LONDON — Of the four major fashion capitals, London is best known for its creativity, avant-garde labels and experimental designs because of its influential fashion schools as well as Britain’s indie spirit and centuries-long embrace of many cultures.
At the same time, the city is rapidly becoming a hub for contemporary labels that describe themselves as “affordable luxury,” with prices starting at around 600 pounds for a dress — and an alternative to pricy designer fashion.
16Arlington, which launched two years ago, may be showing for the first time on-schedule at London Fashion Week, but it’s far from a novice brand. Unlike many young designer businesses, it has already built a solid business foundation, with strong wholesale relationships and a production pipeline, with manufacturing done in the U.K.
“We have a definitive design aesthetic, but we also want it to be pieces our friends would buy into while targeting a ‘cool-girl’ look. We want it to be a very inclusive brand, and we’re hoping that our price point helps us achieve that,” said founders and designers Federica Cavenati and Marco Capaldo. They added that a close relationship with their manufacturers helps them to keep prices in check.
Their outfits, which have been photographed on a roster of celebrities including Edie Campbell, Jordan Dunn and Alek Wek, are sequined, show-stopping and glamorous. Despite the celebrity halo, Capaldo said the brand is for everyone. Prices range from 380 pounds for a cropped feather-trimmed top to 875 pounds for a silk shirt gown.
“We have some top sellers such as the feathered top and the pencil skirt with the thigh-high split, and they’ve performed exceptionally, regardless of location. You can see a range of women wearing the label and so there are some key pieces we rework in new fabrics every season,” added Capaldo.
The designers, who met at fashion school, set out to grow their brand organically and presented their first collection at a trade show in Paris, where Moda Operandi picked it up. “We slowly added in certain areas of our business like look books, presentations and press,” Capaldo said, adding that Net-a-porter and Harvey Nichols came on board in the second season. 16Arlington is also stocked at Farfetch, Luisa Via Roma and The Modist. The label will be launching at Selfridges for spring 2019.
The design duo plans to incorporate volume and tailoring this season and to introduce prints inspired by the artist Richard Linder. There will still be feathered tops, and lots of jewel tones and sequins as the brand’s house codes and customer favorites.
Also hitting that contemporary sweet spot is Deborah Lyons, who is showing her collection via a presentation during London Fashion Week at Burlington Arcade. The young label is already making money and Lyons said her strategy is to design with the consumer in mind.
“The customers themselves are most important to us, because you want someone who really loves what they are wearing,” said Lyons, who is best known for her jumpsuits, tailored blazers and dresses. Prices range from 250 pounds for a fringed top to 675 pounds for a printed jumpsuit.
This season, Lyons is going for an edgier aesthetic, with more pleating and structure as well as chain embellishments across the front and back of dresses and skirts.
Getting into the right stores has been crucial for Lyons, who said she values the customer feedback she receives. Wholesale is the foundation of her business, with the brand stocked at stores including Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Rent the Runway, a new branch of the business, has been a big money-maker, she said.
“They buy substantial volumes, like a coat in 100 units and a substantial portion of the collection. They buy season-after-season and it’s a way for us to do things sustainably. The customer feedback is great. If people are finding that the sleeve is too short or the cuff is too long, that’s something I’m going to keep in mind if I’m going to make a similar style,” she said.
Lyons isn’t reliant on traditional show formats: For the spring 2019 season she presented her collection on the Eurostar as it zoomed from London to Paris, while this season she’s hosting a presentation with jazz performers. For her, it’s another way to connect to her customers.
She’s also keen to grow her direct-to-consumer business and branch out globally, but said she plans to take things slowly. “There is no point in trying to compete with big brands, and I think our presentations reflect that. We can do showcases, engage the audience and see how our customers are interacting with our clothes,” she said.
While the rental market may be a boon for Lyons’ business, elsewhere, young brand Laviate, which has just re-branded, is finding success at the other end of the retail spectrum: Made-to-order.
Laviate’s founder-designers, twins Eirini and Dimitra Skalidaki, launched the brand — previously known as Aucarre Skalidaki — two seasons ago. They presented with Fashion Scout, the emerging talent platform in London, and have been featured in Cabana Magazine, Tatler and Vogue Italia.
The designers have been putting an emphasis on creating more commercial designs “because we want people not only to see us as artists. We would really like them to start wearing our clothes — and buying them,” the sisters said.
There are more classic silhouettes this season, including A-line dresses and skirts and wide-leg trousers enhanced with colorful, picturesque prints. They’ve also been working in tailoring and layering, as in a printed dress with cascading ruffles. Customers can place direct orders through their Instagram or by e-mail and by June, the designers will launch their official e-shop.
Their work is also steeped in sustainability: The label’s polyester and printed organza are made from recycled bottles and the twins use ecological dyes for their yarns. Prices range from 500 pounds for a printed dress to 1,000 pounds for a wool overcoat.
According to Elizabeth von der Goltz, global buying director at Net-a-porter, contemporary brands play a vital part in their e-commerce ecosystem. “Contemporary brands play an incredibly important part in the retail landscape. It’s something we at Net-a-porter have been championing for years. The combination of what these brands offer is the most important factor; they provide customers with a sense of discovery and newness. Their design-led, unique pieces combined with a super-sharp price point is their magic formula for success,” von der Goltz said.
“Our customers in particular have an insatiable appetite for newness and emerging talent and are constantly telling us that they are brave and willing to experiment. We saw a great reaction to our exclusive party capsules from new brands 16Arlington, Blaze Milano, Retrofete, Alexa Chung, Rotate and Stine Goya last year and we’re always looking to create new exclusives and introduce new brands for our global customers,” she added.
Showroom owner Maria Kastani has spent much of her career helping young designers grow their brands, including Mehry Mu, Katerina Makriyianni and Evi Grintela, and said the market for contemporary labels is growing.
“Shoppers have become savvier and more clever, they want to spend money for something that’s going to last longer if it’s above a certain price bracket. It’s definitely an asset if a designer can achieve contemporary luxury pricing with good quality and aesthetics. As long as they have a clear vision that differentiates them, these labels will build their business on logic, exploring the market and seeing what works for them,” she said.