LONDON — Hard times.
The fifth year of London’s stand-alone men’s wear showcase is unfolding against a grim backdrop of fear, political uncertainty and a slow but seismic shift in how fashion brands sell apparel.
With the U.K. general election results due to be confirmed early Friday morning, the likelihood of a hung Parliament, difficult Brexit negotiations ahead and a tense atmosphere in London following last weekend’s terrorist attack that killed eight and injured nearly 50, the celebratory mood has been replaced with a sober one.
This season, more security staff will be guarding 180 Strand, the official British Fashion Council show venue, while guests will undergo bag searches and metal detection scanning with hand wands. A specialist dog and handler will also be on site during the showcase, which runs from June 9 to 12.
The big names — including Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford and Moschino — are gone from the men’s schedule, opting for different cities or formats, while a number of smaller calendar stalwarts are absent too.
Sibling, which went into voluntary liquidation earlier this year; Agi & Sam, which is taking a break this season and re-strategizing; Casely-Hayford, which is switching its focus to retail, and J.W. Anderson, which is taking its show to Pitti Uomo in Florence, are among the calendar’s missing brands.
But this is Britain, where keeping a “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity is a matter of national pride — and part of the nation’s DNA. So, despite the turmoil and somber mood, British designers are pushing ahead — and maintaining their robust sense of humor.
“I’m preparing to dye the whole collection black if Theresa May wins — and it’s a colorful collection, so that would be a shame,” said Daniel W. Fletcher, referring to Britain’s Conservative prime minister, who may or may not be out of office as of today.
Fletcher is well-known for his politically minded collections: His show last June was staged as a flash protest against Brexit shortly before the historic referendum took place. The designer at the time stood on the sidewalk in front of 180 Strand, together with models dressed in pieces from his spring 2017 range. They held signs and blankets with slogans such as “Stay” and “Better Together.”
This season, Fletcher has designed a cap with the word ‘Out.’ “People can take that as they like,” said the designer, one of many emerging talents in the London Fashion Week Men’s lineup who is increasingly relying on his digital wits to drive business as the traditional wholesale model dwindles.
With the number of independent retailers shrinking, U.S. department stores in crisis and cautious buying worldwide, designers are looking to enrich their own e-commerce offerings and social media connections with their customer bases.
“Wholesale is still really important, but it’s difficult and the margins are so tight. They’re not as tight with e-commerce, and you don’t have to wait six months to get paid. It’s helping to keep the studio going,” said Fletcher ,who launched his label in 2016 with an e-commerce offer.
Judith Tolley, head of the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, which is based at London College of Fashion and helps emerging designers with financing, strategy and business building, said brands’ own e-commerce sites and a direct connection with consumers is the way forward for fashion’s fledgling businesses.
The CFE has begun giving digital grants to designers alongside studio space, resources and mentoring. “The seasonal wholesale model is no longer sustainable, and selling directly to consumers is a way to make margins. It also means that designers are not tied to doing seasonal product,” she said.
Tolley added that running an e-commerce business today means that designers need “relevant, compelling content on their sites, such as film and fantastic imagery,” one reason why fashion shows — which cost at least 20,000 pounds, or $25,800, a season — remain a major marketing platform.
Designers also need to be engaging with their customers across social platforms, Tolley said, as the new generation of consumers is “suspicious” of traditional advertising, and they want to engage personally with the designer or brand.
Phoebe English, who will stage her presentation on Friday, is one of the recipients of a CFE digital grant for e-commerce. She said she’s looking forward to “a monthly income” from the new site and some degree of control over her business at a time of so much instability from the weaker pound — and more cautious buying internationally.
Lou Dalton, who also sells via her own site, has found another way to drive business. After taking a step back and rethinking what she wanted, she downsized her collection drastically and partnered with the heritage knitwear brand and manufacturer John Smedley.
“At the end of the day you have to be able to shift clothes, and the wholesale model has changed. Retailers don’t shop like they used to,” said Dalton, who over the past few seasons has begun focusing on a limited number of core pieces.
John Smedley now covers her sampling costs and produces her knitwear, although she continues to produce her wovens in-house in Europe. She said the response has been phenomenal, in Japan in particular, and she feels secure knowing she has the Smedley “machine” behind her.
“This is the only time I’ve had clarity about my business, but to get there I had to refocus, to fight to stay in the game,” she said.
Sam Cotton of Agi & Sam is also thinking of new ways to do business. The Agi & Sam brand, which Cotton designs with Agi Mdumulla, is not showing on the official schedule but that hasn’t stopped the flow of Cotton’s creativity. He’s designed a capsule collection of 25 to 30 pieces this season and plans to release the look book next week via British GQ.
Most of the line consists of navy blue and there’s an emphasis on function and detail, with post-war military references. Cotton said he’s looking to fellow designer Aitor Throup, who decided years ago to do project-driven collections that are not tied to any particular season. (Throup designs his collections alongside working as executive creative director of G-Star Raw).
As the traditional wholesale model changes shape, Cotton said he’s excited to be testing new business and creative models. His plan this season is to sell the capsule collection to a few stores only. He’s also looking to do one-off and exclusive projects with retailers and bespoke items for individual clients.
Wholesale may be shifting dramatically, but it remains relevant as one of the many revenue streams that a designer needs.
Fletcher owes much of his initial success to Opening Ceremony, which bought his Central Saint Martins graduate collection in 2015. In a thoroughly modern move, Fletcher spun some of those student pieces into a capsule collection, which he later sold on his e-commerce site.
Next week, Paul Alger, director of international business at the U.K. Fashion and Textile Association, and a longtime marketer for British brands worldwide, is taking 100 British brands to Pitti Uomo, an all-time record.
Those clothing, footwear and accessories brands include Pringle of Scotland, Orlebar Brown, Superdry, Private White VC, Fred Perry and P.S. by Paul Smith. Alger will also take British brands to Paris trade shows and showrooms, where they’ll write most of their orders.
Alger said he believes that in the digital age, trade shows are a rich hunting ground for online retailers such as Asos, Farfetch, Wolf & Badger, Matchesfashion and Mr Porter, which are more flexible than bricks-and-mortar stores with their buys.
He does not view Pitti’s or Paris’ gain as a loss for London Fashion Week Men’s at all. Alger said the British designers need as much exposure as possible — in all the best places.
He said the success of Pitti, which has enormous budgets, and Paris, the European home of fashion business, is “where the market is at the moment. It’s been a difficult time for small design businesses for a couple of seasons now, but they are the future of our industry and we need to nurture them.”
Alger, and others, also believe that London Fashion Week Men’s remains an important platform for designers — despite the absence of big name brands, the terror threats and all of the country’s political woes.
“Whether the buyers come or not this week, the London men’s shows will be beamed around the world, and that’s very important in today’s multichannel approach,” said Alger. “The stakes are high, because you have to have it all today: a brand presence, a catwalk and social media.”
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