London Fashion Week | Tough times ahead

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Everyone’s talking about London’s young designer set — and the news is not good.

The media has been buzzing about the wave of  familiar faces who will be missing from the front rows this season. Julie Gilhart, Ron Frasch, and Ken Downing won’t be making it to London Fashion Week this season to represent major American department stores Barneys, Saks and Neiman Marcus, respectively. For Julie, a fervent supporter of London’s emerging brands, it is the first time in 20 years that she won’t be here.

These buyers have told the press that unless London’s designers produce something very special or have strong existing relationships with US retailers, they will have a hard time making up for the spiralling effect that the strong pound has had on their prices once converted to American dollars.

It’s a good thing that some designers (but not enough!) are thinking more about business than buzz. Danielle Scutt, a darling of Fashion East in past seasons, has decided not to show this time so she can focus on building her business by producing a lookbook designed to market her designs.

However, we don’t believe enough designers are thinking this way. Just talk to Erin Mullaney, a former buyer of designer womenswear at Selfridges who is moving to Browns to become their Buying Director. She told WWD

"It’s almost the end of January and I haven’t had a single delivery through yet. For many British designers, it is a constant struggle with cash flow."

With the high prices that London designers have to charge, retailers expect impeccable service — reliablity, high quality, good communication, and on-time delivery. Many young designers have failed to put in the necessary processes and expertise to do this. And many don’t have anywhere to turn.

This is why at The Business of Fashion, we wrote a Manifesto for Change In Iqons Magazine for a new approach to building the fashion businesses of the next generation; one that goes beyond the sporadic financial support, industry handouts and over-zealous use of their precious names that is the norm today.

Thank goodness the news is not all bad. Some relief may come in the form of the new front row – the faces of fashion’s emerging markets whose economies are still growing at a rapid clip and who want to continue to support London’s young design talent.

And, maybe London’s young designers can take a page out of Tory Burch’s book. She fashioned a business model first, before going on to build a business that is turning over more than $115m a year.

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17 comments

  1. Very sad to hear that julie is passing on London. I read the article on Tory Burch but it is kind of hard to compare what she does and where she comes from with the struggling independents. Once married to a venture capitalist that has 2,000,000 to invest certainly gives one a leg up. Her collection looked like upscale H&M with references to Chanel and Marc Jacobs. I respect her business sense but find it difficult to call what she does very original. I suppose her mantra of fashion at affordable prices is a good one but in order to be able to offer such great prices means that you have to have the money to produce in volume which unfortunately few London designers have. I hope that your article does put up the red flag for London designers so that they will respect their delivery dates and understand without them there is no business. xDiane

  2. @Diane: Yes, Tory Burch is certainly very different from the young designers in London in that her M.O. is not about pushing fashion forward as many of London’s best talents do, and her price positioning is in the Contemporary segment. That said, she has set a formidable example in terms of setting up a business that works, targeted to a specific customer, with financing in place and production to back it all up. While not everyone will have access to the cash, all designers can work on the other things, and find professional support on raising financing — before they try to make a huge media splash. Too many young designers are focused on becoming famous for their designs…without creating a foundation to deliver them. I agree that the volume issue is what holds a lot of London designers back. American designers are lucky to have a captive market of 300m people which allows them to grow to scale in their domestic market before focusing on International expansion.

  3. The same thing happened to me, which is why I didn’t show at the Salon de la Lingerie for the first time in 5 years. My two biggest clients, Saks and Neimans came to the show, but were kind enough to tell me well in advance that they would not be buying from me this season precisely because of the week dollar. On one hand, I’m glad I have good relations with my buyers so I can brace for catastrophy with a bit of prior warning. On the other hand I’m on a crash course to understand and infiltrate eastern markets. This is the work of three people and several visits. I don’t have that budget. It’s presenting quite a quandry. PS. Shameless self promotion: My lookbook will be up on Monday http://www.Gentrydeparis.com/lookbook

  4. I completely agree with Diane. And I would agree with the manifesto for change. However, how can change happen? I will not generalize: there are small changes, and there is change as such, totally repositing the coordinates – what we have is agony. How can views of an industry that is still, not to say: more and more, perceived by the majority as trivial and frivolous, like fashion is deemed to be, supposedly offering no intellectual or emotional response, change? Tory Burch is successful because she is also promoted by the industry, especially certain editors. That’s the problem, a part of it – what is given out to the audience. The problem are not the outsiders who don’t understand it, or refuse to, the problem is the industry itself, especially some magazines, that’s why I applaud Iqons. Burch is promoted as a designer. Even though there is little of substance there. The thing is, this will ultimately lead us, not just to simple pragmatic solutions which can only work for a while, and we usually end up in a vicious circle, but to the agony of the system and its mentality or mind set. We got to know what we’re dealing with on a broader scale: what kind of times are we living in. This kind of interpretation has been going on for at least 100 years. We need tougher standards, plus, I think some people in the fashion industry shouldn’t complain – they’re now receiving their own message in time delay. What they’ve helped establish, and are now reaping. Uniformity.

    Marko from Radovljica, Bohinj, Slovenia
  5. To continue: my question would be – HOW do you change people’s perspective about fashion design? I’m going to give my own personal example: the humanities PhD candidates now have obligatory business classes. However, the emphasis on business and selling your books and articles has completely watered dwon true intellectual work – we have a string of gags with no proper research, and on the other hand the always present talk of crisis which never goes away – it is difficult to find anything that goes beyond pragmatics, systematization etc. Because fear and crisic talk, not to mention catastrophism, are sollicited and a part of capitalist ideology. And that no one today talks of ideology and capitalism is a sure sign that these two have won, so now we only have an administered society and more and more little else. My point or comment of your beautiful article would be: not only business, fashion designers need, like we all do, what Fredric Jameson called COGNITIVE MAPPING. And business classes are not enough to enable you to situate yourself in the world you live in. I can tell you about the fashion students in my country: apart form the obvious lectures, and business classes, they have absolutely no tools that would help them to minimally resist, to pose questions that everyone should pose about the times and the system “of why is this so”, to put it bluntly. Or to even try and change. what they end up is short term solutions, quick solutions that only hold for a certain amount of time, but sooner or later we’re back to where we started from. Definitely a vicious circle. Through the emphasis on business we should discover an even broader perspective. However, few people want to take the necessary time. I can’t blame them, but if you don’t, you won’t know what you’re actually complaining about. And the situation is not impenetrable at all. I would really like a business man to switch roles with a designer and give me, perhaps in an interview, an answer as to what he or she supports design wise (if McQueen, why, if Galliano, why, if Burch, why), times wise, not only business wise. What is their position? Plus, the magazine world needs to change – mostly that. Vogue, Elle, Bazaar etc. – but one has to be willing to try and not be afraid of consequences. Otherwise, let’s not complain. If we indeed have achieved all there is. In the last 10 years I have seen little change in magazine mentality coordinates. Plus, as far as those funds for young fashion designers are concerned – what a truly ambiguous legacy. Cathy wrote about it in Citizen Anna. Again: mind set.

    Marko from Radovljica, Bohinj, Slovenia
  6. We all know that the perfect combination would be a YSL/Berge, Duffy/Jacobs kind of combination. Each one respecting the talent of the other. Let’s face it no matter how great your business plan is you need cash to make it happen and it is so much easier if it comes from your family, your husband, girlfriend or boyfriend as opposed to shopping that plan around to venture capitalists that have no particular interest in you. You always have more leverage when someone is looking for you and not the inverse. It’s one thing to target your audience, which is essential, and to find the best manufacturers for your designs but all of that without the finances behind you still leaves you blocked at the starting gate.It is not that easy to find financing no matter how talented you are and although I do believe too many designers are concentrating on being stars straight out of school rather than concentrating on establishing a firm business foundation. It’s a vicious circle, like a photographer, if you don’t have the editorial you don’t get the ad campaign. That is probably what I think the Belgians have with their design philosophy that puts them in a better position for a long lasting success, they are humble, they understand their craft and they work hard to establish a long lasting business. Hard work and Humility, maybe that is also part of the secret. I would hardly call them humble but…Viktor and ROlf had an excellent strategy too, they knew from day one where they wanted to go and what they had to do to get there. xDiane

  7. That’s exactly it Diane, I remember the discussions I had on OTR last year: what interesting businesses Raf, Ann, et al., built. Not to mention Alaia. They do their own thing, they always did, and the customers responded to integrity. They still do, and I bet they will in the future. It can be done. That’s the smartness of Simons – the humility or simply: mind set. True, it’s not easy to find the money (for anything really – my department has to literally beg for money), but when the money is there, I do sometimes wonder what it’s invested in. The money IS THERE though – for God’s sake, the money in London is abundant. Money is not scarce there, but its not invested in fashion, I guess. Simply put: what do we support? Tory Burch has a great business plan, but that’s pretty much it. The same with H&M. LOVE the Belgians. LOVE. I’m gonna hail Raf ’til I die – this man changed everything for me in fashion. But that’s just personal. I mean the article in FT on the tears in London, so to speak: what is the background there? It’s mentality, it’s lack of thought – that comes through most. RELATIONS WITH PEOPLE. Great discussion fodder, TBF, loved the entry, thanks…

    Marko from Radovljica, Bohinj, Slovenia
  8. Couldn’t agree more! Here At KENTH ANDERSSON sometimes feel like we are at the other end of the world as with out investors or any acess to media we have manage to stay afloat with injecting new techniques from patterns to private clients.Especially competing in a global market, since most luxury groups have such a heavy hand in every economy in the world. Jason

    Jason from New York, NY, United States
  9. Regardless of the seasonal too and fro, the weakness or strength of the dollar and the fickleness of the various markets, the basic problem, as BoF write, is how you convince promising young designers to put their resources into building businesses instead of chasing fame and glamour. It’s the pitfall of working in London, but you simply cannot charge that much for a frock and deliver less than tip-top service. I think we may also overestimate the effect a mention in Vogue may have on a young designer’s business- can we tell the difference between causation and corroboration? I’m not sure we can. Sales get made in stores, not magazines, however nice it is to see one’s name in print, and retailers will certainly reward young designers for catering to them, rather than the newspaper critics. Today’s strong pound doesn’t promise to go away anytime soon, and the young Londoners will just have to work with it until they’re big enough to move production someplace cheaper. In the meantime, I expect young American designers are ringing up sales with foreign buyers. Maybe more Londoners should follow Jonathan Saunders lead and show in New York. Perhaps there’s an upside to the weak dollar.

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  10. Face it. There is only so much fashion that can be bought. Department stores are choking. The economy is spiraling downward like the melting of the wicked witch of the west. Design houses who are established in the majors are going to fight to stay there. It’s all about positioning. For a buyer to place dollars into an unknown is very risky. Those days are over. Plus, the interest is no longer there. Fashion has taken a back seat to survival. Julie Gilhart is interested in British design(if you have had a chance to speak with her then you will know she is mad for fashion and an incredible supporter of new talent), it’s just now, she has been advised of the economic situation and there are strict limitations. Unfortunately, this is the future. For the first time in many years New York designers had to scale back in their presentations. We constantly heard of designers having to ask for freebies in order to produce their shows. This news came from “established” designers. “We have no money” was repeated on a daily basis, one just needs to look at the fabrics. The collections looked cheap, and presented with very little or no accessories. It was almost like they were presenting a resume collection for Target or H&M. That’s where the true market is today. That’s where the new generation of fashion followers are going. If you look at the New York Collections there is very little that you wouldn’t already see in such stores as Zara, H&M or Target. The major department stores are hurting because of this. The fashion industry is bursting with the “Look here, buy me, no, look over here, buy me instead”. When are investors going to learn that dead is dead? revivals don’t work. They would be better off to place the designers labels in a zip lock baggie and sell those. Sew me on anything. It will not be long before Raf Simons is let go from Jil Sanders, besides, his talent has been seen before from American icons such as Zoran and the early work of Calvin Klein. Look what happened to Isabel Toledo, the talent is no longer there or viable. Look at Lars Nillsson, who was fired from Bill Blass right after the collection was presented and most recently, fired at Gianfranco Ferre before the collection was about to be presented. This is serious. These executives are sending messages. Big messages. The money is in lower tier collections and the majors know this. It will not be long before more and more established designers are forced to retreat to these manufacturing firms in droves. It’s called survival, and bigger dollars for these executives. Change is coming alright, it’s called pocket change for alot of Americans.

    artefact212 from Gloversville, NY, United States
  11. Artefact you make some interesting assertions. Do you possibly think you might be exaggerating a tad? I’d like to hear BoF’s take on this.

    Anjo from Stanford, CA, United States
  12. Thanks to everyone for the great discussion. A few thoughts. @Marko: Yes, business classes alone will not suffice. But really, I’m not talking about teaching designers about net present value and discounted cash flow. I think there could be more awareness and training to explain to newly minted designers that fashion is actually a business and show them where to turn to get help with some of this. They are not expected to do everything on their own, but they will need to recognize the need to stay on top of the business aspects as well. @Diane: I am a huge proponent of the Creative Business partnership. I agree that this is one of the best ways to build a fashion business. Check this link out. http://www.businessoffashion.net/2007/09/vpl-the-promise.html @artefact212: I do agree that some fashion companies are just churning out product, with little in the way of design and quality. But, while this might be a way of boosting business in the short-term, over the long run if quality is not up to par, people won’t come back. Most designers seem to understand this…though I have been hearing complaints about some prominent Contemporary brands for slacking on their quality. If this is true, it will quickly come back to bite them. As for the split between Lars Nilsson and Ferre/Blass and Isabel Toledo and Anne Klein, (and Marc Audibet at Vionnet, and Manuela Morin at Tanner Krolle, etc etc), I think this is a sign that the designers and management did not align on a strategy before signing the contracts. I don’t think it means that the industry is undervaluing these designers. To the contrary, I think great design is the lifeblood of this industry, but designing is not enough. Today it’s also about the business and working in a partnership with business people. Therefore, it’s definitely worth the effort for management and the designer to agree on a strategy (business, creative and operational) in advance. Finally, as for the money being in the lower priced collections…there certainly is a lot of interest in the fast-moving Contemporary segment, for example (and high-street brands like Zara, Mango and H&M). But there is also more and more interest in Haute Couture, which has been experiencing a bit of a resurgence, and which will have a resilience to the global downturn that Zara, Mango and H&M could only dream about.

  13. @BOF:Zara, Mango and H+M supercede the profits that Haute Couture could only dream of.

    artefact212 from Gloversville, NY, United States
  14. Interesting discussion going on. I don’t have much to add to what has already been said and pointed out. But I do believe there needs to be more investigation on getting down to the root of the problem in the declining value of the fashion industry and tackling it head on. Personally, fashion magazines although nice and glossy, do not provide enough of an objective point of view on designers, thus I have to turn to newspapers and books to find out what’s really going on. Even then, there isn’t enough of the nitty gritty to give us a full picture of what the industry is really like.

  15. It is funny to contrast fast fashion with the ‘resurgence’ of haute couture, because what does that mean in real business terms? H&M, Zara and Mango probably do billions combined every year, but haute couture gets a handful of new customers- perhaps a few million in added business, tops- and it’s seen as a comeback. This is more indicative to me of how close to dead the couture was for many years. Haute couture may find new favor among the mega-rich of the United States and the Far East, but it will certainly never be again what it once was. I don’t have the data to confirm this, but I suspect that fast fashion is eating into apparel sales of luxury rtw brands, forcing them to rely more than ever on accessories-cosmetics-perfume. It isn’t that cheap apparel didn’t exist before- it did- but it wasn’t fast like it is today, and it wasn’t hip. H&M’s big coup was discovering how to make cheap, knock-off fashion seem cool, and as much as I sometimes enjoy shopping there I realize it’s kind of sad. I wonder if in real terms the market for designer apparel is shrinking or growing. Even if it’s the latter I doubt it’s growing fast enough to accomodate the glut of young designers.

    Anjo from Newark, CA, United States
  16. Brilliant proposition “Business Links”. Manufacturing in the U.S. how novel! I’m serious. I should mention that in the 50’s couture houses had “bonded” versions of their designs. This enabled north american department stores to order an “alternative copy” of what went down the runway. These were often less embellished so as to keep costs down. There are so many things various houses can and must do in this day and age to remain competitive, looking back to the business models of yesteryear as well as design archives might be a clue.

    Barbara Alexander from Toronto, ON, Canada