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40 Years of LFW: The runway shows that cemented stardom

Chloe Burney
19 February 2024

London Fashion Week is celebrating its 40th year this season. As we welcome the festivities, takes a look back at some of the most iconic and nostalgic moments in London Fashion Week's 40 year history - from Alexander McQueen's spectacles to Richard Quinn initiating Queen Elizabeth II into the FROW.

40 years ago the fashion landscape was very different. Designers showed alongside mid-market collections in a number of smaller exhibitions and showcases around London. In 1983 the British Fashion Council was formed to organise and coordinate the promotion of fashion weeks in the UK.

In March 1984 the British Designer Show commenced at Olympia. This was the first example of a womenswear fashion event having a cohesive industry focus with the exhibition, catwalk shows, awards and social activities all being coordinated, i.e. London Fashion Week as we now know it.

This morning, at the Network Breakfast that kicks off LFW, the BFC's Chief Executive Caroline Rush said: "London Fashion Week is a global cultural platform which amplifies the British fashion community and global brands and has a significant impact on the city. Known for creativity, innovation and talent, it is fuelled by community - the stylists, writers, artists, photographers, business leaders, producers, designers, assistants, makers, doers, fixers – the people that make it happen."

Rush added, this season is a "moment to celebrate the community past, present and future and set the agenda for the next 40 years".

London is renowned for churning out constant generations of young design talent - thanks to its plethora of world-renowned fashion schools. Here are the runway shows that cemented some of the most iconic designer's careers in fashion and put the likes of Christopher Bailey, Gareth Pugh and more on the fashion map and kept them there.

Vivienne Westwood's Pirates AW81

Now, I know what you might be thinking and yes, 1981 was prior to LFW's establishment. Dame Vivienne Westwood made her debut before the British Fashion Council established LFW as one of the 'big four' rivalling Paris, Milan and New York. However, it would be remised not to include the late designer's impact in turning London into the bustling city of culture and style that it is today.

Westwood's Pirate collection took inspiration from 18th century pirate dress and created a modern, wearable range of clothing. Described as reflecting 'the hope of Britain', this collection saw sea-worthy stockings and bait-catching boots trickle into society as the Neo-romantic movement flocked to The Kings Road. This ideology of 'unkept glamour' came to inspire designers there after - just look to Rick Owen's work for proof.

Westwood later jumped ship, as many of her later counterparts including Stella McCartney did, and moved her shows to PFW shortly after her debut.

John Galliano's birds turned heads during AW95

John Galliano certainly stood out from the crowd at Central Saint Martins where he put on his graduate show in 1994. However, he made his LFW debut in 1995. The designer was known for embellishing traditional garments, such as shredding pieces in his graduate collection 'Les Incroyables' that could've been plucked from the French Revolution.

He moved on to make his London Fashion Week debut for the 1985 Fall/Winter season. The collection, titled 'The Ludic Game', again remoulded traditional garments. Each piece was inspired by the shape of birds, not to mention the performative elements of the designer's shows. Embellishments, such as bits of trees and twigs, drove home the theme of the collection, while making it a show onlookers wouldn't forget.

Skirts had sleeves that could be worn as jackets and coats were designed to be worn upside down. The topsy turvy nature of his collection garnered the attention of Anna Wintour, who later gave him a spread in Vogue and helped him make it into the big leagues.

Alexander McQueen's Highland Rape AW95 collection

Highland Rape was one of, if not the, most controversial collection created by the legendary Alexander McQueen. Taking to the runway fro a 6th time, Lee McQueen presented conversation-starting looks crafted in the form of unconventional tailoring while heightening the models' sexuality. This works is one of his most autobiographical collections, referencing the designer's Scottish heritage and introduced the McQueen family tartan.

Every piece sent down the runway was tattered or torn, mustering up an intense feeling of darkness and tragedy amongst the fashion elite. This was just the start of McQueen's spectacles and stardom, queue the Voss collection, which opened with models in a glass cube reminiscent of a psychiatric ward.

Though it was poorly received by public at the time, Highland Rape was truly the show that earned the designer a spot in fashion's hall of fame.

Hussein Chalayan furniture turned fashion of AW00

Hussein Chalayan may have slipped under the radar in recent years, but there's no doubt about his pure genius when it came to the catwalk. His Autumn/ Winter show of 2000 is one that fails to loose its wow-factor with passing of time. Ahead of his time, the designer hired models of all ages and body types - but this is just the tip of the iceberg for his unforgettable show.

As viewers flocked into the audience seats of Chalayan's show, they were greeted with an on-stage set of suburban-looking furniture fitted with grey fabric covers. To the audience surprise, as models entered the stage, they begun removing the furniture covers, turned them inside out and slipped into the, once-disguised as props, dresses.

Not only that, models stepped into coffee tables to reveal crinoline-type wooden skirts.  That was it - Hussein Chalayan had made his mark on British fashion for years to come.

Photo Credit: PA Media

Clowns galore at Gareth Pugh's London Fashion Week debut for SS07

Wearable fashion or non-wearable fashion, that is the question. Gareth Pugh made his stance firm during his debut at LFW in September 2006. Fusing art and fashion, Pugh's collection displayed a  radical use of structure and shape.

Pugh made fashion fun again, garnering mass attention via avant-garde black and gold looks. This sealed his reputation as one of the great innovators of to debut at London Fashion Week.

Photo Credit: Alamy

Christopher Kane's neon and lace extravaganza of SS07

In the early 2000s, London's status as the fashion capital of the world was slipping away, which was quite surprising considering the slew of blossoming talent. At the time, young designers fled to houses in Paris or Milan that were dominating the fashion scene. This was the case with Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo and Riccardo Tisci to name a few. But Kane brough the city back to its glory days.

Though his debut graduate collection at Central Saint Martins put Kane's name on the map - and LFW schedule - it wasn't until his Spring/Summer 2007 that Editors really began to pay attention to his work. This is the show that earned him the title of "Britain's Willy Wonka of Fashion". Just look to the mixed media fabrics, from lace to plastics, as well as the contrasting hues of nudes and neons.

Photo Credit: Alamy

Richard Quinn's royal affair of AW18

There's only one designer that can claim Queen Elizabeth II came to their fashion show - and that's Richard Quinn.

Elegantly sat between the BFC's CEO Caroline Rush and Vogue's Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour, Queen Elizabeth attended the show to present the inaugural Magesty's Award for British Design, which Quinn will be the first recipient.

Central Saint Martins graduate, Richard Quinn, made sure to put on a show for The Queen of England. Though say designs sent down the runway have been worthy of afternoons spent outdoors at Windsor Caste - such as Playful florals and scarf prints - others, such as biker chic looks didn't make their way into royal closets.

London Fashion Week

Queen Elizabeth II, sitting next to Anna Wintour, during the Richard Quinn London Fashion Week show (Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment)

Christopher Bailey's swan song at Burberry AW18

Burberry is arguably the biggest brand on the London Fashion Week calendar today. But who laid the foundations for attracting some of Hollywood's biggest names down to rainy old London - the same person who put the perfect rain-weather attire, the humble trench coat, back on fashion's radar. Que Christopher Bailey.

The young British designer took helm at Burberry, reinvigorating the brand and making it one of the most buzzed-about shows during fashion month. Though his reign came to a halt in 2017, after reportedly diminishing the brand's exclusivity, his final farewell is one we will never forget.

During his time at the heritage house, Bailey progressed the industry leaps and bounds. He was the first to  live stream shows to the public and the first to activate ‘see now, buy now’ capabilities. Celebrating these achievements, Bailey went out with a bang. The epic 85-piece stated his final message loud and clear - unity and support of the LGBTQ+ community. Cara Delevinge, who Bailey appointed the face of the brand, sported multi coloured coloured Burberry checks and colour schemes worthy of Britain's most pigmented rainbow.

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