Despite their self-presentation as ardent Parisians, both Lacroix and Gaultier have paid extravagant debt to the distinctive and cosmo- politan fashion culture of London as a formative influence on their own work. Typically Lacroix has singled out for approving comment the traditional idea of life in the British capital as represented through the outdated stereotypes of French schoolbooks: an idealized inter-war homily of respectable afternoon teas and walks in the park in comfort- able well-made rainwear. His direct experience of the city is founded on social visits made from the late 1960s onwards. These explorations coincided with the rise of an ‘aristocratic’ bohemianism that in the intervening years has transformed the environs of Chelsea, Islington, and Notting Hill, turning artists’ squats and rented slums into million- aires’ residences, and filling the streets with expensive boutiques and fashionable restaurants. Such distinctive glossiness sits well with Lacroix’s view of urban living as a cultured and aesthetic experience. Gaultier’s indebtedness relies on a very different understanding of period and geography. It draws on the gritty post-punk landscapes of Carnaby Street and Camden Market, thriving underground black and gay club cultures, and the iconoclastic attitudes of London’s art and design school students, as displayed through the 1980s and 1990s in the layouts of the Face and i-D magazines. Both interpretations demonstrate the layered richness of the city’s cultural fabric and its dual reputation as the home of traditional and innovative clothing practices.

Unlike the regulated fashion culture of Paris, London’s sartorial infrastructure represents a collapsing of rules and a tolerance of inno- vation in the face of surviving traditions. Such productive qualities have become a valuable commodity in discussions of the comparative benefits of the world’s fashion cities as creative sites, but also reveal London’s weaknesses as a serious competitor in sustainable economic terms.

London did not always enjoy an international reputation for the creativity of its clothing designers and consumers, though its size and complexity have long encouraged distinctive but localized interactions with the culture and production of dress amongst its inhabitants. Its position as a global trading centre, and a reputed tolerance for racial difference have also encouraged successive waves of immigrants whose various habits and skills have contributed to its broad social mix and economic adaptability. French Huguenots, Russian and Polish Jews, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Bangladeshi and latterly Vietnamese immigrants have all at different moments dominated the mass- production of clothing in London, whilst the thriving life of the docks and the arrival in the 1950s of Commonwealth immigrants from the Caribbean have had a major impact on the popular articulation of style in the city.

As far as élite fashion is concerned, from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century the tailored products of Savile Row, cut to service the social and physical demands of the English gentleman and fashioned from British wool, garnered world-wide respect. This idea of London as a repository of traditional craft skills, associated largely with the masculine wardrobe (the perpetually autumnal home of suits, shoes, hats, and umbrellas), has persisted in touristic imaginings of the city to the present. Close proximity to Paris stunted the growth of a significant upmarket womenswear sector on the same lines, though from the late nineteenth century the tailoring skills for which London artisans were famed were seen as a transferable asset, and the notable quality of sensible women’s suits, coats and pashmina finished in London attracted attention from abroad.

From the turn of the century to the start of the Second World War, while West End dressmaking establishments such as Lucile and Redfern provided adapted versions of Parisian couture for English court presentations and the social round of the Season, ladies’ tailoring firms were producing neat outfits for the shopping spree or the grouse moor. These endured into the post-war period as a staple item of the fashionable international woman’s wardrobe.