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London Men’s Week Faces Challenges

London Collections: Men, which will begin Jan. 6, faces serious challenges as the overlap with Pitti Uomo and lack of commercial brands vex buyers.

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Men'sWeek issue 12/19/2013

LONDON — Designer Lou Dalton is notching sales gains of 50 percent year-on-year, Anda Rowland is watching an average of four new customers per week ring through the doors of Anderson & Sheppard’s haberdashery off Savile Row and Christopher Raeburn is relieved he no longer has to show his collections “blind” to buyers in Paris at the end of the show season.

London Collections: Men, which enters its fourth season on Jan. 6, has been a boon for the city’s designers and brands who have been reaping rewards from the three-day showcase that kicks off the European men’s show calendar.

“There has been an extraordinary response in terms of sales,” said Dalton, whose retail customers include Dover Street Market, Liberty, Harvey Nichols and Opening Ceremony. “The big corporates have brought international press and buyers to the table, and that has been priceless for us as we develop our businesses.”

Designer Katie Eary said the showcase has done wonders for morale, especially among the smaller businesses. “The week enables you to start thinking bigger and better, knowing you have the scope to have greater visibility to the industry as a whole.

“Buyers…are now more confident in their choices and are continuing to back us. They are also seeing better sell-through at store level, which in part may be down to the media coverage LC:M gets. It is now becoming national news, which means greater brand visibility,” Eary added.

Even the older and more established tailored clothing brands are benefiting from the Savile Row collective presentation that takes place during the week.

“In the past, you Googled Savile Row tailors and you saw pictures of important historical figures wearing the clothes, but today, you also see images of the younger guys that we feature in the collective presentations,” said Rowland. “The show has piqued the interest of a younger group of customers, of buyers and even of visual merchandisers who want to learn how to style the classics.”

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Growing pains aside — and there are some major ones — London has so far been a success: According to organizers, the schedule is oversubscribed, and there is talk that brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Belstaff and DKNY could be joining the lineup. They’re hoping that Vivienne Westwood, too, will jump in the mix.

Meanwhile, tailored clothing brands such as Kent & Curwen are using LC:M as a launch pad, while others such as Hackett see the showcase as an alternative to Pitti Immagine Uomo. The big brands that now anchor the week — Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford — are proving to be an aid for the smaller names, as well.

“Smaller designers have an opportunity to shine in London, they’re not bombarded by famous names like they would be in Milan or Paris,” said Jason Broderick, fashion director of men’s wear, sports, and watches at Harrods. “At the same time, the big names add more weight to the smaller designers.”

Its proponents would argue that LC:M has been successful because of its range of brands, and its high-low mix: For the first time Superdry will be staging a stand-alone show for its men’s and women’s collections, while Ede & Ravenscroft, the tailor founded in 1689, will be launching its first ready-to-wear collection, a 45-piece capsule wardrobe that includes tailored clothing and accessories, in the hope of capitalizing on the city’s growing international profile.

Thomas Pink will be showing for the first time, and will be working with the artists Bompas & Parr to create an interactive installation to showcase the fall collection. Florence Torrens, the brand’s creative director, said Pink decided to join the week because it has proved to be a “world class platform” for British men’s wear.

“London has a special reputation on the fashion circuit as being both inspirational and creatively disruptive, and this contradiction creates a unique energy, which is also at the heart of Thomas Pink. In taking part, we feel we are celebrating our own design philosophy,” she said.

Following in the footsteps of the Savile Row tailors, the traditional men’s accessories brands on and around Jermyn Street in St. James’s are clubbing together for their first collective show in January.

“Quietly and conscientiously, the craftsmen of Jermyn Street and St. James’s have been concentrating on honing the future of luxury men’s accessories, and now is our time to showcase this to the world,” said Anthea Harries, property portfolio manager of St. James’s, which belongs to the Crown Estate.

That show will feature brands such as Barbour, Bates, Budd, D.R. Harris & Co., Emma Willis, Emmett, Favourbrook, Floris, Harvie & Hudson, Hilditch & Key, John Lobb, Lock & Co., Sunspel, Turnbull & Asser and Trickers.

“London Collections is only working because people want to be involved,” said Dylan Jones, the editor of British GQ and the chair of LC:M. “You’ve got big brands and cutting-edge designers, amazing creativity, Savile Row, and the high-street brands. High, low, east, west, rich, poor. No one does tradition better than us and no one does rebellion like we do.”

The path to success, however, hasn’t been entirely smooth, and challenges remain.

The British Fashion Council, which organizes the shows, continues to lock horns with the Italian trade fair body Pitti Immagine about overlapping show dates with Pitti Uomo. Meanwhile, many of the collections continue to be sold through showrooms in Paris rather than London. The dates of the January shows are so early that the smaller designers in particular find it difficult to have their samples ready on time. Some buyers, meanwhile, have said that London does not offer enough commercial collections.

This coming season, LC:M will overlap by two days with Pitti Uomo in Florence, which runs from Jan. 7 to 10. The scheduling will force press and buyers to divide their forces, or to cherry-pick the shows and events they want to cover in each city. The conflicting schedules have been an ongoing problem since London Collections: Men launched in June 2012.

“We haven’t reached any agreement [on dates],” said Jones. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve offered so many olive branches. [The Italian organizers] seem to be intransigent and don’t appear to be particularly interested in working with London, so we’re just going to go ahead.

“If people want to go to Pitti, then obviously they will go to Pitti. There is enough room for everyone, and if some of the other fashion weeks were prepared to squeeze a bit or compromise, they’d probably make it easier for themselves. But we are where we are.

“In 2015, things will be easier as the calendar changes. This is probably the most difficult season, but you can’t really worry about other people. If you’re worrying too much about other people, you’d never get anything done,” said Jones.

Asked about the conflict with London, Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive officer of Pitti Immagine, said he’s hoping for a solution: “It’s a subject that has to be tackled with intelligence and common sense to support the system. The dates as they stand do not provide a good service. We are in talks with London to discuss this matter in order to coordinate them. One fixed date should be decided upon, and then have Florence begin one day after London. We have faith that the issue will be resolved,” he said.

Next month, for the first time, Pitti will charter a flight to transport select buyers and journalists from London — following the Burberry show on Jan. 8 — to Florence, where Diesel Black Gold’s new creative director Andreas Melbostad will be staging a runway show as Pitti Uomo’s guest designer.

For the U.S. department stores in particular, the conflicting dates are an annoyance. “The overlap with Pitti is a drawback for us — it’s created a lot of difficulty. Our gmm, for example, won’t be able to go to London,” said Eric Jennings, vice president and fashion director men’s wear, home, food and gifts at Saks Fifth Avenue. Jennings added that the Diesel show is a big event, as is the Brunello Cucinelli tailored presentation at Pitti.

Kevin Harter, Bloomingdale’s vice president of fashion direction for men’s, home, young world and bloomingdales.com, said while London was a “must-stop” for the buying team, the overlap with Pitti remains a challenge. “We’ll start in London, and then we’ll be taking a ‘divide and conquer’ approach. All markets are important to us,” he said.

The brands themselves are doing what suits them best. Vicente Castellano, managing director of Hackett London, said the brand has chosen LC:M over Pitti as its sole showcase.

“It’s difficult for us to do both, and it’s the same people who would be seeing us,” he said. “Pitti did the job for us in terms of helping us find new distributors. London offers us a good opportunity to show in advance of Milan, and to show more extreme pieces from Hackett’s world on a runway.”

By contrast Kent & Curwen — an old British name that is launching a new rtw collection — eventually hopes to show in both cities.

“From an aesthetic point of view, London is great for us. And it’s an opportunity first and foremost to reinforce our heritage as a brand with roots in London. But Pitti will be on our radar in the future — it’s great from a commercial point of view,” said Craig Reynolds, the company’s president.

LC:M is also facing commercial challenges. Much of the actual business is still being transacted at the end of the European men’s wear season, with buyers writing their orders for London collections in Paris. Although most designers say they are set up to take orders anywhere — including online — the risk is that London morphs into a marketing vehicle rather than a commercial one.

However, that does not bother some designers, such as Raeburn: “London offers us an opportunity to show our collections ahead of Milan and Paris, which means reviews get posted, the collection has visibility, and buyers can buy online if they want. We are still doing the vast majority of our sales in Paris, but we are now able to channel the interest from LC:M into those sales,” he said.

Jones said the organizers’ long-term vision is for London “to grow to the extent where it has as much commercial clout as Milan or Paris or New York. This has never been a whim, or a vanity exercise.”

Stephen Ayres, the head of fashion buying and merchandising at Liberty who also serves on a LC:M advisory committee, said the “next stage” of London men’s shows needs to be about commerce — and he’s not just talking about buyers writing orders.

“We need to be thinking more about the end consumer and getting them involved at an earlier stage. Outside London, that consumer isn’t necessarily aware of what’s going on here unless they are in the industry. It’s about creating some kind of consumer-facing event, getting them to the brands. For commerce, you need the consumer,” he said.

Some buyers have pointed to gaps in the LC:M show schedule. Saks’ Jennings said that last season the schedule was split between avant-garde designers on one end and classic brands on the other. “We have yet to find the meat — the commercial element — in the middle,” he said. Jennings added that while Burberry is a big commercial business for the store, Saks needs more bankable brands with broad appeal such as the French labels Carven and Ami.

Another challenge facing LC:M is the show calendar, especially the January one. It’s the smaller labels in particular that are feeling the crunch. “Christmas should be put on hold,” said Dalton. “We undergo a huge amount of pressure waiting for samples to come through, but the return is that [retailers] come knocking.”

Katie Eary, another emerging designer, would agree: “It’s great that we are first on the international schedule, but it’s hell on everyone’s diaries. I wish we could encourage Milan and Paris to give us a few extra days, but I can’t see that happening,” she said.

As organizers, designers and brands seek to iron out the wrinkles, they are also looking ahead at ways to build out the week. Jones said he is working with organizations such as the London Mayor’s office and other bodies to construct a cultural program that would run in tandem with LC:M.

“We’re speaking to the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum], the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] and the Museum of London, in terms of the short term, medium term and long term,” he said. “Short term is having various pop-up events, and medium to long term is actually having exhibitions. So when you come to London, perhaps you go inside the V&A, and there will be an exhibition that’s devoted to men’s wear or to a particular strand of men’s wear. Those extra strands, consumer and culture, I think are very important.”

Rowland of Anderson & Sheppard believes there are even more opportunities. She would like to see a Davos-like event taking place during LC:M. “People would travel to London especially for a men’s wear business forum, an industry-driven event,” that could address sourcing, manufacturing, supply chain, brand management, e-commerce and support for younger designers.

As the week grows, supporting young talent remains a priority. “It’s important that London is still seen to be nurturing and incubating talent,” said Ayres of Liberty. “And I wouldn’t like to see the showcase too commercialized — it still needs an element of edge.”

Dalton said the big and small brand balance is critical to London’s future. “We need the corporates to ensure the week runs smoothly — to bring the international press and buyers to the table — but we can’t lose London’s energy and the diversity.”

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