Emilia Wickstead in her studio

LONDON — For luxury brands, it’s not just about likes and followers on Instagram, but about real-life ones, too — the kind who will shop the collections at full price, show up for the latest launch, commission a bespoke piece and then come back for more, no matter the trends.

In London, where the majority of brands are small, independent, and running on tight budgets, having a close-knit, real-life community is proving the secret sauce to staying relevant — and to expanding the business.

London Fashion Week starts today, and the brands leading the way are not necessarily the new, buzzy names or the most avant-garde designers. Indeed, there’s a shortage of new names on the calendar for the fall 2020 season, and the brands that are the most relevant are the ones that have managed to carve out a clear point of view and attract a group of loyal, like-minded supporters who want to be part of their world. 

“Fashion is definitely moving toward that direction: People are buying into values more than anything else and everyone is looking to find their tribe,” said Mary Katrantzou, who has been building a tribe of her own, with women across the world often collecting her pieces season after season as if they were works of art.

Designers here have been resizing their expectations and instead of running after aggressive growth, they’re taking a more sustainable, holistic approach to their businesses by connecting with their customers on a more emotional basis and basing new launches on what their tribe of supporters want from them, be it a resort capsule to take on their holidays or a new activewear line.

Emilia Wickstead is another London designer who has been pursuing a community strategy ever since she started her label 10 years ago as a made-to-measure concept. It was not a strategic move: When she first launched, she worked on the shop floor of her store and fitted clients six days a week which meant she was able to build a group of loyal customers who are now the foundation of her brand.

Emilia Wickstead in her studio

Emilia Wickstead in her studio.  Kasia Bobula/WWD

“I did everything back-to-front in a way: I built a retail space and had one-off samples because I didn’t have enough money to inject into the business. I was seeing clients face to face and stitching the garments myself, so it was a brilliant education in what women wanted. It was a very old-school method of building a business, but what it did enable me to do was build a community,” said Wickstead, who still trains her shop staff herself, spends time in her Sloane Street boutique and has kept close ties with her early customers.

She said that a lot of her longstanding clients “have transitioned with me as a designer over the past 10 years. They’re still shopping with me and educating me on how their needs change. It’s a constant dialogue with the women who are actually buying and wearing the product.”

Having graduated to wider distribution, a strong red carpet presence and broader collections that now include footwear, handbags, lounge and resort wear, Wickstead remains focused on her end customers, who include a group of artists, entrepreneurs and plenty of fashion editors.

For her latest pre-fall range, introduced in January, she chose to highlight some of those women in her look book, asking them to model the new collection — with their children — in a series of intimate black-and-white portraits.

Jeweler Sabine Getty, fellow designer Charlotte Dellal, art curator Hikari Yokoyama, film director and musician Fiona Jane Burgess and entrepreneur Tatiana Casiraghi all feature in the look book.

Emilia Wickstead Pre-Fall 2020 featuring Sabine Getty

Emilia Wickstead Pre-Fall 2020 featuring Sabine Getty  Courtesy photo

“It’s about trying to connect with, and relate to, this community. We’re just exposing it through different channels and with a much bigger outreach,” said Wickstead, whose brand is stocked at retailers such as Matchesfashion, Net-a-porter and Selfridges.

Given the close ties she’s built with customers, made-to-measure remains “a huge percentage” of the business, she said.

“I feel very strongly about people’s experience in our store, I don’t want anything we do to feel foreign — or that you’re just coming in to get a dress. People should fall more and more in love with the brand when they buy into it,” added the designer, whose polished, romantic wedding dresses have become increasingly popular. She’s also watched her brides turn into longstanding friends of the brand.

Mary Katrantzouwomenswear, summer 2020show 2Athens, Sounion, Temple of Poseidon

Mary Katrantzou women’s wear, summer 2020  Yannis Vlamos

Katrantzou’s ability to build a community has turned into one of her label’s biggest strengths.

Known for her warmth and flair for communication, it was natural for Katrantzou to market her label by traveling the world and hosting trunk shows and dinners with retail partners and clients.

“It was an opportunity for me to understand what attracts these women to my work and what I found was that they were buying these pieces as collectibles because they were drawn to their artistic nature,” said the designer.

“A lot of these women who started as customers are now some of my closest friends. You develop a bond because there is a like-mindedness there, and women are buying a lot more into values and less into product. This allowed us to forge a community as an independent brand that can also talk about using fashion and color as a wellness tool.”

The success of Katrantzou’s charity show in Athens last September highlighted the strength of the brand’s community more than ever before. Longstanding friends including Sabine Getty, Eugenie Niarchos and Noor Fares, former Vogue Arabia editor Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, and fellow designers Racil Chalhoub and Mira Mikati showed up en masse to witness the parade of Katrantzou’s exuberant, printed and embellished creations.

Niarchos also walked the runway for Katrantzou and created engraved boxes for guests. The result? A high volume of orders for the couture pieces that beat Katrantzou’s expectations.

“When you design made-to-measure pieces, that’s when you forge an even deeper relationship with that person. I didn’t realize how much that sense of community and bond with the client motivated and inspired me until recently. The show at the Temple of Poseidon allowed more women to come to us directly and order pieces,” said Katrantzou, who now also sees this growing group of supporters as her ultimate source of design inspiration.

“There’s a sense of detachment when you think about a singular muse and then the audience that connects with her. I never had a muse, but when I started meeting the women who were drawn to my work, they became my muses because I also got to see what they create and the sort of lives they live,” she said.

Alexa Chung with Pixie Geldof arriving for Simone Rocha fashion show, Alexander Palace, London.Street Style, Spring Summer 2020, London Fashion Week, UK - 15 Sep 2019

Alexa Chung with Pixie Geldof arriving for Simone Rocha’s fashion show,  Wayne Tippetts/Shutterstock

Simone Rocha is another designer who has formed her own tribe of women who share a love for all things quirky, arty and romantic.

“I have never thought about a single muse — or a celebrity. I have always wanted my collections to be inclusive and relate to more than one woman, age or place, as femininity is in all of us in many different ways,” said Rocha.

She added that the personal elements she puts into her work allow women to connect to the clothes on a deeper level, and attach their own experiences and memories to them. “That’s what has built a natural community around my work,” she said.

Ditto for Roksanda Ilincic, whose community is based around a group of women who have a mutual appreciation for architectural lines, bold color and femininity in all its glory.

“Designing clothes is not only about creating a wardrobe for the customer, but about communicating with them and building a circle of women who share similar values,” said Ilincic, who has been doing just that by hosting regular supper clubs to interact with the women who inspire and support her.

“I love bringing these incredible women together. Through the supper clubs I was able to connect with all the women I admire, I draw inspiration from and have received support from. What unifies us is the knowledge that collectively we can change things and inspire each other.”

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