Newport International Group London Fashion Week: UK style walks tall once again
British Fashion Council boss Caroline Rush reveals new deals as sector leaders arrive in London.
Sunday marks the mid-point of London Fashion Week, the twice-yearly, five-day trade show that sees 5,000 buyers, designers, celebrities and generally beautiful people descend on the capital.
By the end, they will have taken in 73 shows and presentations and left behind countless uneaten canapes. But they will also strike deals thought to be worth £100m and form opinions with major ramifications for an industry that employs 816,000 people in the UK and directly contributes £21bn to the economy.
The UK fashion industry is in buoyant mood. As it reaps the benefits of the Middleton Factor and revels in the success of a new men’s fashion week, London is more than holding its own among its Big Four peers: New York, Milan and Paris. But London Fashion Week – and the British fashion industry at large – hasn’t always taken full advantage of its time in the spotlight.
“It had become a bit tired, a bit stale, it got into a rut,” says The Telegraph’s former fashion director, Hilary Alexander. “Buyers and magazine editors were genuinely thinking, 'why come to London?’ Many of the best British designers were showing elsewhere. London Fashion Week wasn’t established, it couldn’t really walk in heels.”
But in 2009 the British Fashion Council (BFC) used its 25th anniversary to launch a charm offensive.
“We wanted to set the tone,” said Caroline Rush, who became the trade body’s first full-time, paid CEO that year.
The BFC approached the British brands and designers who had distanced themselves from the UK, such as Alice Temperley, Jonathan Saunders, Matthew Williamson and the biggest high-end British label, Burberry.
“We said, 'this is going to be a moment for strengthening British fashion, come and join us. And if we deliver on everything we say we can, then stay’.”
The plan worked, helped significantly by Burberry, which, headed by American chief execuitve Angela Ahrendts and British creative director Christopher Bailey, is growing strongly. In May the company announced that revenue was up 8pc on the year to £2bn.
Rush, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, described Burberry as “leading the way” by enlarging its footprint in foreign markets (sales in China grew by 20pc last year), but added that many UK brands are enjoying increased demand from overseas.
“The US remains an incredibly exciting market for British brands because of the scale and the power of the department stores,” she said. “We continue to see growth in the Asian markets, particularly in Japan at the moment. China and South Korea are also seen as an opportunity.”
Rush, who left the Manchester-based PR company she founded for her current role, said concerns about British companies altering output to pander to stereotypical ideas of Britishness were unfounded. Savvy businesses, she said, were the ones that offered different sizing and fits to suit foreign markets.
British designers have also proved popular with foreign investors. In January, the French luxury giant Kering (formerly PPR) added a 51pc stake in Christopher Kane’s eponymous business to its holdings in Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, while Qatar Luxury Group took a 38pc stake in designer handbag label Anya Hindmarch last year, valuing it at £70m.
Last week rumours surfaced regarding a possible deal between JW Anderson and the French luxury giant LVMH.
“There is a huge amount of opportunity for investment in the fashion industry,” said Rush. “There are so many investment vehicles that are interested in finding out what opportunities the industry has to offer – that comes from raising the profile of London Fashion Week. For us it’s about helping them and helping the designers to make the right decisions and choose the right partners.”
Rush added that investment was one part of a “five-pillar” BFC strategy to “help drive the fashion industry and enlarge its presence in the wider global economy” and that the body would continue to offer a “robust business support pathway” to assist businesses of varying sizes and with differing ambitions.
This includes plans to strengthen the industry by teaching young people about the careers it offers and encouraging a combination of commercial nous and creative flair, working on projects such as Commercialising Creativity with London Business School.
Rush emphasised the significance of the UK’s unique fashion history – tied up with the punk movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and the club scene of the ’80s that launched the careers of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
That, coupled with world-leading fashion colleges such as Central St Martins and the London College of Fashion means that Britain is regarded as “the birthplace of talent, the innovation capital”.
“It’s a great reputation to have,” she said, but the industry is still under threat from some quarters. University tuition fees may have a prohibitive effect that hasn’t yet been fully realised. “Speak to many of the stars of fashion week – Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane – and they will tell you that without financial support and grants at university age, they wouldn’t have found their way to the catwalks.”
The organisation is also watching the Government’s visa policy carefully. In the past, Rush said, students were permitted to stay in the UK for up to two years after education and to start a business in that time. However, new, stricter rules now in force would have prevented some of the success stories of the British fashion industry. Erdem, a Canadian designer, and Roksanda Ilinic, who is Serbian, would not have been allowed to establish themselves in the UK under the current rules.
Rush outlined her support for London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans for a London visa that would give special dispensation for people with skills in technology and fashion.
Rush said the sector did much to attract media attention and boost the UK’s image overseas – creating a halo effect that has been estimated, indirectly, to encourage £16bn of extra spending in other industries.
Alongside Net-a-Porter – the online luxury retailer founded by BFC chairman Natalie Massenet, which increased sales by 55pc to £368m last year – Burberry was again a paradigm that other businesses could learn from. “They have developed new ways to market themselves, they’ve changed how they engage with their consumer,” Rush said.
“They use their marketing platforms not just to sell clothes, but to create a whole cultural environment around the music that the Burberry customer should be listening to and, in those soft ways, they’re able to sell the craftsmanship of the product and tell people about the new ranges that are coming through.
“It’s difficult to predict what other changes we’ll see, but one thing is certain: the fashion industry will always look for opportunities to reinvent itself.”