where I can put on the best show,” said Rocha. But for glamour, she looked to her Irish heritage: crushed cloque fabric in the shining gold of ears of corn, and trousers with exaggerated sailor-height turn ups for extra rugged Irishness.

The Simone Rocha show for London fashion week.
The Simone Rocha show for London fashion week. Photograph: Ben Broomfield

The Westminster Central Hall venue was chosen “because it looks like a theatre”, Rocha said. “Any collection that I make could have been an art show, or a play, or a piece of text. It’s about what I want to say.” This season that was about “the relationship between men and women”, said Rocha, who added menswear to her label last year. “Having men and women on the catwalk feels like having two characters in a play. I’m always interested in the juxtaposition of sensitivity and fragility versus practicality and structure.”

Meanwhile, the clothes in designer Priya Ahluwalia’s catwalk show represented the soundtrack of her life, beginning with Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, which was playing when she was born (the song still makes her mother cry.) Ahluwalia designed a print using the sound waves of the track.

An upcycled gown of whorled and patchworked denim was an homage to Lauryn Hill; a utility vest to Tupac Shakur. Models were chosen to represent a cast of musical characters, “so for instance, one of the girls reminds me of Sade”, said Ahluwalia, whose clothes celebrate her Nigerian-Indian heritage and London roots, after the show in the baroque concert hall of St John’s Smith Square church in Pimlico. A live duo of musicians – Solaariss on saxophone, and Insxght on keyboards – “reflected the Black and South Asian diasporas whose music I grew up listening to”, she added.

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