LONDON — London has always bustled with creativity but its most prominent talents have often quit the city for glitzier roles in Paris or elsewhere soon after making their debuts.
The most recent crop of designers is flipping the script, staying put and growing businesses on their home turf, giving London Fashion Week new relevance — and the commercial zing it has long lacked.
The spring 2020 calendar for LFW, which kicks off today and runs through Sept. 18, lays bare the shift in dynamics: Established — and growing — businesses dominate the calendar, while there are fewer new, fresh-out-of-college names.
Many brands are celebrating 10-year anniversaries, diversifying their product ranges and price points and striking a balance between the creative and the commercial. They’re juggling multiple income streams, too, including direct-to-consumer, wholesale and retail.
Fashion week itself is getting more commercial, opening up to the public for the first time and selling tickets to runway events and presentations from brands including Alexa Chung, Henry Holland and Self-Portrait during the five-day showcase.
The British Fashion Council is also trying to get the city involved in the week and has created a schedule of public events at shops and spaces around the King’s Road, Mount Street and Regent Street, including talks and installations by the BFC’s NewGen designers.
“This notion that London was a creative, not a commercial, hub is fairly outdated. This hasn’t been the case for several years and it’s been a long time since we questioned London’s authority alongside New York, Milan and Paris,” said Lisa Aiken, fashion director at Moda Operandi.
Longtime London regulars such as JW Anderson, Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane and David Koma have been contributing to the strength of the week.
Rocha, best known for her dreamy floral-embroidered, puff-sleeve dresses, has been building an accessories business with her pearl earrings and hair clips; Kane has transferred his tongue-in-cheek “More Joy” or “More Sex” slogans from runway pieces to T-shirts, sweatshirts and even beach towels that went viral on Instagram over the summer months, while Jonathan Anderson, who’s designed a string of hit handbags, is readying his first store opening in Soho.
“JW Anderson’s last fall 2019 show was a really redefining moment where we saw the designer take a more grown up stance, addressing a more elevated customer. He is also no stranger to an ‘It’ bag, which has allowed him to claim a stake in the non-apparel business,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-porter’s global buying director.
Anderson is one of the few designers who has remained committed to showing in London despite his partnership with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and his role as creative director of the LVMH-owned Loewe.
While Mary Katrantzou might be taking a break from LFW this season to mark her 10-year anniversary with a show at the Temple of Poseidon in Athens on Oct. 3, she has been another pillar of the London schedule. Like her peers, she is working on diversifying her business with new categories such as holiday wear, and a broader sizing offer.
Ditto for David Koma, the former artistic director of the French house Mugler, whose business also turns 10 this season. Koma has been one of the quieter forces on London’s fashion scene, staying focused on his niche of sexy, feminine evening dresses and building a strong retail network that includes the likes of Net-a-porter, Selfridges and Mytheresa.com.
Retailers all report high sell-throughs, and have built long-term partnerships with the designer. They tout his attention to quality and fit and argue that he services a luxury, socialite client who wants to stand out.
In a bid to own this eveningwear space, Koma has been dialing up the glamour with even bolder collections and experimenting with denim and tailoring, too.
“The last three years in particular have been great for us because we have not only established a strong identity but also managed to connect and engage with the end customer. We really understand each other and season after season sales are growing: We’ve had a minimum of 25 percent growth every season,” said Koma, who is taking his show to the street to mark his 10 years and presenting a collection that is true to the brand’s signature, with a heftier dose of daywear, all executed with his “sharp, mathematical” focus on fit and cut.
Koma added that for the brand’s next chapter he is toying with the idea of brick-and-mortar retail and adding new categories to the mix, with swimwear first in line: “In the next year we are going to explore, enjoy and experiment with different ideas, including a series of events in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, London and Tbilisi,” he said.
Even younger names that landed at fashion week two to three years ago are building solid businesses, unlike their counterparts from past generations.
“Commercial opportunities and funding are key elements involved in growing and sustaining a business. This is more widely taught within the industry at an earlier stage in a designer’s career,” said Net’s von der Goltz, pointing to the success of up-and-comers such as Michael Halpern, whose sequined creations were a hit from the get-go.
“Halpern really redefined eveningwear when he launched. His creativity and point of view is incredibly strong but similarly these pieces are wearable, so they really resonated with our [top-tier] customers, offering them a different take on eveningwear.”
Matchesfashion.com, a longtime champion of young talent with a dedicated Innovators program, sees Molly Goddard as another standout. The retailer said Goddard can flex her creative muscles beyond her fantastical tulle dresses to create more relatable items.
“Something very special about Molly Goddard is her ability to commercialize her vision — and what you see on the runway — into easy, wearable pieces that women of all ages will love and feel comfortable in. She embodies the brand and imagines how she would wear her collections, which is what makes it successful. It was exciting to also see her move into knitwear and tailoring for fall,” said Matchesfashion buying director Natalie Kingham.
“I appreciate the way these younger, less established players, like Molly Goddard or Halpern, are building their businesses,” Aiken said. “Those brands are slowly but steadily developing a distribution network that is very in line with their vision. As a retailer, I respect that they are selective in opening up new distribution and focusing on building longevity over a quick win. It’s a smart way to go, especially in the current climate when things can go boom and bust quite quickly.”
She also sees London as a growing hub for contemporary labels, including retail favorites like A.W.A.K.E. Mode and Rejina Pyo. “One of our biggest successes in recent seasons has been A.W.A.K.E. The brand has been doing phenomenally well, because there is an ease to the clothes, yet they are still statement,” Aiken said.
Caroline Rush, the BFC’s chief executive officer, argues that a series of design support schemes have been crucial in making designers’ careers. She also said younger generations of designers are helping themselves, too, with a new approach to business that puts sustainability at the core and ensures that they are fit for the future.
“We built our support schemes to go from NewGen, through the Fashion Trust, through the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund and most of the brands that have longer-term success have come through at least one — if not several — of those programs,” Rush said.
“A lot of these businesses were just starting out 10 years ago and have achieved great success since then, not only reflected in the size of their businesses but also in the way they show and growing their retail footprint. You just have to look at Mount Street, where everyone from Roksanda, Erdem, Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane and Nicholas Kirkwood have stores,” Rush said.
As these London businesses grow, international buyers have also begun to return to the shows.
“There’s now an opportunity to buy more in-depth across these businesses,” Rush said. “We’ve got around 620 international retailers coming into London from over 20 countries. Core markets include the likes of the U.S. and Canada, as well as China, but interestingly over the last few seasons we have seen more interest from Eastern European countries, with a lot of the Russian retailers coming back to London Fashion Week, too.”
The sticking points remain and one of them is visibility on social media. London designers are having to compete with household names such as Gucci, Versace and Dior, whose budgets are bigger and who put on splashier, celebrity-studded shows.
Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer at Launchmetrics, which measures and quantifies brands’ and designers’ online impact, said her data shows that fashion weeks today are less of a B2B event and more a marketing platform to connect with the consumer. “So brands with larger budgets can create more buzz. Although London has extremely talented and creative young designers with a global industry influence, in reality it’s hard for them to compete with the bigger names internationally,” Bringe said.
This is why the continued presence of heavyweights such as Victoria Beckham and Burberry plays a big role in creating headline moments during London and anchoring the showcase.
According to Launchmetrics, last season Victoria Beckham and Burberry generated a total of $16 million and $8 million, respectively, in Media Impact Value, with post-show pictures of Beckham and her family being among the most successful content during LFW.
Rush said the support of the publicly quoted Burberry, the biggest British fashion brand, demonstrates the commercial power of British fashion and has reflected well on London’s other brands. “Having Victoria here adds to that,” said Rush, who has been looking to boost London’s visibility and social currency with a series of public-facing events simultaneous with fashion week.
“As more of the businesses that we work with go direct-to-consumer, we’ve been thinking, ‘What’s the role of fashion week for those businesses?’ It’s also an opportunity for us to talk to consumers not just about the show they’ve been to, but more broadly about what British fashion stands for. It helps us to build a better understanding of what a fashion week experience is, and what happens behind-the-scenes in the industry,” said Rush.
Bringé of Launchmetrics believes that opening to the public is a good idea. “It makes sense to leverage such key moments as another strategic marketing channel, so that brands can generate more impact on their investments. Henry Holland, for instance, has always had a big fan club and taking his show public is simply another way for him to connect directly with the consumer and to create buzz with those who have an impact on the bottom line,” she said.