By day, London may look the same _ downbeat commuters, snarled traffic, headaches galore. But after dark the city will be sparkling on Friday as London Fashion Week spawns dozens of catwalk shows, parties, and ever-more-exclusive after-parties.
If you're going, rest assured that there is always one more party a bit more posh than the one you're attending, unless your name happens to be Natalia (as in Vodianova, the Anglicized Russian "it" girl with the stunning cheekbones) or Gisele.
The unveiling of the spring and summer 2012 collections _ this time including a show by Tom Ford, the latest A-plus fashion star to embrace London's catwalk _ marks an unofficial end to London's riot-torn, phone-hacked summer and, hopefully, kicks off a bumper fall social season.
The sound of champagne being uncorked can't come soon enough for people whose businesses were hurt by the widespread rioting and looting that struck London and other British cities in August, events that put a damper on night life that only now seems about to lift.
"It's something positive, it's a good thing in many ways, and it's not rioting," said Charles Gilkes, co-owner of several London bars and clubs, including Barts, Maggie's and Bunga Bunga. "It means more people are out and about during the week."
He said the majority of Londoners aren't aware of fashion week, but that for a small segment of the population, including many in the service industry, the catwalk shows and the spinoff trade they create, are the most important time of the year.
There is a ripple effect that goes far beyond the shows, with many of the capital's finest stores sponsoring gala parties or exclusive cocktail receptions.
Many Bond Street boutiques _ the kind where seriously nice accessories costs seriously large amounts of money _ stayed open late last Thursday as part of Vogue's Fashion Night Out, now a fashion week tradition.
For Gilkes, it meant an extra job _ setting up the bar for Tod's, a favored shoe store _ and it sharpened the focus on London's status as an upscale shopping center, a place with so much variety that it's possible to spend 25 pounds ($40) on some trendy, colored plastic shoes or more than 1,000 pounds ($1600) on unique Italian footwear, all on the same block.
London has capitalized on its reputation for encouraging fringe and street designers to work their way up the fashion ladder, giving fashion week an edgy feel despite big name houses and generous corporate sponsorships. There are dozens of smaller events in the side streets near Somerset House, which has proved in the last few years to be a successful base for Fashion Week headquarters.
The crucial buzz factor will be helped this year by the presence of Ford, who was instrumental in the turnaround of the Gucci house and has found nothing but success as the head of his own label, which has branched out into trendy (read expensive) sunglasses and beauty products to go along with his men's and women's fashion lines.
Ford has been increasing his presence on London of late, holding a series of private presentations at fashion week last spring, and his catwalk show Sunday is expected to be one of fashion week's hot tickets, though he will share the spotlight with Christopher Bailey of Burberry Prorsum, Vivienne Westwood and rising stars like Roksanda Ilincic and Daniella Issa Helayel, Kate Middleton's fave.
"It's very exciting to have him here in London," said Vogue Executive Fashion Director Calgary Avansino. "Everyone is keen to see what's next. He's always on the cutting edge, and he always uses the best models and chooses them meticulously. It's fun to see his choices."
Avansino said Ford's clothes have come to represent classiness and elegance, with only the best fabrics and leathers and detailing, whatever the cost.
"The clothes are very expensive for a reason," she said. "He designs for a very specific woman, a very secure woman with a career path. A strong, emboldened woman who is sexy, too."
The addition of Ford to the traditionally strong London lineup is another step forward for Britain's expanding fashion industry, which lags behind New York, Paris and Milan despite more than a decade of steady growth.
Hillary Alexander, a fashion correspondent with The Daily Telegraph newspaper, told The Associated Press that Ford's decision to show his collection in London represents a major boost to the British fashion industry.
"It reflects his love of all things British," she said.
She said Ford's show will be quieter and less oriented toward the Internet and social media networks than those of his competitors, who want to instantly reach a mass audience.
"He wants it to be slightly more intimate, with a very personal presentation," she said. "That's in direct contrast to the attitude of a lot of fashion today. It suits his clientele, and it suits the man."
Maria Grachvogel showed a series of ethereal, flowing gowns, dresses and catsuits, with her unique "magic pants" seeming to give models a slimmer waist and longer legs.
The free-flowing dresses, with exaggerated drape, had a timeless feel, with some elements of Greek classicism.
"They're a bit of a lightning warrior look," Grachvogel said backstage after the show. "Very much about volume, with that Grecian feminine thing, and a bit of fierceness."
She seemed deeply relieved that the show had been successfully concluded, sipping Moet & Chandon champagne and toasting the friends who surrounded her. She breathed a deep, elaborate sigh of relief to indicate that the tension had lifted.
Grachvogel, who first exhibited at London Fashion Week in 1995, made extensive use of white and ivory, including a long white catsuit with a plunging V-neck. Others relied on her artwork prints, each individually engineered by Grachvogel on individual garments, in colors that included black, white, apple, raspberry and blossom.
The long, flowing look was interrupted by several outfits, including a beige ensemble featuring short pants, blouse and cape.
Irish designer Paul Costelloe used his traditional role opening fashion week to show a series of short, flirtatious dresses, many in monochrome silver-gray with well-patterned, subtle fabrics. The spring and summer 2012 collection was offset by several bursts of color in impressive brocade dresses.
He showed a number of short jacket dresses, some with high cowl necks, and also several black and white striped smock dresses. Some models wore sleek pantsuits with flared trousers.
There were few formal touches, and Costelloe seemed to be striving for a celebratory mood despite the early hour of the 9 a.m. show.
"Every piece was beautiful," said shoemaster Jimmy Choo, who sat in the front row. "Paul is an inspiration and a role model to young designers. We're all here to support Paul _ he's a good man and a good Irishman."
The fashion week headquarters at Somerset House next to the River Thames was jammed early Friday morning as the shows began. Some with special invitations complained about having to stand with "the rabble" as they waited to gain entry to the Costelloe show, but most were good-natured.
Longtime British designer Caroline Charles turned to the French Riviera _ and American jazz _ when seeking inspiration for her spring and summer 2012 collection.
There were dramatic silhouettes, elegant evening wear, and liberal use of jaunty straw hats, often with hatbands that played off the colors of dresses and pantsuits. A green dress was set off by a green polka-dotted hatband as she made full use of the possibilities of a simple accessory.
Charles, who worked with fashion legend Mary Quant before branching out on her own, turned her back on many modern trends, embracing prints that relied on hand drawn designs, not computer graphics, and turning her back on body-hugging cuts. Many of the silk dresses had dropped waistlines, pleats, and fluted hemlines.
Turkish-born Bora Aksu, one of the many Central St. Martins art college alumni who have built successful careers in London, Friday showed a series of dresses with elaborate corsetry and gauzy, revealing patterns.
The sexy pieces relied on hand-made leather details, Edwardian lace and startling pleated ropes for their unique look. Waists were cinched to emphasize the female form, and some gauzy panels, combined with distressed fishnet tights, gave the outfits an edge.
Many of the dresses relied on variations of white and ivory. Most went well below the knee. Some of the black outfits used black mesh panels and rope to complete the look.
Aksu, with 15 years on the London scene, described his look as "romantic, but with a dark twist." Indeed, the pale makeup and heavy eyeliner gave the models an otherworldly look.