Erdem’s romantic heroines often look as though they’ve stepped out of the pages of an 19th-century novel in their pretty Toile de Jouy florals and puff-sleeved empire waist gowns. It’s a singular look the London-based designer has crafted over the better part of two decades by immersing himself in art exhibits and fashion archives, including the world’s largest fashion collection at the British decorative arts and design museum the V&A. And its one that couldn’t be further from Gen Z’s predilection for bras-as-tops and hip cutouts that, in recent season, has permeated so many other runways. But as the mononymous creative sees it, that doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the past. Rather, it’s only by looking back that we can hope to make sense of the present.
Erdem’s Spring 2023 collection, shown today in London amongst the Greek Revival columns of the British Museum, of course comes at a momentous time in British history. London Fashion Week is coinciding with the lying-in-state for the late Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, which is expected to bring up to a million people to the UK capital—including hundreds of royals, heads of state, and heads of government—to pay their respects to the late monarch ahead of her funeral tomorrow. All of Monday’s shows and presentations have been cancelled and some brands, like Burberry, have chosen to reschedule for later in the month. But Erdem and most of his compatriots including JW Anderson, Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane, Harris Reed, Chopova Lowena, and Nensi Dojaka believe the show must go on this weekend as a tribute to the monarch who long championed the British fashion industry and honored rising talents with the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design.
The life and times of the queen have often been a point of reference for Erdem; his Resort 2023 collection took cues from her longtime florist Constance Spry’s arrangements for her coronation in 1953. “It’s a hugely sad time in London—her Majesty the Queen was an inspiration and I admire her sense of duty and service enormously,” says Erdem. “The best way for the industry to support British designers is to attend the shows, shoot the collections, and buy the collections. It’s a challenging time, but it has also brought a real sense of solidarity to London.”
Titling his show “Grief is the price we pay for love,” after the queen’s famous words of condolence in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and dedicating the collection to her memory, Erdem looked further back in history for his reference points this season , sending out an array of black faille corset dresses featuring 18th-century remnant embroidery and exploded etched Old Masters prints. Many looks featured trailing black ribbon, black net veils, or shredded details that referenced historic mourning dress, while the closing look—a corset dress in optic white with a full skirt and extended train and skirt covered in black couture netting and floral embroidered tulle—looked like a photo negative of the queen’s coronation gown.
More broadly, Erdem was inspired this season by the process of art restoration, in particular witnessing an 18th-century embroidered dress being revived with a complex tulle under structure and a damaged 15th-century oil painting brought back to life based on a 17th-century etching. “My studio team and I spent a lot of time behind the scenes with the conservators and restoration teams at the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Britain and the V&A,” he recalls. “I was thinking about the forensic passion required to dedicate your life to bringing a piece of art back to life, the way in which some restorers can be working on a piece for up to twenty years. It’s about obsession and dedication, the way in which the boundaries between restoration and inhabitation can become blurred .”
Those last words—obsession and dedication—sound not unlike Erdem’s own creative process, which is intellectual, thoroughly researched, accretive, and always reaching for greater understanding. The Montreal-raised designer, whose parents are British and Turkish, has been championing diversity and inclusion long before these were industry buzzwords . He was the first designer to collaborate with stylist Ib Kamara—before even Virgil Abloh—and now works with Gabriella Karefa-Johnson.
Erdem creates silhouettes—long of skirt and sleeve and high of neck—that appeal to a Modest fashion customer in the Middle East, without that being their exclusive intent. Fans include Nicole Kidman, Michelle Dockery, Alexa Chung, and Catherine, Princess of Wales —and many women the world over who don’t wish to bare it all. “Fashion should always be inclusive,” says Erdem. “Why create something that only certain body types can wear? When something is well designed it should fit everyone. Last year, Erdem made the decision to stock his full collection in sizes ranging from a UK 6 to a UK 22.
“Ultimately fashion has always been a mirror of what is happening in the world,” Erdem asserts. Never was this more clear than in his Fall 2022 collection celebrating pioneering Weimar artists, which was shown in London on February 21, three days before Russia invaded Ukraine. In a fashion season where Instagram feeds would become a surreal juxtaposition of women and children fleeing the rockets being lobbed at Kiev and fashion-business-as-usual in other European capitals, Erdem’s show was the first—and one of the few— to seriously engage with the existential threat of authoritarianism. Foregoing his signature florals, Erdem showed an almost entirely monochrome lineup featuring Sally Bowles-esque bustiers over midi dresses and a lace gown paired with studded elbow-length black gloves and a sequined boa.
“I saw an incredibly powerful exhibition at The Barbican called Into the Night in 2019 that documented cabaret culture and the revolutionary art that emerged from the shadows of a looming war,” explains Erdem of his Fall 2022 inspiration. “There were so many parallels between the current situation and the past. Ultimately, I found it fascinating that in the face of oppression, extraordinary female artists like Jeanne Mammen, Madame d’Ora, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Anita Berber and Valeska Gert became pioneers in their particular vein of avant-garde expressionism. It was their form of protest.
How does Erdem find his starting point each season, I wonder? “I think it’s important to keep evolving, as a brand and as a person,” Erdem replies. “My creative process is always to start with the research, to build the narrative and the collection begins there. Sometimes it takes you to unexpected places.” Unexpected, but not unfamiliar. “In terms of themes carrying from my last runway collection to this one, they are chapters in the same books so inevitably they will relate to one another,” Erdem adds.