LONDON — During catchups with young talent ahead of London Fashion Week, Natalie Kingham’s name keeps popping up. Several designers told WWD that if it weren’t for Matchesfashion’s sizable orders and timely payments, their businesses simply wouldn’t survive Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it should be common practice among London’s fashion retailers to pay designers on time, unfortunately it’s no secret that some delay payment by as long as a year, seriously disrupting the brands’ cash flow and production planning.
Here, Kingham, who has been promoted to the new role of global fashion officer at Matchesfashion, explains why committing to designers’ visionary collections in a practical, material way — offering them favorable payment terms, content, PR, marketing and social amplification — is key to help future-proof their businesses in what has been a tough year for the industry.
WWD: Why is it that supporting young designers with action is a priority for Matchesfashion, and why does paying them on time make such a big difference?
Natalie Kingham: This means a huge amount to us. Supporting a diverse range of design talent is at the heart of our business and is one of the reasons our customer loves us — because we enable this discovery. We launched the Innovators program in 2017 to support and champion creative design talent and as we collaborated closely with designers during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that many were unsure of how their brands could thrive through the next year.
With this and the current climate in mind, we built upon the original initiative to include 12 designers across men’s wear and women’s wear and developed it into a program that actually helps future-proof their businesses in what has been a tough year for the creative industry. Each designer was chosen for having a unique and powerful DNA.
Priya Ahluwalia and Kévin Germanier work in a sustainable manner without compromising their design aesthetic, Grace Wales Bonner weaves art and cultural references into her collections, whilst Charles Jeffrey Loverboy explores and deconstructs couture technique. Art School set the design process within the broader community whilst Chopova Lowena fuses tradition with craftsmanship in a modern way.
Harris Reed’s creativity sparks conversation and inclusivity and Michael Halpern approaches glamour via a modern lens, Bianca Saunders explores modern masculinity and Ludovic de Saint Sernin embraces fluid notions of sex and gender. Thebe Magugu sets his South African heritage in a contemporary light and Stefan Cooke has a subversive and youthful approach. We have worked with many of these designers for a long time so we are really pleased to be committing to their visionary collections in a practical, material way.
Each designer receives robust support across the business, including favorable payment terms, content, PR, marketing and social amplification. I think knowing that they have this support over the course of a year means they can plan ahead and [it] will allow them to have more financial stability.
As part of the yearlong program, we will be giving each brand a lot more visibility and amplification across all of our channels so that their story, ethos and what they stand for can really be conveyed to our customer so that they understand the DNA of each designer and want to invest in a brand of the future. We will also offer mentorship over the year in a very organic way; depending on what they need it will be very personalized to them.
WWD: How are they performing compared to established brands? What are the best sellers?
N.K.: Our customer comes to us for our curation of both the best established and emerging designers. We love that our customer is confident to mix both and enjoy discovering and pairing an innovator like Grace Wales Bonner with an established designer such as Prada. When we launched Stefan Cooke’s one-of-a-kind handbags, they sold out almost instantly and the Grace Wales Bonner x Adidas collection has done incredibly well across men’s wear and women’s wear. Chopova Lowena is another brand that has gone from strength to strength. With the first collection of beautifully crafted skirts selling out, we have since expanded the curation to dresses, tops, outerwear and jewelry.
WWD: What’s your take on the upcoming London Fashion Week? Any new names you are paying close attention to?
N.K.: I’m always excited to see what our designers do for fashion week and the current challenges mean that they have had to dramatically adapt, but the experiences and creative processes that we have seen are impressive. I’m looking forward to seeing the creativity and innovation as I’m sure it will help to inspire me and our customers.
Fashion East is always a highlight. It is such a great platform for creativity and each season goes from strength to strength. Harris Reed will be unveiling their debut demi-couture collection just before LFW, too, which I am really looking forward to seeing.
WWD: Any advice for young designers who are looking to survive and thrive under Brexit and COVID-19?
N.K.: It is important that designers have their own unique point of view and DNA that they stick to. To be a great designer isn’t about following trends but instead, it is having an authentic conversation with your customer.
Financial stability is probably one of the biggest challenges these brands have had to face during this difficult time. Younger brands do have opportunities because they are small to be more flexible and agile, but like everyone during this pandemic, planning for the long term when the short term is so unpredictable is challenging.
WWD: How is Matchesfashion navigating the changes in regulations after Brexit? What will be the priority this year?
N.K.: Like thousands of other businesses, we’re working through the new regulations and endeavoring to minimize any disruption for customers and also to our own operations. In the meantime, we continue to serve customers across Europe and globally.
Our priority this year is our customer and we are working hard to continue to surprise and delight them. We know that they come to us for fashion that helps them express themselves so we need to anticipate what that is going to look like in 2021 and beyond. We are excited for season two of the Innovators program, so watch this space.