LONDON — London may be known for its top design schools and avant-garde flair, but some of its fastest-growing businesses have nothing to do with traditional training or even cutting-edge design. Founded and run by creative or financial types with no B.A. or M.A. from Central Saint Martins or another school, a new wave of brands is bringing a healthy dose of commercial appeal to the city’s fashion scene.
The brands range from the modern eveningwear label Galvan to the contemporary handbag company Tara Zadeh and print aficionados Borgo De Nor. Their founders are socialites, fashion editors, fine art experts, models, financial whizzes, creative directors and high-spending customers who are bringing a wealth of marketing, sales, styling and social media know-how to the table.
These more commercial brands — with no trained designers at the helm — have been cropping up to fill specific niches in the market instead of approaching the process as a form of creative expression. Their founders’ respective backgrounds and expertise have enabled them to hit a sweet spot, offering the right product at the right price point and attracting highly engaged audiences and major retail partners.
They’ve also been able to attract interest from investors who are looking for steady, high-growth businesses that fill market niches and respond to trends — rather than set them.
One of the biggest testaments to the potential success of an out-of-left-field designer is Virgil Abloh, who trained as an engineer and an architect and first rose to prominence as a DJ. His recognizable graphics, flair for irony and open-minded attitude toward collaboration has seen Off-White become one of the most sought-after labels and led to his rise as creative director of Louis Vuitton men’s.
More and more are following his lead and some of them have even begun to market themselves during London Fashion Week, which kicks off Friday and runs until Sept. 18.
There’s the multi-hyphenate Alexa Chung, who has been growing her label over the last two years and will be making her LFW debut on Saturday; Rixo London, which has an immersive presentation in the works, and Tara Zadeh who will showcase her popular bag collections at the British Fashion Council’s new accessories showroom, created in partnership with influencers Anna Vitiello and Florrie Thomas of And-Finally.com.
Victoria Beckham, another major name who took an alternative route to building a fashion brand, will be celebrating her 10th anniversary this season with a show on Sept. 16.
Although it’s not showing at LFW, Samantha Cameron’s contemporary clothing label Cefinn has just raised 2.5 million pounds in a third round of late-seed funding. The round was “quickly and heavily” oversubscribed, leading to a larger investment than initially planned, according to Cefinn. Venrex, the brand’s original investor, and Chinese investor Wendy Yu, of Yu Holdings, were among the backers.
These new brands have quickly begun to shift perceptions about the fashion business and what it takes to build a successful label in a city where “commercial” has historically been a dirty word, and where fashion businesses often struggle from cash-flow issues, lack of investment and the inability to get past the 10 million pound annual turnover mark. London has always been renowned for the avant garde, which has often overshadowed such successful — and less edgy — brands as Paul Smith, Margaret Howell, Jenny Packham, Bruce Oldfield or Amanda Wakeley.
“There absolutely is a gap in the market for nicely designed, quality product at the right price. These brands are all coming in and covering this gap in different ways. They have the right price point with a young, fun product the consumer can easily relate to,” Maria Kastani, a fashion entrepreneur and showroom owner, said of the new wave of nontraditional designers in London. “If someone loves beauty and they are very stylish and have ideas, they don’t have to be able to sketch with pen and paper. They can be the artistic director and then have a team to translate their ideas and aesthetics into reality.”
Kastani added that traditionally trained designers can sometimes be at a disadvantage when it comes to running a business. “The direction given to students in design schools is to be totally creative, they don’t want to see anything commercial. They come out with amazing ideas, but they’re lost, they can’t translate them unless they have financial support and people behind them with a commercial and financial acumen to help them marry their art with reality. These new brands have the support behind them, apart from good product they have the right marketing and commercial strategies and they have the media’s support, too — some of them have huge followings.”
The founders of these businesses are thinking more like customers, and setting out to serve their peers with a product they themselves have been looking for. They’ve also pioneered the building of engaged communities and interactive shopping experiences along the way.
“When we started the brand, some of us had never worked in fashion, yet all of us were customers,” said Katherine Holmgren, commercial director of Galvan, a design quartet made up of Holmgren, who previously held positions at the Serpentine Galleries and London’s Frieze Art Fair; Carolyn Hodler, a Christie’s alumnus; Sola Harrison, a former model; and Anna-Christin Haas, who used to be the design director of Jasmine di Milo.
“Approaching fashion from that perspective is incredibly helpful when it comes to pricing, marketing and even merchandising. Each of these subjects takes on a very personal meaning,” she said.
The four friends joined their combined skills in sales, finance, marketing, as well as fashion design, to create a business that fulfilled their personal needs for modern pieces that were suitable for all the social occasions and black-tie events in their calendar — and did not cost 5,000 pounds.
Their collection features elegant satin slip dresses, sequinned column gowns and monochrome jumpsuits that appeal to a younger generation of shoppers. Retailers like Moda Operandi, Net-a-porter, Browns and Bergdorf Goodman were quick to jump on board Galvan’s vision of modern dressing and the label has since grown its offer to include bridal, custom pieces and separates.
It recently opened the doors to its own retail space in Notting Hill, while a collection of evening bags is in the works.
The marriage of different skill-sets, industry knowledge and a targeted vision also accounts for Borgo de Nor’s rapid success.
Led by Carmen Borgonovo, a former W Magazine and British Harper’s Bazaar editor and stylist, and the sales consultant Joana de Noronha, the label has amassed a cult following that includes Naomi Campbell. It’s known for its printed dresses that feature one-of-a-kind, Surrealist-inspired prints.
“Having both sales and editorial backgrounds, we both understand the need to create something commercially successful while offering something that is editorial viable,” said Borgonovo.
“Our sales and commercial knowledge were instrumental in defining the brand’s ideal positioning and distribution strategy and enabled us to get to where we are quicker. We believe in quality over quantity and we were keen to partner with the right stores in each market to ensure the brand’s longevity,” she added.
Borgonovo, who creates all of the brand’s new prints through copious art research, added that she had a very specific vision of the company’s aesthetic from the get-go, and surrounded herself with the right design and pattern-cutting teams to bring that vision to life.
The result is a brand with a clear message and direction that has been continuously evolving. Just over a year since it launched, Borgo de Nor has built a strong retail network, ranging from Tsum in Moscow to Selfridges in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and has expanded its offer to separates, a collection of knitwear created with London-based brand Edamame. A jewelry line is in the works — tapping into Borgonovo’s experience as the editor of the former title W Jewelry.
Rixo London is another label that has made a name for itself for its vibrant offer of printed pieces. It also puts a strong focus on accessible price points and a vintage aesthetic and has generated a strong following in the U.K. both on social media and at retail.
Founded by Orlagh McCloskey and Henrietta Rix, who had a background in buying at Asos, the label was the answer to the designers’ ongoing search for good quality at accessible price points and vintage-inspired prints.
Despite not having a formal design background, McCloskey taught herself how to use Photoshop and create custom prints. Their makeshift approach quickly paid off, with their dresses becoming a staple in many Londoners’ wardrobes and featuring in dedicated shop-in-shops at retailers including Liberty London and Harrods. Shoppers packed the brand’s summer pop-up shop on Carnaby Street.
“We wanted to bring something that was completely different to the market and we thought was missing,” said McCloskey. “There wasn’t really a set way of designing for us, we just found a way to make it work, which makes for an authentic connection with your customers. Nothing is ever too polished.”
Now the label is getting ready to host its first London Fashion Week presentation, which will be held on the last day in Covent Garden’s buzzy Floral Street, in a bid to raise a more international profile.
The show, which will involve a see-now-buy-now element, will also debut the brand’s new accessories collections and a Net-a-porter exclusive capsule. It will then be transformed into a pop-up, inviting customers to experience the show space and an array of in-store events.
Listening to the consumer and building a community around the brand are some other recurring themes in the strategies of these disruptors.
Kitri, the London-based online company that specializes in trend-led, ready-to-wear at contemporary price points, is another such label that can trace its success back to the brand’s direct-to-consumer approach and community-building skills.
“I approached Kitri with experience in marketing, sales and production but most importantly from the perspective of a customer,” said Kim, who launched the brand with a digital-first approach and went on to add new categories and introduce physical pop-ups based on customer feedback.
“My starting point with our collection is always from what my peers and I would like to buy and at which price point.”
Kim said that by listening to its customers, “we understood that she is shopping everywhere, she really enjoys the experience of trying on clothes in a physical space, too, and that’s part of the reason why we have pop-up shops.”
Kim has opened her brand’s second pop-up on Soho’s Brewer Street, just in time for London Fashion Week.
It’s a colorful and highly Instagrammable space, featuring the brand’s fall 2018 color palette in the form of blue leopard-print curtains, emerald green flooring and lilac cushions. “You have to build a community around the space, so we’ve designed it with events in mind,” added Kim, pointing to the wheeled furniture dotted around the space and to a full schedule of events, including wellness talks, Halloween and Christmas parties and late-night shopping events.
Given customer feedback, the brand also became available in the U.S. earlier this year and introduced a broader knitwear range, as well as outerwear.
In the accessories world, Tara Ghazanfar, former graphic designer and founder of the handbag label Tara Zadeh, has had a similar trajectory.
She created her first collection by drawing on geometric shapes that link to her graphic design background and priced them according to what she and her peers could afford. Her background as an art director also enabled her to create compelling brand visuals across her Web site and social platforms and quickly engage a community of like-minded women, who went on to become loyal customers. She went on to partner with the likes of Browns, Net-a-porter and Moda Operandi.
“My graphic design background has helped me tremendously. I was able to create my own logo and overall visual identity as well as design my Web site, which reduced my spending massively,” said Ghazanfar. “As a previous art director, I’m also very particular about imagery and my social media presence, which have been key elements to the success of my brand. Being the face of my own brand, and attaching a personality behind it, definitely helps.”
Despite the advantages of bringing in a renewed perspective to brand building, there are also the technical difficulties of having to work with a factory to bring designs to life. These creatives are confronting the issue by surrounding themselves with the right people. “My formal design skills are improving, but I know this will always be my weakest trait. In the end, I can always grow my team and hire the right people to help,” said Ghazanfar.
Alexa Chung echoed her thoughts: “In the modern world, people are more open-minded about how things come to be, and so formal training isn’t necessarily a requirement. That said, obviously it would be impossible for a company to create anything without experts on board, so I confronted my lack of education head-on and made sure I employed experts in the field to help support the creative process.”
Chung has brought together the different experiences she gathered while working in the industry to create her brand. “I have the advantage of a 360-view of the industry. I started as a model so I know the importance of communicating with [other models] to create the best images; I have collaborated with brands and gained insights into how marketing strategies work, and having been fortunate enough to have been dressed by some fantastic designers, I know how fabric and cut really help to create quality.”
Chung admitted that the profile she accrued helped create a successful launch but, ultimately, it all comes down to the product. Her brand’s LFW debut will be a testament to her ability to hold her audience’s attention and build a viable business.
“This upcoming collection sees us progress and evolve in a confident way. It’s an opportunity to be seen by the most important editors and buyers in the context of fashion, which in my eyes is always one of the most dynamic,” she said.