ONCE AGAIN, LONDON SWINGS

Byline: J.F.

LONDON — London is booming, and its designers haven’t been this hot for more than a decade. Now the British Fashion Council wants to capitalize on it.
The British runway shows and accompanying exhibition, both overseen by the BFC, are again establishing themselves as must-stops on the fashion calendar. The spring-summer shows in late September hadn’t drawn as many overseas buyers since the last heyday of British fashion in the early to mid-Eighties. Designers say they are getting increasing orders from such American department stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Barneys.
The excitement is primarily over a crop of young designers headed by Alexander McQueen, the new designer at Givenchy. Other standouts are the design duo of Suzanne Clements and Inacio Ribeiro, whose striped cashmere sweaters have influenced knit-wear designers worldwide; Hussein Chalayan, and Antonio Berardi.
There are a slew of other designers coming up who don’t show on the runway at the Natural History Museum, but at the London Designers Exhibition in the tents next door, or book private appointments. Joelynian, Antoni & Alison, Elspeth Gibson, Press & Bastyan and Martin Kidman created buzzes at the exhibition, while newcomers Stella McCartney, Matthew Williamson and Julian McDonald had buyers trekking to see them in their showrooms.
But all the excitement has yet to translate into the kind of major business done in Milan or Paris. Most British designers are tiny compared with their counterparts in continental Europe.
John Wilson, chief executive of the BFC, said the goal now is to get more overseas buyers who will actually buy.
“We’ve got the gloss and the atmosphere and everybody loves coming to London,” Wilson said, “but now we need the business.”
The council is working on that. Wilson admitted it is constrained financially from huge marketing and promotion efforts in the U.S. and the Far East. However, the BFC is negotiating the renewal of Vidal Sassoon’s sponsorship contract and hopes it can get more money for such programs, Wilson said.
“We’d love to have a person in the U.S. who could visit key buyers and boutiques and show them what we are doing. That’s a tall order at the moment because of the budget we have. But we are conscious we need to do more to really sell it.”
London seems to have found a place on the calendar as the kickoff for the European runway shows, and next season it again will go first, holding its shows Feb. 24-28. It will be followed by Milan and Paris.
Wilson said London probably would retain that position for the foreseeable future.
“Last season, London Fashion Week was very successful,” he said. “Thirty-five designers held runway shows alongside 120 designers exhibiting in the London Designers Exhibition. The British Fashion Council continues to promote London Fashion Week as the platform for our most talented designers to show their collections at an event that attracts the world’s most influential press and buyers.”
In a further sign that London is strong again, another British designer who defected to show in Paris will return next spring. Vivienne Westwood will show her Red Label collection in London beginning next season, and will continue to show her main line in Paris. Westwood joins John Rocha and Katharine Hamnett, who also are returning to London after showing in Milan or Paris.
Wilson said more British designers who show overseas are expressing interest in returning. At most, 40 designers are expected to show on the runway in February, and the exhibition cannot grow much beyond the existing 120 companies because of space constraints in the tents.
Wilson said the BFC is negotiating for more space nearby, but probably won’t need it until the fall shows. He said he was optimistic that the exhibition could grow.
“We have to build on what we have done so far,” Wilson said. “There is an excitement about London now, and all the press coverage is wonderful. But that doesn’t pay the bills, and we need the business at the end of the day.”

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