Last February, when British designer Gareth Pugh sent his models down the catwalk in sci-fi Sith getups and inflated black puffer pieces, it summed up the best — and worst — of London.
On one hand, there's glorious and unbridled creativity, and on the other, a complete disregard for commerce.
"That collection was ‘so London,'" said one front-row fashion journalist. "But, frankly, I was frightened when I saw it. There was nothing salable there."
But London is changing its ways. Designers and fashion industry bodies are making efforts to reconcile those two battling elements, pushing themselves to compete in a business-driven world while still channeling their creative zing.
And, after all, it's the creativity that keeps London — the city that spawned Vivienne Westwood, Mary Quant, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and a host of other fashion icons — burning.
"There is a raw energy and vision on these runways that's not tempered by business or commerce," said Michael Fink, Saks Fifth Avenue vice president and women's fashion director. "What you're seeing on the runways are totally personal statements. In the end, you never know where you're going to find the talent, or who is going to make it through, but you have to thank them all for trying."
Tom Ford, honorary chairman of Fashion Fringe, the annual competition for young design talent in London, concurred.
"There's not the same pressure here from big businesses — and the stakes aren't so high — so the designers are freer to express themselves. And it's that freedom of expression that makes fashion move forward," he said.
Hilary Riva, chief executive officer of the British Fashion Council, said London was by no means the biggest or strongest of the four major international fashion weeks, but she believed it was the most innovative. "It's great at launching talent, and pushing boundaries. Anything goes here," she said.
To some, however, that's one of London's big problems. Colin McDowell, founder and creative director of Fashion Fringe, said he believed there was too much hype — and not enough financial or business support — around emerging London designers. And that's damaging to everyone."There is a terrible tendency in London to become hysterical. It is the most hysterical fashion city, and the failure rate of designers is huge," he said.
"We tend to hype our designers dramatically, but then there is no backup. The pattern is that everyone gets talking about a certain ‘fabulous' designer and then three seasons later, they're gone," said McDowell.
That was one reason McDowell founded Fashion Fringe. Each year, the winner gets a 100,000 pound ($196,000) prize as well as business advice and connections. Since Fashion Fringe began, McDowell has hooked up winners with such companies as Italian manufacturer Aeffe.
Under Riva, a former mass market retailer, the BFC is working to fund designers' budding businesses. Like Fashion Fringe, BFC supports sponsorships that are meant to nurture the designers — and ensure they remain in London.
Indeed, this city is often a victim of its own success: If designers are very talented — and very lucky — they get snapped up by the big fashion and luxury groups. Cases in point: Galliano and McQueen.
Others, like Matthew Williamson, Luella Bartley, Boudicca, Hussein Chalayan, Sophia Kokosalaki and Jenny Packham, have deserted London's shores for New York, Paris or Los Angeles in a bid to build their profiles and businesses internationally.
Even Paul Smith, the doyen of London designers and a London Fashion Week stalwart, has been mulling a move to Paris to show his growing women's collection.
"We're constantly thinking about showing in Paris," said Smith. "We've always showed our men's collection there, and we're established with a showroom. As the women's line becomes more established, we realize that in Paris we'd get more attention and coverage for the line."
Smith also brought up another problem that London is constantly grappling with: the show schedule. "Editors can only be out of the office a certain number of days — and they often choose Paris, New York and Milan over London," he said.
To ensure that London's designers thrive and stay put in the city, the BFC continues to work with Topshop and its longstanding New Generation sponsorship program, which supports emerging talent. Past NewGen designers have been McQueen, Kokosalaki, Rafael Lopez, Julien Macdonald, Antonio Berardi and Clements Ribeiro.This season, the BFC is also working with Westfield, the Australian retail property giant, on a new sponsorship called Fashion Forward that aims to help London's more established designers continue to run their businesses. Westfield plans to open a mega shopping mall in the British capital in 2008.
This season's winners are Giles Deacon, Jonathan Saunders and Sinha-Stanic.
"It's tough for these designers to grow here and expand their labels, so we want to help. And it's also a great opportunity for us," said David Slade, director of leasing at Westfield. "As these designers get bigger, we'll talk to them about selling with us in London."
Sponsorship or not, Deacon — one of this city's runway stars — is staying in London. "It works from a logistical point of view. I live and work here, and put the collection together here," he said, "and I am a big believer in London as a creative force. I want to support that."
Deacon is also one of a growing number of London designers who are business-minded. Besides his signature collection, Giles, he'll be designing the luxury women's collection for the British company Daks, which makes its debut in Milan next month.
The designer is also creating a capsule collection called Gold for the British mass market retailer New Look that will bow this spring.
Other designers, including Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic, Marios Schwab, Richard Nicoll and Todd Lynn, are all becoming known among buyers for their business smarts as well as their creative minds. It's still unclear whether London will be able to continue juggling creativity with commerce. But no matter what happens, this city will always have its die-hard fans.
"Fashion is a reflection of the times, and this is always such an inspiring city. It's never inhibited and there's a thriving youth culture," said Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys New York and a front-row fixture year after year at the London shows. "Some seasons, there's a lot more to buy than others — but the dynamic in London never changes."
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