LONDON — Is London fashion going through another wane?
In a tough few weeks for young, independent London designers, WWD has learned that Alexander Lewis is the latest label to wind down operations.
The American-Brazilian designer based in London confirmed his company entered voluntary liquidation at the beginning of the year and has ceased to operate.
The news comes a little more than a week after the London label, and knitwear specialist, Sibling confirmed it is winding down operations due to factors including the depreciating pound, which is driving up sourcing costs and forcing some retailers to be more cautious in their spending.
Shifts in the ever-demanding fashion calendar, a lack of support from the government — and sometimes from the industry itself — have also been taking a toll on London’s young labels. Designers’ own circumstances, management challenges and a lack of funding have contributed to the changes.
None of these obstacles are new to British designers, who have faced hurdles ranging from funding to little overseas interest to lack of government support for decades. Even as the British Fashion Council has become more proactive in providing support for up-and-comers — and mega-brands like Burberry are now on the London Fashion Week calendar — the U.K. capital continues to trail cities such as Paris, Milan and New York when it comes to scale and success.
It’s a problem that has long plagued London, as the city has ridden a series of booms and busts in popularity ever since the Swinging Sixties and Seventies. That was followed by years of being off the radar before the rise of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and their peers helped create Cool Britannia, which then trailed off in the late Nineties until London surged once again with the new wave that saw J.W. Anderson, Christopher Kane, Simone Rocha and more.
Now London once again seems to be wobbling. As Tom Ford told WWD last week in explaining his decision to decamp from the British capital for New York Fashion Week and, personally, for Los Angeles: “London, I’ve tried and tried and tried, and honestly London Fashion Week is not the same. It doesn’t attract the international press. So I needed to pick one. And the shows I’ve had in New York have worked very well.”
The latest spate of troubles are seeing some of the British capital’s most promising names, from Sibling to Thomas Tait and Holly Fulton, quietly leaving the LFW calendar or winding down their businesses altogether.
“After five years the company really wasn’t where I wanted it to be, and I didn’t really feel comfortable or happy with the way the industry is moving at the moment,” Lewis said in an interview.
“Generally speaking, I felt like how I wanted to work, and be, as a professional was very different to what is maybe required of me. I wasn’t happy or really enjoying it anymore so I decided it was probably best to shut.”
Last September, Lewis launched his own e-commerce and shifted his business to a direct-to-consumer model, but admitted the timing was wrong.
He said that even though the decision to address his customer directly was right and his new site was generating a steady stream of sales, his decisions were made too late, and he said he wasted too much time trying to please retailers and take part in London Fashion Week.
“I spent a lot of time chasing people, saying, ‘I want to get into this store and that store,’” said Lewis, adding that he would often adjust his designs according to retailers’ feedback in order to secure a partnership.
“It might not have been exactly what I wanted to do, but I would give it a go just to see if it would work out for me. Then the store maybe picks you up for one season and drops you soon after.”
Lewis is not alone in expressing his discontent in keeping up with retailers’ demands.
The London-based jeweler Sabine Getty shifted her business to a direct-to-consumer model at the same time as Lewis and also centralized her sales in her Berkeley Square showroom.
Although she’s selling high-end jewelry, rather than clothing, she believes small brands often have more to lose by wholesaling their collections.
“I think there’s a big disappointment all round, because small brands like me invested a lot into wholesale in the beginning, putting a lot of our own stock into stores. I started by having more than 18 stockists, but most of it was consignment, which results in the jeweler being financially squeezed and cut out from the customer,” said Getty.
News of the closure of Lewis’ business comes only days after Sibling revealed that it is winding down operations.
The brand’s cofounder Cozette McCreery said that a number of canceled projects, increased business costs and the volatile economic situation that was making buyers more wary of placing orders led Sibling to the decision to shutter.
Other designers have had to rethink their company structures in order to ensure they can remain in business. Men’s wear designer Lou Dalton decided to swap the catwalk for more intimate and less costly presentations.
She has also scaled back her seasonal ranges to focus on brand signatures and moved production to local John Smedley factories in order to avoid increased costs, following the drop of the pound.
“The situation we are in because of Brexit is disgusting but I realized that I don’t want to walk away from this, it’s all I know, so I had to make a number of quick decisions. Leaving the catwalk was probably the best thing I could have done,” said Dalton.
A number of retail sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said designers often don’t receive the support they ask for from the BFC — or other organizations — because “it’s simply not physically possible” due to the sheer number of designers.
The ones who get the support, retailers said, are those who are very clear about the areas they need help in. “You need to be quite put together as a company, check your expenses and plan in advance. A lot of young designers don’t understand that, and this is where the lack of support comes in,” said one showroom representative.
Other factors that retailers highlighted as impacting young labels’ success are their product offer, which can be innovative but niche; price points that are too steep; and a willingness to accept unfavorable sell-through guarantee terms from retailers without having the infrastructure to accommodate it.
Lewis also pointed to the letdown that can often come after successfully presenting during fashion week.
“It’s a really exciting thing to do for a young brand,” said Lewis of showing on the official schedule. “But I found that other than me being listed on the fashion schedule and thereby getting a lot of ticket requests, it didn’t actually get me the support that I was promised by the BFC,” or British Fashion Council.
Lewis contended that he found the BFC support “one-dimensional and not an even playing field at all.”
The designer said the majority of buyers are not interested in attending a designer’s London presentation, and the focus remains on showroom appointments held in Paris.
“No one from the buyers’ outreach team at the BFC attended either of my presentations or brought buyers to the show, which is complete nonsense especially when they put so much effort and time and money into encouraging sales in the U.K.,” said Lewis.
“The BFC are always asking how many sales we got in the U.K. or if we showed in the U.K., even though they know everything takes place in Paris.”
The BFC responded by highlighting the activities of its Designer Business Support initiative, which includes training and mentoring workshops and seminars covering topics including financial management, manufacturing and investment.
“The BFC has a structured Growth Path which is tailored to different stages of designer businesses. Designers should focus on establishing business processes, from a very early stage, and seek business that can guide them through the journey,” a spokeswoman said. “With regards to support on buyers and media, all the designers on the schedule receive the accreditation list of the buyers and press attending the shows, and can also attend seminars which take place each season.”
Lewis also pointed to a series of macro issues that have emerged, from the saturation of labels and product in the market to fashion’s love-hate relationship with Instagram. He noted some personal issues, too, such as prejudicial attitudes about designers. He recalls an editor once quizzing him about why he chose to locate his studio in Knightsbridge instead of East London, where many of the young brands have traditionally been located.
(Knightsbridge is a typically wealthy neighborhood while East London has, until recently, been far less affluent. The great irony now is that London’s designers are rapidly being priced out of East London as rents soar and neighborhoods become gentrified. Many young labels are being forced to push farther east or southeast, toward Greenwich).
Lewis flagged other challenges. He believes that as consumers become more and more “obsessed” with their Instagram personas, their attention has completely shifted to hot, of-the-moment pieces by luxury giants rather than new labels.
“People who maybe used to buy into young brands don’t really care about that anymore because what they want to wear is Gucci and Valentino, which means that small brands have less opportunity. It’s not just support from industry [that is important], but support from customers, and one of the main reasons for the change has been Instagram. I think it’s one of those weird things — it’s both the love child of the fashion industry, but also its complete downfall,” Lewis added.
He started his business in 2013 only showing pre-collections in an effort to buck what he saw as a flawed fashion system.
“People shop for situations and not seasons. You can be in a polar vortex one day, and on Ipanema Beach the next. The world is flat,” he told WWD at the time, adding that 80 percent of buyers’ spending was dedicated to pre-collections.
Lewis, a graduate of Harrow and the University of Southern California, had solid and varied industry experience before launching his own brand. He trained as a pattern cutter at Norton & Sons on Savile Row, and later worked for its sister company, the men’s ready-to-wear label E. Tautz on both the creative and business sides. He also worked in retail, for Cameron Silver at Decades and later at Harrods in personal shopping.
His collections, which stood out for their playful intarsia knitwear, romantic embroideries and sharp tailoring, were often favored by Lady Gaga, and were quickly picked up by retailers such as Avenue 32, Barneys New York and Club 21.
When he launched main, seasonal collections, he did so by collaborating with a series of artists. His spring 2016 collection created in partnership with the Lebanese artist Flavie Audi was one of his strongest, where the designer recreated Audi’s glass sculptures using iridescent fabrics and Swarovski crystal embroideries.
Lewis’ collections were mostly made in England, which meant that, unlike other designers, his sourcing costs were not affected by the dramatic drop in the pound following the European Union referendum last summer.
As for his future plans, Lewis said he’s still trying to identify the right path. “I think I just want to find a space where the creative and business sides of fashion interact with new technology. I just don’t know what it is yet. Other times, I think I might consider doing costume design, or go more towards art.”