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US star Lena Dunham's catwalk debut kickstarts London Fashion Week

US acting star and "Girls" creator Dunham made her surprise runway debut for London-based brand 16Arlington.

British style icon Vivienne Westwood unveiled her latest offerings and American actress Lena Dunham made a catwalk debut as London Fashion Week got underway Friday under the shadow of the novel coronavirus epidemic.

The five-day showcase in the British capital will feature more than 60 shows, including Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger, but with participation dented by the deadly outbreak spreading around the world.

The COVID-19 epidemic -- as the World Health Organization has formally named it -- has so far claimed around 1,400 lives and infected nearly 64,000 people.


The vast majority have been in China, the source of the outbreak, but as it has spread there have also been nine cases identified in Britain.


The British Fashion Council (BFC), which organises the event, said it expected attendance from Chinese media and buyers "to be significantly reduced" due to the travel restrictions imposed as a result of the outbreak. 


Chief Executive Caroline Rush announced a partnership with the Business of Fashion China media platform "to ensure that our two audiences remain incredibly connected".


But BFC chairwoman Stephanie Phair tried to downplay the obvious concerns encroaching on one of the global fashion industry's key gatherings. 


"It is absolutely a topic but the fashion industry has always faced challenges and is a resilient industry," she told AFP.


- Sustainability focus -

US acting star and "Girls" creator Dunham made her surprise runway debut for London-based brand 16Arlington, sporting wet hair, a gold leaf dress and a leather jacket.


"Lena is amazing," Marco Capaldo, its co-founder along with Kikka Cavenati, told AFP. "Apart from being a dear friend, she stands for such positivity and she is a real force for change and we love that."


Meanwhile Westwood presented her autumn/winter 2020/21 collection, inspired by British and Italian traditions, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park with an overtly political message of support for jailed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.


"I'm taking the opportunity of London Fashion Week to defend human rights and free speech," she said in a statement calling for protests when the whistleblower's trial over extradition to the United States begins later this month in Britain.


Some of the models at her show wore black and white masks to represent a decapitated man's face while a pillory was on display.


London's turn in the fashion spotlight opened Friday with the debut show by Yuhan Wang, a London-based designer originally from Weihai in northeast China.


She showed long and light floral dresses, dominated by lace with a bohemian, melancholic feel.


Also showing in London this week are queen of punk rock culture Pam Hogg, along with big British names such as Chalayan, JW Anderson and Victoria Beckham.


Meanwhile Vienna-based designer Petar Petrov will be among the newcomers showcasing at Fashion East, London's pioneering non-profit initiative championing emerging talent.


After largely deserting New York Fashion Week in recent years, Tommy Hilfiger returns to London to unveil his fourth "TommyxLewis" collection, which has a strong focus on sustainability.


- 'Creative disruptions' -

With climate change concerns paramount, an increasing number of designers are choosing to use renewable materials and support local crafts.


That trend is set to feature in the collections of Mulberry, Phoebe English, and Johnstons of Elgin -- all with a strong production presence in England.


Under pressure from environmental activists, London organisers are trying to improve the image of the event and promote good practices.


They include a "switch to blue" campaign to bring the industry together "to lead in ambitious environmental action", as well as a collaboration with designer Richard Malone for a reusable canvas bag.


On Tuesday, young designer Rosh Mahtani, founder of the jewellery brand Alighieri, will receive the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, for her "ethical approach and commitment to local manufacturing".


However, activist group Extinction Rebellion has called for next season's event in September to be scrapped, denouncing the fashion industry's "exploitation of (the) planet, people and animals".


It has previously protested at London Fashion Week and plans further "creative disruptions" on Saturday.


Meanwhile the perceived threat of COVID-19 looms large in the background.


Organisers said they would carry out "deep cleans" every evening at the event's central London hub, while anti-bacterial hand sanitisers will be made available throughout the venue.


But concerns about the outbreak go well beyond the immediate threat to those attending. 


British fashion house Burberry warned last week of a "material negative effect on luxury demand", as Chinese consumers stayed at home.