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CEO Talk | Harold Tillman, Chairman, The British Fashion Council

  • Imran Amed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Long before he was appointed Chairman of The British Fashion Council, Harold Tillman had already shown a commitment for supporting British Fashion, and young designers in particular. He famously gave Paul Smith his first job. And, in my first meeting with him back in 2006, Mr. Tillman and I vigorously debated and discussed the common challenges faced by the city's designers and what could possibly be done to support them. A few months earlier, he had personally financed a £1m scholarship program at his alma mater, The London College of Fashion, to sponsor 10 students each year.

So, it must be with great satisfaction that Mr. Tillman reads widespread reports of the great comeback that London Fashion Week is making this season. The buzz about London's young designers is hotter than ever. And, with a flood of returning brands, designers and important American and European editors, this will certainly be a fashion week to remember.

But, Mr. Tillman will also be the first to admit that hype and media attention are not enough. A seasoned entrepreneur (he took his first company public at the age of 24), business builder (with Belinda Earl, CEO of Jaeger, he has re-built the excitement around the venerable British brand), and investor (with a group of partners, he recently saved Acquscutum from the brink), Tillman recognises the importance of secure financing, flawless execution and great design for success in fashion.

On this, the first day of London Fashion week, I reached Mr Tillman by email to better understand his plans for London Fashion Week, the various initiatives planned to support British fashion businesses, and his long-term objectives for the British fashion industry. In particular, now that several young fashion businesses in London — Erdem and Christopher Kane included — have achieved annual revenues of over £1m, now is the time to assess how to take these high-potential businesses to the next level.

BoF: Matthew Williamson, Burberry Prorsum, Pringle and several other British brands are returning to join the festivities for the BFC's 25th anniversary at London Fashion Week. How did you convince them all to return?

We have been speaking to them all for a while and the time was right on both sides for them to return to London to help us celebrate 25 years of British Fashion. London has a global reputation for showcasing the most innovative emerging designer businesses in the world. We also have strong businesses that show here such as Paul Smith, Betty Jackson, and brands such as Mulberry, Jaeger and Aquascutum.

London has launched many great careers and it made sense for some of these to support London and help us focus the spotlight of breadth of talent in London.

BoF: Each fashion capital seems to have its own personality and make its own contribution to the global fashion ecosystem. What do you see as London's role in this ecosystem?

London’s reputation as the leading creative fashion capital has developed over the past 25 years. Our designers have a reputation for originality in design and those designs are exported globally to stores and independent retailers and through fashion media. It isn’t just designers who are recognised for their creativity, it is our photographers, stylists, make-up artists, hair stylists and creative directors. London’s multiculturalism brings a clash of heritage and modernity which influences and inspires all creative sectors making London a hotbed for creative talents in different disciplines.

In addition to this we have some of the best fashion colleges in the world which produce world class talents — some of which develop their businesses in London, others who take up positions all over the world — providing London-based designers with unparalleled opportunities for emerging talents to work for or collaborate with international brands. Global brands look to London for design talent to bring a new dimension to their offering. This trend began in the 90s and continues. Today you see this with Christopher Kane consulting for Versace and Marios Schwab for Halston.

BoF: Many of the labels on the London schedule are nascent businesses, often with brand profiles that are disproportionately larger than their sales books. What is the BFC doing specifically to help these designers establish long-term businesses?

We have a number of schemes to help emerging designer businesses.

Labels that have been in business for less than 3 years are eligible to apply for NEWGEN and NEWGEN MEN which helps designers with showcasing and business support. There are many success stories that have come out of the NEWGEN scheme – Alexander McQueen was one of the first recipients back in 1993, since then the likes of Matthew Williamson, Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh have come through the scheme. NEWGEN was created to support these new talents to showcase their collections to an international audience and in doing so, assist in the growth of their business.

A second stage, Fashion Forward, gives a further two seasons support to the most promising designers as they emerge from NEWGEN. As part of our 25 year celebrations we have also launched a third tier the 'British Fashion Council's Fashion Fund' which will help the very best designers become international businesses.

Over the past couple of years we have also developed a small business support unit which provides 1:1 advice to designer businesses and gives these businesses to expert advice in law, accountancy and finance through Shoosmiths, Baker Tilly and Lloyds TSB.

BoF: Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by the UK fashion industry is the erosion of a local high-quality manufacturing base. How can the British fashion industry overcome this major issue?

We know that many of our emerging stars manufacture here in the UK.  It’s a necessity for these small but growing businesses that don’t have the large production runs or a production manager and don’t benefit from the economies of scale of manufacturing overseas.   These businesses use Atelier type units where they can oversee production and they have confidence in quality of finish. These units are a scarce resource with increasing demand.

We recognise that there is a real opportunity to develop skills to support designer businesses in London and developing these Atelier type units would be a step in the right direction.

BoF: As the BFC looks ahead to its next 25 years, what is your vision for where British fashion should be?

There is such an exciting energy in London at the moment and we are dedicated to using our 25 year celebrations as a launch pad into the next 25 years. We will continue to strengthen both our schedule and home grown talent.

Through the BFC Fashion Fund I hope we can create some international businesses that will follow in the footsteps of our iconic brands such as Burberry, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood.

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Business of Fashion

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon