London Fashion Week: The creativity and commerce conundrum

Banner_2

As I looked out on the waiting crowd for Giles Deacon’s show last evening, there was something special in the air. Where else could you see wunderkind Gareth Pugh nestled next to Italian eccentric Anna Piaggi and Vogue’s Hamish Bowles and a raft of other notable fashion names, all crammed into a tiny space in a small schoolhouse waiting for a fashion show to start? No New York designer of similar repute would even think of forcing the fashion A-list into this cramped setting. But then again, the fashion A-list probably wouldn’t even bother turning up to a show in a similarly  uncomfortable setting for a New York designer.

London fashion is officially hot again.  And, this time it’s not just hype. Many of the New York collections were well-executed and wearable, but they were limited in terms of new ideas and came off feeling a bit flat. London has thrown this flatness into sharp relief. There has been a renewed sense of confidence about fashion in London this week, yet there could be a lot more reflection on why things haven’t worked out for London in the past after other short-lived periods of creative renaissance — and a great deal of this has to do with the business of fashion, not the creative side.

London has never been lacking in creativity and this season its young designer set has been bursting with new ideas that show off their multi-faceted skills sets. Christopher Kane sent out a collection that felt new and fresh; like he was taking actually fashion forward. Jonathan Saunders, the master-of-prints, showed that he can cut a dress with the best of them. Marios Schwab went the opposite route, using stunning, unusual and arresting prints combined with his already proven strength in tailoring.

Christopher

Jonathan

Marios

And then, last night, Giles Deacon wowed his small VIP fashion audience with a collection that meandered from cross-stitched denim pieces to heavily-worked dresses of tulle and eye-catching prints of Kate Moss à la Andy Warhol emblazoned onto a crisply cut hot pink jacket. One unforgettable moment was seeing model-of-the-moment Agyness Deyn come out in a simply cut dress with her trademark platinum blond cropped-mop dyed a bright pumpkin orange. Did Giles convince her to do that? He is quite the charmer, after all.

Giles_1 Giles_2

Giles_3

After the show, Ken Downing of Neiman Marcus asked me what I thought. And the first thing that came to mind were the words "beautiful" and "romantic". Ken seemed genuinely overwhelmed by what Giles had conceived. Hilary Riva of the British Fashion Council said that she thought the collection might make her cry. It’s so nice to see veterans of the industry who still get excited about great design.

But, abundant creativity aside, the big question is whether this is yet another meteoric period for London which will quickly flame out. Will these talented young designers be able to build businesses based in the city that they find so inspiring? Or, like other high profile talents before them, will the businesses collapse due to lack of business structure, investment and planning? Will they need to move to New York or Paris to make it big where there is a more cohesive support system for growing fashion businesses?

If they want to be around 10 years from now, they may want consider taking a page out of Matthew Williamson’s textbook. While he normally shows in New York, his business is still based in London and yesterday’s one-off 10 year anniversary show was an excellent mix of what Matthew does best. Fun, playful and embellished clothes for an international jet set woman who spends her time living the good life.

It must be said that the show got started on an exceptional note — Prince’s note, to be exact, and this may have played  a role in the exuberant feeling in the marquee which had been specially erected in Eaton Square to celebrate the occasion. Prince, one of the world’s most talented pop musicians, started things off by singing from the front row and then joined his bodacious dancers in a catwalk performance that had the fashion set on their feet. I was blown away. It was only left to Matthew to keep the audience on a high after this surprise!

P1040395

Prince

But, back to business. While Matthew’s aesthetic and client may be quite different from some the more thought-provoking emerging London designers that have been creating all the buzz this week, his formula for success could still work for them:

  1. Find a business partner: With his business partner Joseph, he has shown once again what a strong creative-business partnership can do for a fashion business. Ask many industry insiders about the keys to Matthew’s success, and Joseph is one of the first things they will mention.
  2. Know your customer: Matthew’s "girls" were crawling all over the show and afterparty yesterday and he seems to understand what they want. He spends time with them and understands what they need to fit with their lifestyles.
  3. Learn from the best: By working as the creative director of Pucci, an LVMH owned brand, Matthew has not only gained credibility as a designer of international repute, he and Joseph must also be learning a great deal about how a world-class fashion business is run and structured.
  4. Work the PR angle: Like it or not, a good story is an essential part of making a high-end fashion business work. Matthew’s story is often based on his strong celebrity following. It’s a story that works for him, but might not work for everyone else. The important thing is to have a compelling story to tell, whether it is based on the designer, their clientele or their product.
  5. Sort out the money side: With equity injections from the Baugur Group and TSM Capital, Matthew and Joseph have also shown themselves to be savvy fundraisers, who are still firmly in control of their business.

It’s no wonder Matthew asked Suzy Menkes "Where are my peers now?", referring to another slew of hotly-tipped designers whose businesses failed to take off during London’s last creative heat wave. Matthew certainly has something to be proud of. It remains to see which of these London designers will follow in his footsteps to celebrate their own 10 year anniversaries. Here’s to hoping this heat wave lasts a long time.

Christopher Kane, Spring/Summer 2008

Marios Schwab, Spring/Summer 2008

Jonathan Saunders, Spring/Summer 2008

Matthew Williamson, Spring/Summer 2008

Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Marios Schwab photos and videos courtesy of Style.com. Other photos and all other content are copyright of The Business of Fashion. See our legal disclaimer for further details