LONDON — It’s been more than a decade since Markus Lupfer, the German-born, London-educated designer, staged a runway show during London Fashion Week. Since he dropped off the calendar, his once-fledgling business has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, and Beyoncé, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry have all been snapped wearing the clothes.
Lupfer has since returned to London Fashion Week, which begins today and runs through Tuesday, but he does presentations instead of runway shows. British fashion industry executives routinely hold him up as a shining example of the magic that can happen when designers move into the contemporary or advanced contemporary marketplace.
“With the right execution, structure and geographical mix, the ability to reach 20 million to 30 million pounds [$30 million to $50 million at current exchange] in sales is just around the corner,” said Stefano Martinetto, chief executive officer of the international sales and showroom Tomorrow, which represents names including Lupfer, Richard Nicoll, Derek Lam, Marni, Kara Ross, Jonathan Saunders and Andrea Pompilio. “London’s designers could be selling to hundreds of thousands of people, and I would hate to see them waste the opportunity.”
Martinetto believes there is ample room for designers here to bring their European aesthetic to a market where brands like Alexander Wang, Tory Burch and Rag & Bone are flourishing.
Lupfer, whose business was turning over 300,000 pounds, or $490,000 — at most — a decade ago, said his eureka moment came after a conversation with a buyer at Henri Bendel who had asked him to create some designs for the store’s Atrium.
“Something changed in me,” said Lupfer. “I wanted the focus to shift from the show to the shop floor, to find out what the end customer wanted, and to service them. I wanted to be an affordable, contemporary brand.” Instead of pouring money and time into staging fashion shows, he spent it on boxing his deliveries properly, beefing up his service and re-order facilities, and responding to stores’ requests more quickly.
Despite Lupfer’s success — stockists include Lane Crawford, Net-a-porter.com, Harrods, Selfridges, and luisaviaroma.com — few London names have chosen to follow his lead, until now. As this city’s younger generation of designers matures and grapples with the inevitable financial demands of building businesses, some are taking the leap into the advanced contemporary market, which has traditionally been dominated by American labels.
That fact comes as no surprise to designer Thomas Tait. “I think there’s a certain idea that when you start a fashion label in America, you [do it] because you want to have a business. In London, you start a fashion label because you are a designer. We’ve gone to art schools that teach painting just as they teach fashion design. You have to figure out the rest as you go along the way,” he said.
If London’s designers do take up the contemporary challenge en masse, it will mark a turning point in a city best known for creative juice, edgy fashion and price points that compete with those of the big international brands. The wheels are already in motion: The J.W. Anderson and House of Holland labels are fast consolidating their presence in the advanced contemporary market, while names such as Richard Nicoll, Todd Lynn and Christopher Raeburn are eyeing the category with interest.
Net-a-porter founder and British Fashion Council chairman Natalie Massenet has been a fervent supporter of designers moving into the contemporary arena, and in July, the BFC and eBay launched BFC Contemporary, which is aimed at supporting the relevant designers with mentoring and commercial opportunities.
Limited-edition items designed by this year’s winners — Alexis Barrell, Georgia Hardinge, Paper London, Prism and Zoe Jordan — will be sold in the first BFC Contemporary shop on eBay.co.uk to mark the launch of London Fashion Week. “These designers mark a new wave in British contemporary design, the rise of which we aim to fuel with this new initiative,” said Caroline Rush, ceo of the BFC.
For Henry Holland, the move into advanced contemporary hasn’t been easy — he made the decision to slash his 50 percent profit margins — but it has been worth it. “If you are a London designer with a runway show, you’re perceived as belonging on the international designer floor — but we don’t make sense on the same floor as Céline,” he said. He recalled a conversation a few years ago with a showroom agent who told Holland that his customers loved House of Holland designs but could not afford them.
“I never set out to alienate my T-shirt customer, and the DNA of my brand is about having fun, so it’s difficult to ask them to part with the kind of money they’d use to buy a car,” said the designer, whose collection will be stocked at Neiman Marcus later this year. Designing for the contemporary market, he said, isn’t so different from what he was doing in the past. “It’s the same level of design. It’s not about selling a new look, but about creating covetable, desirable pieces your customer has to have.”
Holland’s company remains self-funded, and he has been using his ongoing collaboration with the British department store Debenhams, part of the Designers at Debenhams program, to fuel the business. His approach is far more pragmatic than it ever was. He and the team look at a garment, and think about how much his customer would want to pay for it. “Then we work backwards from there.”
Nicoll is moving in a similar direction. “It’s interesting to reassess and readjust the business model, to redefine where you sit in the marketplace when you’re no longer the new kid on the block,” said the designer, who admits he’s “heading toward” advanced contemporary.
“We do well with our silk separates, jersey, sweatshirts and wardrobe staples, while activewear suits our brand’s DNA,” added Nicoll, who for spring has begun collaborating with the British brand Sweaty Betty on clothing with a sporty twist, such as performance cashmere and running dresses with built-in shorts and reflective panels. He said future collections will be increasingly lifestyle-oriented, and may not even lend themselves to the traditional runway.
Todd Lynn has plunged fully into the new market. Like Lupfer, he wanted to shift the focus from the show to the store floor and get close to the end customer. “The runway shows are p.r. initiatives and the business happens at another time altogether — namely during the pre-collection — and you can’t do both,” said Lynn, who has reduced his prices by about 30 percent and begun focusing on delivering full pre-collections to the stores on time.
Simon Whitehouse, the new ceo of J.W. Anderson who has worked with labels including Matthew Williamson, Diesel Black Gold and DKNY, said London’s young designers are being schooled in a different way from their predecessors, and getting more guidance from a business and structural point of view.
“They know that for a business to succeed they need to look at it from a 360-degree angle. The new generation’s reach is broader and quicker with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and their scale and potential are unlimited. In the past, they were too focused on the front end, the p.r. side of the business. They were almost too excited about it,” Whitehouse said, adding that he understood “within 16 seconds of meeting” Anderson, that the designer was an entrepreneur as well as a creative.
Anderson, like Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic, and Nicholas Kirkwood, is among a handful of London designers to land serious investment either from the big brands or long-term private investors. The majority of designers may never have a big name like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton or Kering come knocking. They’re determined not to take the contemporary route and to remain in the high-end designer category.
“Just as much as another brand might be starting a label and saying, ‘Right, we can’t exceed a certain price point because we want to sell it,’ I’m also fully aware that the kind of clothes I make aren’t going to become commercially successful in two or three years,” said Tait, who earlier this year scooped the inaugural LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, which comes with a cash prize of 300,000 euros, or $409,270 at current exchange, plus a year of coaching from executives. “I won’t bang out a T-shirt range next season, that’s just not me. So I know it’s not going to be easy, and I know it’s going to need financial support and manufacturing support from external resources.”
Other designers, such as Erdem Moralioglu and Osman Yousefzada, have been steadily building their businesses without any big-ticket investments or plans to move into the contemporary market and they plan to stay the course, at least for now.
“There have been tough seasons, seasons where you cry and you don’t know where the money is going to come from for the zips and the fabrics,” said Yousefzada, who said his business is profitable with sales growth in the high double digits. He has just unveiled a partnership with American Express to design uniforms for the Amex Insiders concierges at London Fashion Week, and there are other retail collaborations in the pipeline.
A Brit whose family is originally from Afghanistan, Yousefzada’s ultimate goal is to have a large wholesale business with freestanding stores, and he’s aware he’ll need outside investment to make the leap. “These are exciting times, really. We have a product that a lot of people want, and we still have to develop the collection, to create a wardrobe,” he said.
Moralioglu, another designer whose business remains independent, said he never made a deliberate decision to go it alone. The designer, who will celebrate his 10th anniversary in business next year, has never had any outside investment, and currently oversees a staff of more than 40. He is opening his first stand-alone store, on South Audley Street, in the spring, all financed by his company. “It was always about growing organically, incrementally. At the beginning there were some harder moments, but I’ve been very, very fortunate to develop relationships with stores and retailers,” he said.
Moralioglu said he has clocked many hours with editors and with retailers, doing trunk shows in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. “Growth happens when people buy what you do. The trunk shows helped me understand who the customer was and what she wanted. As a designer, you have to know her and stay close to her.” The designer said the company is still growing, and there are no plans at the moment to take on external investment. “It depends on the partnership and the timing. Never say never. But at the moment it’s completely feasible to continue as an independent company. It’s what I know.”