In every designer's career, there is a horizontal line, honed over the years, and it is the lifeline of his label's style. As it becomes trusted by customers, they buy into a vision and aesthetic that they wish to be part of. They expect consistency – that is what the horizontal line is about – but they also expect originality. A mature designer understands this and develops a handwriting that is instantly recognisable as his or her own, while avoiding the sterility of boring repetition. It sounds easy but it is fraught with dangers, especially for young designers eager to test their sensibilities on various levels. But even for designers of experience, there are seasonal variations: a collection shoots up above the line and sometimes it drops below. Occasionally, a designer tries to redraw the line completely, which is the most dangerous thing of all.
Yesterday, we saw examples of the line continuing in the work of Margaret Howell who, in the colours of a February morning in the country, presented a collection so on target that every item was classic Howell. Topcoats – some three-quarter length – and raincoats fit for Garbo and her country equivalent today; 'shrug on and forget' traditional knitwear and high-waisted skirts were all spot on line.
Betty Jackson was also on line and, like Howell, gave women a real wardrobe instead of the endless flimsy little dresses that less experienced designers seem to think is a fashion collection. She solved the country–town conundrum by answering the question 'What does a city-slicker fashion woman wear when she goes to the country?' Answer: virtually anything in this strong line-up, except the gold satin evening wear that somehow looked both dour and dowdy.
Richard Nicoll soared triumphantly above his consistently strong horizontal line honed into a line of beauty over the last few seasons. Understated, confident and so chic (not a word one can use that often when describing London fashion), this was a collection of perfectly realised silhouettes, colours and detail - all of them minimal. Relaxed and young, but highly sophisticated, its draped and tied insouciance - which almost looked impromptu - proved that Nicoll has the ability and refinement to become a major player in the international fashion field. This was the show of the day, without a doubt.
By contrast, Matthew Williamson decided on the risky path of changing the horizontal line that his customers have loved for the last 10 years. And he almost brought it off. Although this collection dipped a little below his line at times, it showed enough strength to suggest that, if he continues his new way of thinking, he will achieve his goal of moving forward while taking his customer with him. Tweed coats (yes, tweeds!); peachy pink suede, capes in large layers, a definite commitment to fur; studs and shine: it was in essence Matthew, but with a new eye, one that should produce some interesting things in the future and attract new customers once it has settled down and re-established the essential line once more.