London designers are changing strategies as fashion’s overcrowded, overheated environment increasingly takes its toll.
Fresh off the news that Jonathan Saunders has decided to shutter his business comes the decision by Thomas Tait, one of the British capital’s fastest-rising talents, to quit the runway and opt instead for one-on-one appointments with press and buyers with the aim of building his namesake brand on his own terms.
Saunders said Tuesday that he was stepping down as creative director of his namesake label and parting ways with his investor and business partner Eiesha Bharti Pasricha, who invested in the business less than a year ago.
It is understood their split was an amicable one, and that Saunders will retain his name and the intellectual property belonging to the brand. “I am very thankful for all of the friends that I have across the industry, and I look forward to working with everyone again soon on future creative projects,” he said.
But Tait’s and Saunders’ names won’t be the only ones missing from the London Fashion Week fall 2016 schedule, which will be released today. Hunter, which is adopting a consumer-facing strategy, is also sitting out the season.
Tait, meanwhile, is changing his approach in a bid to get closer to his customers. The recipient of the inaugural LVMH Prize, the 28-year-old Tait won the Emerging Women’s Wear designer accolade at the British Fashion Awards last month. Best known for his architectural pieces, plays on volume and celebration of the three-dimensional nature of clothing, Tait has also made his name as a craftsman and tailor, creating clothing with couture-like details and meticulous workmanship. Clients include Dover Street Market, Matchesfashion.com, Le Bon Marché, Blake, Jeffrey and The Room in Canada.
A showman at heart, Tait enjoys a runway show spectacle: In past seasons, he’s plunged his audience into darkness, and had models wander into scattered pools of light. He held one show in a derelict building — complete with piles of rubble swept into the corners and exposed wiring — that was decorated with large-scale, color block installations by Georges Rousse.
Yet the runway — and the frenzy surrounding it — is no longer working for Tait who will, instead, do one-on-one appointments during Paris Fashion Week in March.
“It’s a small and strategic decision to take the time I feel my work deserves, and to refocus and redevelop how we actually present the clothes,” said Tait in an exclusive interview.
“There is so much work that goes into what I do, and it’s very much part of the brand DNA to really develop something that inside and out is extremely well considered,” he added. “So I often feel as if — with a catwalk show — although you have a sort of sensationalized moment, I do tend to leave the experience of the show and feel as if there is so much more we’ve been working on that no one could reasonably pick up on in the moment of the show. And it feels a little bit like an opportunity that’s not really being taken fully.”
Tait said as a result of his decision not to stage a runway show, he’s designing in a different way.
“Things feel differently, work differently. I’m designing things with a far more acute sensitivity to how things work. Each product is really sort of something that tells its own story.”
Now that he’s doing presentations, the designer said customers will finally have the chance to identify specific pieces they like and want to invest in. “I’m not necessarily making people feel like they have to take the whole collection – or leave it,” he said.
Tait is not ruling out a return to the catwalk. “I’d be lying if I said I have no vision of returning to the runway; that’s definitely on the map,” he said. “It could be in a couple of seasons, it could be in a couple of years. Who knows? But I want to come back with something that will hopefully exemplify my experience over the last few years showing at London Fashion Week and also be a testament to the time that I am taking now to reassess how people interact with the clothes.”
The designer’s decision to show by appointment in March comes as he fine-tunes other areas of his business: Starting with the fall season, he’ll be working with his first showroom, the Milan-based L.A. Distribuzione, which represents labels including Loewe, Current Elliott and James Perse. The showroom sells in Milan and Paris.
Thanks both to the LVMH Prize, which came with $381,000 in cash plus a year of coaching from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton executives, and his role as women’s guest designer at Pitti Uomo in June, Tait has been able to connect to leading Italian factories and will be transferring much of his production there, where he was already making knitwear and trousers.
“I’ll be working with the best fabrics in the world, and I’m really excited to involve people at an earlier stage in the product development to really push innovation in the development of the products,” he said, adding that until now he’s been “crafting it all together, with quite a bit of difficulty, independently, in my studio and then only really passing it onto a factory at the final sample level.”
Tait is not the only London name to look at new ways of doing business in an increasingly difficult climate for designers as fashion apparel sales slow worldwide and the demands on designers’ time — with pre-collections, main collections, accessories lines and the increasing need to build and feed their public profiles — exert more and more pressure. Raf Simons’ departure from Christian Dior was the first indication that designers were nearing breaking point and while Alber Elbaz was fired from Lanvin, he, too, has expressed worry over the mounting demands.
On Tuesday, Hunter confirmed it is leaving the London Fashion Week schedule as part of a new strategy to speak directly to its audience via music festivals and its own retail stores. The brand said it’s looking to “explore and amplify its authentic connection” to music festivals with multiple customer-facing moments planned globally for 2016. It also plans to open more stores, in New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Alasdhair Willis, Hunter’s creative director, said the stores present an opportunity for the company “to directly engage with customers in some of our most important markets.” Hunter first showed at LFW in February 2014.
Earlier this year, ahead of LFW in February, Marios Schwab opted for one-on-one appointments at Hotel Café Royal near Piccadilly Circus as part of a long-held desire to engage with press and buyers in a more intimate setting.
“I felt like the hand work, fabrics and details were getting lost on the catwalk. I wanted an intimate dialogue, not a circus, and a show that was manageable for me and for my business,” he told WWD earlier this year.
Other designers and labels are taking stock in different ways.
Earlier this year, Matthew Williamson decided to close his stores, put his runway shows and wholesale business on ice, and transform his business into an online one, supported by a London showroom.
Richard James is another British brand in transition. Although the brand continues to show during London Collections: Men in January and June, it’s also looking for new ways of doing business, after 23 years on Savile Row.
Richard James, which has been self-funded so far, is seeking fresh investment in a bid to grow from a retail, digital and geographical perspective and, as reported, has hired Ironbridge Capital Partners in London to seek a new strategic investment partner, with the search in its early stages.
The company has tapped Martin Bartle, the London-based e-commerce veteran, luxury marketing, and online retail consultant as an adviser and plans to use future funding to expand in the U.S. market.
Tait, too, is keeping his eyes open for a strategic investor.
“I’m not a mathematical mastermind, so I would be keen to find the right person or the right structure for an investment, but I definitely wouldn’t want to lead people to think that I am just running around looking for cash. It very much has to be a balance between the structure, the person — or the group of people,” he said. “I can’t only work with somebody on the theoretical strategy of the brand; I can’t only work with somebody if they are just providing me with cash as a Band-Aid.”
He added: “For a young brand, especially with the climate of this industry, throwing cash at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it. Not to say that I am a problematic brand, but obviously it’s not easy. Especially not in London, especially not for a young designer.”
Tait also said — and it’s a theme he’s touched on publicly before — that he wishes that young designers could be more open about the struggles they face.
“There’s a lot to be said about how this business sometimes works — and sometimes doesn’t — and I think designers and brands definitely should entertain and enjoy a certain sense of responsibly to share their stories, and share their ambitions, from a strategic point of view.”