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London fashion week: leopard prints make roaring comeback on catwalk

Jackie Collins, who once said her weakness was “too much leopard print”, would have loved next spring. As London fashion week passed its halfway point on Sunday, leopard print – seen on the catwalks, on a filmy blouse at Topshop, or as a handbag at Hill Friends – was emerging as a strong contender for trend of the season. What’s more, at both Topshop and Hill Friends animal print was teamed with hot pink, a combination rarely seen since the party pages of 80s Tatler.

The first collection by Hill Friends was both a debut and a comeback. The label is a partnership of two Mulberry alumni: Emma Hill, who was creative director until two years ago, and ex-brand director Georgia Fendley. Hill’s Mulberry was once a fashion hit-factory, and her return to the schedule six months before her eventual replacement, Céline bag designer Johnny Coca, is expected to show his first Mulberry collection was keenly anticipated.

Hill’s strategy was to plant a flag squarely in the space that Mulberry let slip from their grasp when they priced themselves out of the market in an ambition to become a British equivalent of Hermès. The first collection by Hill Friends was strikingly similar to Hill’s classic Mulberry aesthetic. The lines of the bags were chunky but clean, the hardware bold, the marketing emphatically jolly and upbeat. To a soundtrack that included Happy Talk from South Pacific and Lily Allen’s Smile, bellboys, miniature ponies and Hill’s nine-year-old son circled a catwalk staged around a Claridge’s breakfast banquet.

“I was watching the monitor and thinking – are they smiling? Are they liking it?” said Hill, sporting a Minnie Mouse sweater and hot pink manicure, backstage after the show. On return from gardening leave, she said she had picked up where she left off, designing bags that are “super classic with a dose of fun”.

Models present creations from the Topshop spring/summer 2016 collection. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

For all the jollity, the attention to detail was sharp. The bags close with a double postman’s lock in the shape of a smiley face; to lock, you make one eye wink. At the show, Hill had a pink shovel, to match the catwalk set, in case the miniature ponies caused any catwalk upsets. The sunny warmth of the brand and aesthetic look set to be a commercial hit – Net-a-Porter are already on board, and the bags went on sale directly after the show. There was, however, perhaps a little too much nostalgia to make for a critical hit. Having reminisced about her Mulberry era this time, it would be a smart move by Hill to throw something new into the fashion conversation next season.

A photograph of Princess Diana laughing with Princess Anne at the Epsom Derby in 1986 is not the obvious starting point for a Topshop collection, but that – along with images from Martin Parr’s book, British Photography in the Thatcher Years, and of aristocratic model Stella Tennant – was what was on the design team’s moodboard this season. The 80s party girl was out in force on the catwalk here, wearing blazers over her party dresses, the sleeves pushed up to the elbow, leather mini skirts and trophy bomber jackets, cricket jumpers and high-waisted jeans. Polka dots – as worn by Diana in the 1986 photo – showed up on dresses, jackets and silk trousers. There were scrunched perms and huge sparkly earrings. It was over the top, but winningly tongue-in-cheek: the show notes spoke of country house parties and “estate sale” jewellery, but ended: “Remember: this is England.”

MM6, the diffusion line of Maison Margiela, on show. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

An altogether grungier view of British fashion culture drove the look at MM6, the diffusion line of Maison Margiela, which is created by the design team at the house now headed by John Galliano. The decision to move the show from New York to London this season was seen as bringing the line closer to Galliano, who is based in Paris and showed his first Margiela collection in London in January, although Galliano himself was not present for Sunday’s show. The house of Margiela is always about clothes and individuality, rather than about fashion in the crowd-pleasing sense. Men wore long sequinned gloves and gathered high-waisted shorts, while women wore tough black layers. Tiny handbags had clear plastic bags attached, containing the ordinary things people carry in bags – bananas with brown spots, Bic pens, tampons – making a joke about the fault lines between fashion as it is normally seen on the runway, and real life.

Jonathan Saunders is the most recent of a clutch of London designers who have safely made the perilous crossing from being an exciting name to watch to having a stable business. This year, investment from heiress-turned-fashion-investor Eiesha Bharti Pasracha, who also backs Roksanda Ilincic, has given his label funds and security. The show, Saunders said afterwards, was “a significant one” for the company. And it was a strong collection, elegant and grown-up – after all, “that’s my woman”, said Saunders. Multicultural references on the catwalk are too often hamfisted, but here the Japanese silks and shimmering discs in the style of Indian mirror embroidery were handled with a lightness and sophistication. Silk tea dresses, split high for a butterfly-wing flutter around the legs, looked to be a sure return on any investment.

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