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Is Gentrification a Threat to Fashion Capitals?

Waves of young creatives are abandoning New York and London for lower rents and a better quality of life in places like Berlin and Los Angeles. Should the fashion industry be worried?
London and New York | Image: BoF
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — "If I didn't have the household arrangements that I have, creating and starting my own fashion label would, for me, be impossible," said Iain Logan MacKay, a young menswear designer who took part in the designer showrooms at London Collections: Men. MacKay, a born-and-bred Londoner, is in his mid-20s. Like 21 percent of adults in London, according to a 2015 study by Nationwide, he lives with his parents. "I don't get charged rent," he said.

London and New York are two of the biggest global hubs in the fashion industry, home to major brands, retailers and schools, as well as countless young designers, fashion students and budding entrepreneurs. They are also the 6th and 7th most expensive cities in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's annual cost of living ranking. In May, the average rent for a one-bed London property was £1,133 (about $1,609) according to property firm Countrywide. Rent on a one-bedroom property in New York averaged at $2,200, according to a study by GoBankingRates using rent data from March.

Over the past decade, London’s young creatives — including the fashion designers, photographers, stylists, and writers who are the creative lifeblood of the industry’s next generation — have chased cheap rents to the outskirts of the city, moving from Soho to Clerkenwell to Hackney to New Cross to Peckham and even further afield. In New York, many of the kinds of creatives who once populated the city’s Downtown scene have clustered in South East Chinatown or relocated to neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, as factors like a lack of affordable housing and social shifts like millennials getting married and settling down later in life — thus staying in rental market for longer — as well as well-paid global executives from sectors like finance flocking to these areas to buy or rent property, have made the rental market tougher.

London is also beginning to bleed talent to Brighton, Bristol and even Hastings and Margate, as well as European cities like Barcelona and Berlin — where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre is €662 ($746), according to living conditions database Numbeo. “Berlin is the perfect place to be young and creative, as it gives you the freedom to do so many things and don’t worry about money,” says Alexandra Bondi de Antoni, the Berlin-based editor of i-D Germany, who previously lived in London for four years, referring to the cost of living, housing, food and going out in the city.

Jonathan Lyon, 24, is a British ex-pat living in Berlin. He just finished his first novel and works as a musician on fashion films and events with young designers. Lyon moved to Berlin three years ago after studying at Oxford University and, before that, living in London. “The main factor for moving was cost of living — London’s rent and transport costs are psychotically high,” he says. “The cheaper rent allows me to write without being under too much economic pressure.”

"I feel like in London, everything — both private and work-wise — involves a much bigger constant struggle," adds Jonas Lindstroem, a German photographer and director who works with brands including Calvin Klein, Fendi and Nike. His studio is in Berlin and he travels to London once a month for work. Indeed, cheap flights have enabled people to easily commute to London from cities like Berlin and Barcelona. At the time of writing, an outbound flight from London, Luton to Berlin, Schönefeld on Tuesday morning costs £29.44 on Easyjet's website, while a six-mile journey in a London Black Cab on Tuesday morning is quoted at £23 to £29.

Berlin’s lower costs provide “the space — both mental and physical — for my work to develop,” Lindstroem says, and allow him to consider exciting, but unpaid, projects. He recently shot a video series for Kenzo in the city, featuring effects like fire, mist and flocks of birds. ‘For the editorial budget we had, we could not have done this anywhere else than Berlin on this level,” he says.

Meanwhile, some young New Yorkers are considering migrating to other American cities to kick-start their careers in fashion — not least, Los Angeles, which has in recent years traded a reputation for plastic surgery and aspiring actors, for a wellness-obsessed, laid-back lifestyle, and interconnected communities in art, fashion and film. Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Tom Ford have made LA the stage for recent fashion shows, and in the last few years, brands including Rick Owens, Acne Studios, Saint Laurent and The Row have opened new LA flagships.

“There is an energy and competitive spirit in New York that helped drive me to succeed in starting a business in my early 20s with no industry experience,” says Haley Boyd, who lived in New York for ten years, during which she founded Marais USA, a brand of minimalist mules and sandals, but moved to LA in 2014. “The standard of living is higher, the weather is beautiful year round, and there is an ease and relaxation to my day-to-day life. Living in a city like New York is a grind,” she says.

And yet, if you want to build a career in fashion, New York and London still have the upper hand in terms of market scale, range of business opportunities and connections with industry leaders in other fashion capitals like Paris or Milan. In May 2014, 7,030 fashion designers worked in the New York metropolitan area, compared to 4,130 fashion designers in the LA metropolitan area, according to a report released in February by CIT and the California Fashion Association (CFA), while 600 to 800 work in Berlin, according to a 2013 report by Berlin Partner for Business and Technology. New York City's fashion industry employs 180,000 people, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation; in 2013, Berlin's fashion industry employed 18,500, according to Berlin Partner for Business and Technology.

New York and London's fashion weeks also pull bigger crowds and are home to more brands, jobs and a deeper talent pool, thanks to the clustering effect that made them fashion capitals in the first place. And while Berlin rent may be cheap, launching a fashion business requires investment. According to the British Fashion Council, last year its partners contributed £1 million worth of pro-bono support to BFC designers. When it comes to funding opportunities for young designers, "Germany compared to the UK is really bad," says i-D Germany's Bondi de Antoni. "So everyone who is good leaves."

According to Tigran Karapetyan, who runs young London menswear label Timur Kim alongside the eponymous designer (Karapetyan is Kazakhstani; Kim is Russian), starting a business is a smoother process in London than in other cities. “Everything is ready and available online, the government is very proactive in terms of explaining everything,” he says. “The more technical things, registering the business, are quite straightforward.“

Retail is another strength of New York and London. In 2015, four “super cities” — Tokyo, New York, London and Paris — made up 25 percent of retail sales across the top 30 cities worldwide, as ranked by property services firm JLL (Berlin and Amsterdam, for instance, didn’t rank). "Berlin is a great place to start off, but to then develop professionally, somewhere like London makes more sense," says Niccolo Montanari, a fashion film consultant and co-founder of Berlin Fashion Film Festival who, after six years in Berlin, is moving to London.

Berlin "can't and never will" compete with London and New York's fashion industries, says Matt Lambert, a Berlin-based photographer whose clients include Givenchy, Gucci and the British Fashion Council. "When it comes to fashion there is almost no work that can compare to taste levels or budgets of New York, London and Paris," he says. "None of us exist without a dialogue with at least one of these cities. Almost all editorial work is with London."

Among young creatives, the city also has a reputation for what Jonathan Lyon describes as “a unique kind of inertia — people can do very little for a very long time.” Bondi de Antoni agrees that Berlin’s “cheapness also makes some people lazy… I think that is a huge difference, to London where you have to get your shit together.”

Some argue that investment could convert “alternative” cities into real contenders to London and New York in terms of industry and innovation. This Autumn, Second Home, the 25,000 square foot shared workspace for innovative businesses in East London, will launch a second space in Lisbon. “I feel exactly the same sense of excitement and potential about the city as I did when I set up London’s Tech City initiative in 2010,” says company co-founder Rohan Silva, who previously worked in David Cameron’s policy unit. While he acknowledges the Portuguese capital’s entrepreneurial economy is “still relatively small,” Silva bets that, with investment, Lisbon can “become one of the world’s leading hubs for creativity and innovation.”

And yet, as rents in London and New York — currently two of the world’s leading hubs for creativity and innovation — continue to climb, gentrification also brings a change in urban mood, swapping the “grit,” communal living and spontaneous creative scenes of run-down areas for easy access to organic groceries and chain stores. Could this shift weaken these cities’ magnetism to young creatives? Among the artisan coffee houses and boutique stores, will there still be space for the alternative scenes that have birthed fashion movements and inspired designers over the last few decades?

“I found the set-up to be very conservative. As every new neighbourhood popped up in London, the repetitiveness of the high street culture — the exact same stores moved in,” says Megan Wray Schertler, managing editor of Fantastic Man. Wray Schertler, a New Yorker, studied at Central Saint Martins and worked at Marie Claire in London before moving to Amsterdam for the “work culture” and quality of life.

But while the gulf between London and Berlin or Amsterdam remains vast, for some, LA's fashion credentials are quickly catching up with New York. Justin Chung, a fashion photographer whose clients include J. Crew, Warby Parker and Rent the Runway, lived in Brooklyn for six years, before moving to LA last May. “The work opportunities are the same,” he says, as many freelance creatives move between the two cities for work.

With high-profile brands like Burberry and Saint Laurent pulling impressive crowds to events the city, more designer showrooms popping up and young LA boutiques and brands gaining traction, more creatives in New York are beginning to ask, is the grass greener on the West Coast?

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State of Fashion 2023
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