In London, From Emerging Designers to Emerging Businesses?

Will new initiatives like the BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund succeed in transforming London from a capital of emerging designers to a capital of emerging businesses? BoF reports.

LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent years, several of London’s leading young womenswear designers have built formidable emerging businesses, defying the British capital’s long-standing reputation as a centre of unfettered creativity where commercial success remains elusive. Now, the British Fashion Council aims to drive a similar evolution in London’s menswear scene. 

“There is a raft of brilliantly creative womenswear businesses that are now starting to achieve great commercial success. And that is completely our ambition for menswear. If we can take our emerging talent and build those businesses in the way that we have seen the growth in womenswear, London is just going to get stronger and stronger,” Caroline Rush, chief executive of The British Fashion Council told BoF. “What we want to get away from is people saying, ‘Oh look at those poor young start-up designers, aren’t they incredibly creative?’ and get to, ‘Wow, what an incredibly exciting business, how do I invest, how do I get involved?”

In only four seasons, London’s menswear week, London Collections: Men, has earned its place on the  global menswear calendar, cementing its success as a powerful communications platform for brands large and small. But despite the fact that buyer attendance and sales volume continue to grow each season (this cycle, international buyer accreditation is up nearly 30 percent, year-on-year, according to figures provided by the BFC) LC:M’s impact as a driver of actual business remains significantly behind that of well-established menswear events in Florence, Milan and Paris.

‘Business,’ however, is one of BFC chairman Natalie Massenet’s five strategic pillars for London fashion. And the success of womenswear-focused initiatives like the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund — which has provided past winners, including Christopher Kane, Peter Pilotto, Nicholas Kirkwood and Erdem with funding and business mentoring — have helped to reposition London Fashion Week as a commercially viable event.

On Monday evening, the inaugural BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund (£150,000 prize money and mentoring from experts) was awarded to Christopher Shannon. “We copied their idea. As a model for this kind of award, [the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund] is very, very good, we have adapted it slightly, taken some learnings from the American model and adapted it to suit our needs, but it’s a pretty great model,” said Dylan Jones, chair of the London Collections: Men committee and editor of GQ (UK), who hopes the prize will play a meaningful role in making London a menswear centre, not only of emerging designers, but of emerging businesses.

The commercial focus of the new fund was apparent from the very start of the process. Applicants were asked to submit business plans to the panel, from which the shortlist was selected: Christopher Raeburn, Christopher Shannon, E-Tautz, Lou Dalton and Richard Nicoll. The finalists were then granted four one-to-one mentoring sessions with senior figures at Alexander McQueen (commercial strategy), Fourmarketing (wholesale, retail and e-tail), All Saints (digital strategy) and the fund’s sponsor Vertu (finance, branding and leadership).

“The important thing, in terms of who wins the prize is: are they getting the money at the right time and what will they do with that money? I spent more time looking at their business plans and how they are articulating their growth process, their ambitions, than looking at their clothes,” said Jones, part of the nine-member jury who picked the winner. “It is not just about nurturing great talent, we have a lot of great talent in this country, it is about channelling the funds to the person who is going to best use them.”

BoF had exclusive access to the closed-door judging process and saw first hand the weight awarded to commercial considerations. The five shortlisted designers were granted five minutes to discuss five looks on five models, before they presented their business models.

Following these presentations, the jury probed the shortlisted designers on items like their sales forecasts, profit-and-loss projections, the viability of stated growth opportunities, and how they would use the prize money. “It [was] really analysing their business plans and also their strength of character, what traction they get in the press, how they deal with the industry, how practical they are, all of these things — you can’t just say that person is a great designer and just shower them with praise and money,” said Jones.

“I really distilled my brand DNA and made as strong a business argument as I could,” said Richard Nicoll, one of the shortlisted designers, on the selection process. “The fund was my opportunity to employ strategies that were really creative and innovative, in terms of e-commerce, etcetera, that I couldn’t do short-term without it. It was really useful to clarify my business plan. I learnt a lot on the way.”

In a small conference room in the West Wing of London’s Somerset House, the winner was deliberated at great length by the entire jury, which, as well as Jones and Rush, included Alexander McQueen chief executive Jonathan Akeroyd, Harvey Nichols head of fashion merchandising John Schofield, journalists Alexander Fury of The Independent and Charlie Porter of The Financial Times, Ben Banks of Fourmarketing, and Massimiliano Pogliani and Ignacio Germande, both representatives of Vertu. Debate raged and a lack of general consensus prompted a final vote, before the winner was decided.

“When LC:M started, people were really creative, but we’re not very focused, we were like kids really, but now everyone has built real businesses, you have to, to get the product out globally. And to win the first one, I mean I am quite an odd brand really,” said Christopher Shannon, immediately after the announcement, still visibly moved.

“What will happen now is that we will sit down with Christopher, we will go through his business plan, we will look at the mentors that he thinks can add value, we will put forward the mentors that we think will add value, and then we also put together a contract of where the money goes. It is not just that you get a cheque for £150,000 there will be an agreement on where that money is going to be spent so it is targeted and based on delivering growth to the business,” said Rush.

Shannon’s ability to respond so well to mentoring was a persuasive argument in his favour, said Schofield. “His original business plan was three pages long. Today, he represented himself completely differently, comprehensively, informatively, clearly and passionately. His business plan definitely changed the most [compared to the other designers].”

The truth is, the £150,000 prize money will be quickly spent by an emerging fashion business like Shannon’s, making the mentoring component of the award, not to mention the increased profile of his brand, the real prize. “To have someone like Jonathan [Akeroyd], who has built an amazing, major, global player out of a business entirely based on creativity, involved in the mentoring process meant you could trust in the decision, that it was going to work,” said Rush. Akeryod himself added: “Creativity is still the most important driver, but there has been a shift over the last 15 years, it is a bigger world out there, and there are bigger challenges.”

“Across all of the business support that we do, [it’s really about] developing the mentoring process more broadly, so that a whole group of designers have access to understanding cash flow projections, thinking about their sales strategy, thinking about e-commerce, how they are building their businesses, thinking about what their investment strategy might be as they are looking to achieve those various different growth points and, of course, having a business plan to start off with. That is going to be done across all of the designers in our talent support pathways,” added Rush.

As to how long the effect of these initiatives will take to kick in across London’s broader menswear ecosystem, Rush said: “A timescale is quite tricky, but we have seen significant growth in the womenswear section over the past seven years. With menswear we are seeing the traction much quicker, I guess because LC:M is so new and there is a real eye on growth in the menswear market. We are hoping that we will be able to fast forward some of the growth for key brands with real potential.”

“We are taking care to make sure that the winner has as much support as possible,” added Jones. “Because there is a lot riding on this, not just their reputation but mine, GQ’s, London Collections: Men’s, the BFC’s, and British menswear in general.”