LONDON, United Kingdom — There is a strange parallel between the Six Nations rugby championship currently being battled out in stadiums across Europe and the goings-on at London Fashion Week. With the rugby, the biggest rivalry is usually amongst the Celtic nations of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Meanwhile, on the runway, it’s Irish and Scottish designers who are going head-to-head, each with new French partners. And as fashion is every bit as partisan as sport, one can expect to hear commentary from fans of the sort that would not be out of place at the Stade de France.
For those who do not follow international rugby and are feeling rather puzzled over the comparison, there is a simple explanation. A young Irishman (whose father played rugby many times for his country — surely a first in fashion circles) and a young Scotsman have both found themselves running on parallel lines. Jonathan Anderson, born in a small Irish village, educated at the London College of Fashion and now the designer of J.W. Anderson, has been swept up by LVMH to try and make something of Loewe, the Spanish leather goods company. Meanwhile, Christopher Kane, brought up on the outskirts of Glasgow and educated at London’s Central Saint Martins, is now in the arms of Kering, who have bought 51 percent of his brand in the same sort of deal that Tom Ford did to bring Alexander McQueen into the Gucci stable when it was owned by PPR (predecessor of Kering).
It may seem a good idea for LVMH and Kering to invest some of their significant resources into turning underfunded British labels into global brands. But it must be admitted that results take time. With Kering’s investments in McQueen and Stella McCartney, the gamble paid off, but only after years patient investment that allowed the brands to hone their business and operating models. At LVMH, the group’s investment in John Galliano never bore fruit and the business has flagged, but Marc Jacobs has proven to be a surprising success and LVMH, Jacobs and his business partner Robert Duffy are now aiming to take the company public.
As for Anderson and Kane, it is always advisable to be wary of the French fairy’s wand that, with one gentle touch, can make a young British designer’s career sparkle. But in all fairness, both designers will now enjoy the kind of profile that neither would have ever achieved had they stayed independent.
For his part, Kane need only continue to focus on his very successful approach to building his own brand, as McQueen did. And, here, the help and support of Kering can surely be nothing but benign. Already, he is set to open a flagship store in London and expand into new product categories, including shoes and bags. But with Anderson the deal is different. LVMH has bought a stake in his business, but only a minority share. And at Loewe, he has his work cut out for him: to take what has been a bit of a poisoned chalice and give it coolness.
I believe that in Anderson, LVMH has made a good choice. His interest in androgyny — rather too childishly expressed on his menswear runway at this stage — has huge potential to introduce an entirely new, and desperately needed, third aesthetic element to fashion. But for this to happen, he will have to think a lot harder and LVMH must show that they still have the kind of courage that enabled Marc Jacobs to flourish and encourage Anderson to focus precisely on this thinking.
At his London show, held on Saturday, this very unusual young man sliced through the fussiness that is currently hampering fashion and looked instead to the past in order to create his own very individualistic future. No ghastly clashing colours, no pattern upon pattern, but, instead, an almost monochromatic display of cut and proportion reminiscent not only of Madame Grès and Vionnet, but also Balenciaga and Sybilla, the Polish-Argentinian-Spanish designer whose clothes were so influential in the 1980s. Using cotton jumbo cords of various weights and bonded silk-satins in long proportions, Anderson was in complete control.
As for Kane, his shows are always a logical progression of an idea with a few surprises thrown in. And in that sense, his London show, held on Monday morning, was top-level, even by his own exacting standards. There was strong tailoring, marvellous use of surfaces — from shiny to matte — and a beautiful colour palette of black and chocolate brown with sudden flashes of sharp green and yellow knits with sleeves and shoulders providing dramatic emphasis. Indeed, everything was perfectly judged and proportioned. Undoubtedly, the best Kane we have seen in some time.
Indeed, to draw conclusions from both designers’ new collections, it’s clear that the French groups have chosen well. And with the right support, both of these young London designers have the potential to go far. But first, they will have to convince their new shareholders that slow and steady expansion is the right path forward, because the reality is that these investments could take years to bear financial fruit.
Illustrations by Damien Cuypers in collaboration with WeTransfer and the British Fashion Council