LONDON — Meteoric success stories have always abounded in London.
It usually starts with a young designer, fresh out of Central Saint Martins, christened a genius by the media and members of the industry. Said “genius” rises to fame in a hot minute with early-stage financial support, glossy features, celebrity requests and retail interest flooding in.
More often than not, the star fades, the media moves on, the designer doesn’t have the logistical capabilities to keep up with production demands, cash flow becomes a problem and the business folds. Plus, there’s another hot young thing to be hyped.
It has been the arc of British fashion for decades — boom, then bust. But not all success stories have ended with a flameout — or a big creative director’s job at Kering or LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Indeed, there are designers in London who have persisted both on the business and creative ends, and chosen to pursue gradual growth, even if they’re not at the center of the industry buzz.
As London Fashion Week begins today — amid immense political and economic uncertainty over Brexit — this season is, in a way, about just getting on with it and surviving in that typically British stiff-upper-lipped way. A slew of designer anniversaries are taking place this year — from Zandra Rhodes’ 50th to Hussein Chalayan’s 25th — proving that British designers can make it on their own terms even in the face of competition from brands with megabudgets.
David Koma and Osman — who are both marking their 10th anniversaries — and Peter Pilotto are three other labels that prove slow and steady can win the race.
All three brands have committed to their respective visions and a focused product offer: Koma has built a name for his body-hugging dresses and daring use of embellishment, while Osman’s standout trousers, draping and lavish fabrics have customers asking for more.
Peter Pilotto’s flair for cocktail dresses, done in a mix of color, pattern and crafty fabrics, has been resonating with women in the art world and won it the prize commission of designing Princess Eugenie’s wedding dress last year, even though it doesn’t do bridal.
Rarely do these designers go off-track, and while that might mean that their appeal remains niche and success is slow going, their targeted approach and commitment to more gradual growth have led them to reach a point where they can take their businesses to the next level with confidence.
“I’m very proud that we have a 10-year anniversary coming next year and we can go into that with a profitable and growing business,” said Koma, whose aim from the get-go was to create a stable business with a strong identity and an eventual legacy.
Koma’s brand has always been dress-oriented and focused on offering evening pieces that are expertly cut, sexy and flattering to a woman’s body, which has made him a go-to designer for event dressing.
“I’ve always admired the idea of a strong female figure, both physically and mentally. I’m always inspired by the idea of a healthy lifestyle, athletic bodies, good skin and posture, anything that can make women glow and feel happy,” said Koma, adding that he wanted to stay true to the idea of this woman from Day One, without being influenced by the different directions fashion was taking over the years.
“In a bigger-scale business you can launch all these categories or take a slightly different direction with trends. But I feel that in today’s world, where there are so many different brands, so many start-ups, direct-to-consumer brands, new product pushed through social media and the high street going from strength to strength, identity and a strong point of view are a key to success — unless you want a quick up-and-down journey. But I was never interested in that,” added the designer, who was born in the country of Georgia and spent time in St. Petersburg, Russia, training in classical drawing before moving to London.
Koma’s business is wholesale-based, with U.S. boutiques and department stores being the biggest partners. The U.K. is the second-largest market. The brand’s dresses have high-sellthroughs at Selfridges, and Net-a-porter is set to launch the brand for spring 2019.
“There have been a lot of new clients coming and going, but for the business it’s important to be able to stay with your key clients and grow with them. For the last three years in a row, we have successfully kept and evolved our accounts season-after-season,” said Koma, adding that balancing product with price point has been key.
“David is the master of making women look and feel fantastic, knowing how to create pieces that make a statement in a subtle fashion; truly a unique skill,” said Luke Mountain, women’s wear buying manager at Selfridges, adding that the retailer has built on its successful partnership with the brand by giving Koma a residency in its designer atrium space.
Staying committed to a luxury offering and consistent pricing has worked for Koma, whose dresses range between 850 and 1,500 pounds.
“I have had different opportunities where I could drop the price point and gone bigger, but I didn’t feel it was right for me. Luxury is something that I’m good at and I want to do more and do it even better. I’m not saying no to different price points for different product categories within the business development plan, but I don’t want to offer similar products for less,” said Koma.
“I never wanted to rush it, because it’s my own baby, my name is on it and I would never want to do anything to compromise that.”
Koma also describes his commitment to a slower, less aggressive growth for his own label as a strategic decision: It gave him time to work on behind-the-scenes consultancies, to take on the creative direction of Mugler for four years and, more recently, to spearhead a Los Angeles-based, direct-to-consumer project that’s set to launch later this year.
As his 10-year anniversary approaches, Koma feels he is now in the right position to take the brand to the next level, having built a solid identity and taken on the right partner. The brand’s launches on big e-commerce platforms such as Farfetch and Net-a-porter are key first steps, and more retail growth as well as new categories that still fit in the brand’s identity are set to follow.
Osman Yousefzada has also been shifting his strategy and repositioning his label so that it’s poised for growth — but on his terms.
He has been more focused on direct-to-consumer sales with the opening of his Covent Garden pop-up and Bloomsbury townhouse, the latter of which houses his studio and store and doubles as a cultural space for talks, art shows or book sales.
As a result, he has become picky with the stores he takes on, looking for true partners rather than mere wholesale accounts.
“We have a direct-to-consumer strategy and then look for partners we can work with in a very bespoke way, like Matchesfashion.com, where we support them by working on special capsules. When you start having your own conversation, you can be more selective with the stores you want to be in and move away from any ones that don’t want to give you good enough space,” he said.
Yousefzada has also taken a step away from the catwalk to focus on more intimate presentations, often modeled by a diverse cast of painters, artists, curators and friends of the brand, in order to “create an environment that is an extension to the clothes.”
The designer has come to define a path that works for him, following a 10-year journey in business where he has slowly been building his audience and staying focused on his design process rather than being an industry darling.
“It’s about product at the end of the day, and if the product actually speaks to a certain niche in the market, you’ll get a customer that returns again and again. You need to create the right product, find your customer and then think of all the razzmatazz you can waste money on,” said Yousefzada.
“There are many parts to a fashion business: The glamour, the hard work, the sourcing, the production and it depends to what degree you want to do everything. I focus on the garments essentially, so that when customers put it on it makes them feel like a better version of themselves. You need a dose of everything but if you just focus on the high life too much, then you can only last so long.”
Yousefzada added that he found a niche in blending his tailoring background with his own magpie, multicultural aesthetic, and customers — particularly in markets such as the U.S., China and the Middle East — have been constantly drawn to his expertly cut suits and flair for a standout, jazzy pair of trousers.
“Osman’s sequin jumpsuits were a hit with our clients and they love his unexpected take on evening wear. He attracts both the client that wants to stand out and the client that is looking for the perfect suit. That’s a very rare mix to achieve,” said Marina Larroude, fashion director at Barneys New York
Even after receiving an investment in 2017 from the private equity firm Luxcite and becoming more confident in structuring his business on his terms, the designer said he wants to stay focused on his niche and ensure the customers that have fallen for his aesthetic and flattering fits keep coming back for more.
“We’ve taken a small investment. It’s not a big investment from any of the groups, so we won’t look to open shops around the world and do everything at once. We want to provide more structure in terms of operations — it’s a really focused way of doing business,” added the designer.
Peter Pilotto has taken a similarly targeted approach. They moved away from the digital-print craze that defined the brand during its earlier stages and carved a niche of their own by experimenting with color, handcrafted techniques and embellishment.
Their arty approach has naturally appealed to a group of curators, collectors and artists who wear the brand’s clothes on a continual basis and often collect them in the same way they collect art.
“The target is to offer wearable clothes, but there’s also an artistic approach that goes into the collection and we have a natural synergy with our artist friends. We are surrounded by people in the art and design worlds, particularly female collectors who wear our pieces, so there’s an ongoing dialogue between these two worlds,” said Peter Pilotto, who designs the label with cofounder Christopher de Vos.
The design duo has been happy operating within the confines of this colorful, artistic world and staying focused on “understanding these women’s needs and reality as much as possible.” That’s why they expanded their aesthetic into interiors as well, catering to their audience’s overall love of design and creativity.
The brand became known to a bigger audience last year after Beyoncé appeared in her “Apes–t” music video wearing a lilac suit by the label and Princess Eugenie donned an elegant Peter Pilotto white brocade dress for her wedding last fall.
While that type of exposure definitely brought in “a lot of excitement and new possibilities for people to see what the brand does,” Pilotto said the plan is to remain focused on exploring its ready-to-wear options further and showing in intimate settings that stay true to their arty — and very dedicated — community.