Each season Sarah Burton, the creative director of Alexander McQueen, takes her designers on a field trip somewhere in Britain to spark inspiration. For the autumn/winter collection they travelled to Wales where, at St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff, they found a collection of old Welsh love spoons: traditional, heart-shaped gestures of endearment carved from a single piece of wood. In the hands of Burton, the spoons have been magicked into something to wear, most notably in the scarlet Love Spoon dress – an explosion of hearts in lace that could be straight out of Wonderland. The panels of fabric, created by machine in Italy, feature three-dimensional hearts sewn on by hand. Lace also appears as ivory love‑spoon “encrustations” on seductive black leather. “The hearts are a symbol of togetherness, of being there for others,” Burton says. “A love letter to families, colleagues and friends.”
Love is merely one sentiment that can be stitched into a piece of lace, an idea designers have been playing with this season – from the virginal to the provocative and downright sexual. A baptism, a royal wedding, a lucky night? Lace can be a Chantilly froth of teenage rock ’n’ roll, a widow’s mantilla or an ’80s bonkbuster. Last month, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, images of her signature white lace collar were used to symbolise the gender equality she fought for all her life – a piece of sartorial iconography standing for what many Americans fear they are losing.
For autumn/winter, Simone Rocha looked to the communion dress she never had, having grown up in a secular household in predominantly Catholic Ireland. She took the intricate white lace frocks and gave them a Rocha spin – one gown featured a cape and a skirt that erupted from the waist and finished in a bubble hem. Another more traditional embroidered dress was styled with a long lace veil – surely designed with super-cool brides in mind.
Sexy incarnations are to be found at Anthony Vaccarello’s Saint Laurent, where there’s always a high-voltage ’80s mood. On the catwalk, patterned lace stockings, bustiers and bras were a delicate but no less suggestive counterpoint to slick latex leggings. At Dolce & Gabbana, a house that takes inspiration from ’50s Sicilian femininity, lace is a signature. On the a/w runway, a black lace teddy was styled with an ivory cable-knit cardigan and thigh-high tights, in a mash-up of Madonna’s The Girlie Show era and her English country-house phase. And Louis Vuitton’s collection featured both actual lace and an homage to lace, with separates in faux-leather printed and coated with a lace-inspired pattern.
The fabric is a trademark for Christopher Kane too. He first used stretch lace with flower details in his a/w ’18 collection. For autumn, he took underwear-inspired shapes – namely lace triangle bras – and developed them into sheer geometric panels in dresses. He also used barely there black lace, made in France by the manufacturer Solstiss, as a textured layer sewn on to the vivid green plastic of a fantastic coat and skirt.
Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear buying at MatchesFashion, says that while lace can be super-feminine, its customers like to wear it in a modern way. This season the retailer is stocking voluminous silk-blend opera skirts by Erdem, from a collection inspired by the belle époque costumes in Luchino Visconti’s 1976 film L’Innocente. The skirts are trimmed in a panel of guipure lace. “It’s very intricate, but also a graphic type of embellishment,” Wiggins says.
This mix of classic and contemporary can also be seen in the lace and silk negligées by Florentine designer Loretta Caponi, who specialises in hand-embroidered gowns and nightwear. Net-a-Porter is selling it as part of its evening offering this season – a new crossover between what we wear to bed and what we wear for going out (even if that’s pretend). It’s an easy, luxurious and sexy way of dressing that could be fun for an oh-no-we-can’t-leave-the-house date night. The rebrodè lace Caponi uses is based on centuries-old pieces from their archive and is partially handmade at a family-run workshop in Piedmont.
For Jeannie Lee, Selfridges’s head of buying for womenswear, the heritage association of lace is exactly right for current sartorial appetites. She points to the recent collections at London Fashion Week that were heavy on “reinterpretations of old-world regal fashion” as an example. “Lace works well now because it is luxurious but translates into both day and evening dressing,” she says. “At this stage of the pandemic, we’re seeing an interesting approach to dressing-up.”