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In the studio with London’s hottest fashion designers

As the 40th anniversary of London fashion week draws to a close, we catch up with four of the most exciting names working in the city today

Tolu Coker in her studio
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time OutTolu Coker in her studio
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time OutTolu Coker in her studio
Chiara Wilkinson
India Lawrence
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson
India Lawrence

When you think of London fashion, you’ll probably think of Nova check, Kate Moss and Princess Diana’s revenge dress. You might think of Naomi Campbell taking a tumble on the catwalk and Vivienne Westwood’s iconic ‘DESTROY’ shirt. But your mind might also go elsewhere, far from studios and runways and photoshoots. To the smoking areas of nightclubs, to moshpits, to drag queens with extra-long acrylic nails and to the girl popping to the offy in an Adidas tracksuit and Ugg boots. 

The point is, while Paris and Milan will always take the crown for sophistication and an elusive level of chic, London fashion is fun. It’s a bit punky, it’s loud and it’s always changing, always moving: fusing together all sorts of different cultures to reflect the diversity of the city itself. And we wouldn’t want it any other way. 

It’s not exactly easy for younger designers right now: rents are rising, production costs are skyrocketing and Brexit has brought in a whole host of challenges. But there’s still a load of exciting talent pushing on, pushing boundaries – and showing that London isn’t only still relevant in the global fashion scene, it’s thriving. These designers are mindful of sustainability, functionality and the importance of making clothes for a diverse audience. In other words, they’re making us hopeful that London fashion in another 40 years’ time will look radically different than it does now: no more runways of exclusively thin white women, relentless microtrends (‘Mob wife’, we’re looking at you) or burning unsold clothes. We’re getting there – sort of – but there’s still a long way to go. 

This fashion week, Time Out popped into the studios of cutting-edge designers Chet Lo, Ancuta Sarca, Tolu Coker and Sinead Gorey to find out about their latest collections and all things the future of fashion. 

Designer sitting in front of shoes
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Ancuta Sarca 

You might well be familiar with Ancuta Sarca’s fantastical sneaker-heel hybrids from your Instagram discover feed. The Romanian-born footwear designer made her London Fashion Week debut back in 2019 via the Fashion East incubator, and since then, she’s collabed with Nike, Skims and Vans, counts Cher, Dua Lipa and Rosalía as fans and has built a reputation as one of the finest talents in modern shoemaking.

Utilising deadstock fabrics and using restoration techniques, her work is all about reimagining circular fashion to create something fresh yet familiar. The result is something which really shouldn’t work, but works brilliantly: clashing masculine with feminine, waste with luxury and casualwear with elegance to make something surprising and beautiful. 

It’s important that the way you dress expresses who you are. Some people have a strong personality and don’t put much effort into the way they dress – but people who actually have the courage to match it are really interesting. 

At the moment, my most worn shoes are my AW23 white upcycled boots. They have a little kitten heel which makes everything I wear with them look effortlessly chic.

You can find inspiration everywhere in London. On the tube and on the streets. London has the best characters and diversity and it’s so stimulating. There’s always something that catches my eye and I love it for that.

I live in Seven Sisters in north London, so there’s always something going on. Multiculturally, it really opens your eyes to new things.

I grew up in a post-communist country and it was such a different world. I always look back at how I liked to dress as a teenager and what I was dreaming of at the time. 

I work with upcycled products and reuse fabrics. I’ll use secondhand garments as linings and secondhand trainers. I also work with a warehouse in Italy, where they have deadstock leathers, so I don’t produce any new fabric. If I take an intern, I try to educate them about the process as much as possible.

My presentation this fashion week has loads of new, exciting textures. More colour and a little bit of 3D print. We’re also doing more bags and a few garments. 

For this collection, I’ve been looking a lot at airport looks. We’re setting up the space as a kind of waiting room lounge with airport seats, where the models will just be very chic, waiting for their next flight. 

There’s a lot of buzz around sustainability but climate change is still happening. Nothing’s getting better. Factories are struggling to understand upcycling, so it’s a long, long, long process whenever I speak with a new supplier. 

A lot of people move to Paris to work in fashion, but London will always remain that place where creativity is born. London creates a safe space for for inclusivity. As an immigrant myself, I feel like it’s a safe space to allow myself to build my brand here. 

Chet Lo in studio
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Chet Lo

Known for his irreverent knitwear covered in colourful reptilian spikes, Chet Lo is something of a wunderkind in the fashion world. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2020, the 27-year-old Chinese American designer has already been listed on Forbes 30 under 30, joined the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN initiative and seen his clothes on celebs like Kylie Jenner, Doja Cat and Zendaya. 

But despite the signature spikes on his clothes, there’s nothing prickly about Lo in person. The mens and womenswear designer spoke to us in the days leading up to fashion week as he stitched white thread into a black jumper. All hands were on deck in his east London studio as the team prepared for their anticipated AW24 catwalk. 

We’re trying to do a more elevated look this season compared to what we’re used to. There’s a lot of metallic. It’s about the Terracotta Army. [The collection] has the narrative of reawakening this army.

Our collections are inspired personally by my life. When it comes to finding inspiration in London, I’ll always have a concept in mind then I’ll go to different museums or galleries and try to find different applications. 

I went to White Cube and I found this amazing Gerhard Richter painting. It was this dishevelled metallic painting and it looked absolutely gorgeous – I referred to that for the collection. 

My time in London has been more creatively stimulating than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I loved growing up in New York, but I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

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A post shared by CHET LO (@chet__lo)

London has a punk aesthetic. That isn’t necessarily referring to the actual punk movement in the ’80s, but the freedom people have in how they dress.

There’s this unexpectedness here that’s really refreshing. Even the person who works in finance can have a bit of an edge, whereas in New York the person who works in finance is always wearing a suit. 

Brexit is horrendous. It makes doing business with the European Union fucking awful. You can’t make everything in the UK so you do have to outsource every once in a while. It’s so difficult nowadays.

I’m really into bouldering at the moment. That’s my favourite thing to do. I go bouldering in London Fields and Aldgate. I’ve met amazing people there and the community is super sweet. It’s people from all different walks of life. 

There are such amazing support systems and schemes here for new designers.The British Fashion Council has the NEWGEN scheme, which is really helpful. You can’t really get that level of support anywhere else in the world. 

It pushes the boundaries of creativity. You can find crazy, kooky brands anywhere in the world, but the greatest density of them reside in London. 

London fashion is becoming more democratized. The rise of these younger brands, like Harris Reed, is really interesting to me. 

I love old establishments like Burberry, but they are turning out the same material every season. There are so many amazing, interesting designers who have something new to say. I would love to see them be more successful.

A fashion designer at a desk
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Sinead Gorey

Sinead Gorey is a bona fide party girl. Growing up in south-east London, her label – known for its skin-tight, cut-out bodysuits, Union Jack prints and serious Brit-core aesthetics – was initially inspired by her love for clubbing. Now, spending more time in the pub than in the rave, she designs for a ‘party girl muse’.

Her AW24 collection takes inspiration from growing up in late noughties Britain: think MSN, corner shops and iPod Nanos. In the week leading up to her show at Heaven nightclub, Gorey spoke to us in her studio at the end of her garden in Kilburn, intermittently pausing to check on her puppy, Rodney, through a cam set up in her house.

We’re building a huge corner shop which the girls will be coming in and out of. It’s based in 2007, which was when I was in year eight. 

The late Y2K style – 2007-2008 – is often dismissed because it was so trashy and cringe. But that’s what influenced me growing up. This season is school uniform inspired: prints, tartans and that kind of vibe. 

We wanted to make the set super cringe. The set designer asked if I wanted to make the corner shop nice with neon lights, and I was like, let’s just make it shit with chewing gum on the floor and cleaning ads in the window. 

London has a not-giving-a-fuck energy. You get on the tube and you see someone wearing an outlandish dress and someone else dressed in drag. So much goes and no one bats an eyelid. You can express yourself however you like. 

Fashion and raving go well together: it’s the sense of expression. When I first started thinking about doing a brand, raving was the only inspiration I could draw from at that time, because it was all I was doing every week, I was just going out partying. 

I’m a bit older now. I still go out raving but I love just going to the pub. I’m Irish and in Kilburn there are tonnes of Irish pubs. It’s so fun. 

The rave scene now is so different to when I was younger. The huge warehouse raves don’t go on anymore. There used to be so much going on for people who couldn’t afford to go to clubs and pay £12 for a vodka redbull. 

Now, I like little clubs like Fold or The Cause. It’s fun going out in London and seeing other people wearing your designs.  

Tolu Coker in studio
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Tolu Coker

With her careful tailoring, punchy silhouettes and vintage-affected prints, Tolu Coker’s pieces have a habit of transporting you to a different time and place. A recipient of the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN award, the west London-born British-Nigerian designer spent time in the studios of JW Anderson, Celine and Maison Margiela before she launched her eponymous brand in 2018. Since then, she’s been featured on the ‘Sustainability Trailblazers’ cover of British Vogue and made her runway debut last September.

Her work is inspired by identity politics, Yoruba culture and social climates. In her latest collection, she drew on the functional, loaded shapes of street hawkers from the continent – mobile vendors who often sell discarded western goods (‘I once saw someone selling ‘‘Bell Hooks: All About Love’’, she says) – as well as the textile mountains in Ghana’s Jamestown. 

I think of clothing in the way it holds memories and history and untold stories. My work is always about clothes that are made to last and quality tailoring and the idea that clothing can be heirloom: something you invest in to keep in generations. 

My parents are of Yoruba descent and a lot of our histories exist through word of mouth. A lot of our cultures are preserved in our fabrics: they can donate where you’re from, your walk of life and family lineage. I think about all of those things when I create.

London is such a melting pot of cultures, but it’s also a real community. I’ve had the same doctor my entire life and know my neighbours. If you’re not born and bred here, you might see it more as a hustle and bustle city where you move around a lot – but outside of that there is a real community spirit. 

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A post shared by Tolu Coker (@tolucoker)

I get my inspiration from across the diaspora. One of the things that I’m really fascinated by as a Black woman is this notion of identity and how that shifts depending on where I am. 

My new collection is called ‘Broken English’. It’s a nod to the term coined for different forms of communication when English isn’t the mother tongue. In the Caribbean, it might be Patois, in Africa, it might be Pidgin English. 

I’ve always started really print heavy. But more and more I’ve been focused on silhouette and shape and tailoring and structure. 

The biggest issue for young designers is being challenged financially. We need government policy and incentives to support young businesses in fashion. There’s been so many really hot NEWGEN designers that I remember from when I was studying, which don’t exist anymore. If don’t have that support behind you, you burn out. 

London has this sense of fearlessness in its designers. I think that comes from a raw creativity. When I think of London, I can’t think of one culture or image or sense of style. 

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