LONDON, United Kingdom — In February of 2004, writing about London Fashion Week in the Guardian newspaper, Charlie Porter declared: "It's that old London fashion week conundrum all over again — wondering what's the point, and failing to find an answer." A month earlier, Porter said that London Fashion Week was in crisis mode.
Looking back, it's easy to understand Porter's lack of optimism. That February, London hosted 40 shows in a 5-day schedule. This was a decline from 50 shows in September of 2003. Style.com only reviewed 13 of the on-schedule shows in London, or about 33 percent. As a proxy for quality, this ratio did not bode well for London's position amongst the major fashion capitals. Major editors were in short supply and international buyers were few and far between at the lacklustre event.
What a difference five years makes. It felt like three times as much activity was packed in to the same five day period during this London Fashion Week. With more than 75 on-schedule shows and presentations at Somerset House and other locations, more than 50 off-schedule designers showing at Fashion Scout and On|Off, plus a full day of menswear and even more events each evening, this was a jam-packed London Fashion Week to remember.
But more than sheer quantum of activity, the quality of collections also saw a marked improvement from that gloomy February five years ago. This season's London collections were remarkably polished, confident and forward looking. London is increasingly the city to which all other fashion capitals look for fashion direction.
Indeed, Style.com reviewed 24 shows in London this time around, or about 42 percent of on-schedule shows. Though, now that the quality of many of the London collections is so good, it's time to raise the standards and increase the transparency of criteria required for showing on the official London schedule. With so many great collections to see, we now have little room for slack.
One of the week's highlights was London Fashion Week alumnus Jonathan Saunders' magnificent display of modern fashion for the times in a beautifully produced show with a mood that added to the overall experience of taking in the collection. It was the kind of show the Internet could never duplicate, as evidenced by the images on Style.com which somehow don't capture graphic, layered pastels as I experienced them. These are clothes to appreciate in person.
Christopher Kane was another high point and his equally high wattage front row did not leave disappointed as he continued to weave his magic, this time with gingham and immaculately tailored suiting, created with the assistance of Norton & Sons of Savile Row. Erdem Moralioglu's talent with embellishment and print soared higher, with a refined production quality that brought a bit of Parisian polish to London.
And from what I hear, Meadham Kirchoff, Antonio Berardi, Peter Pilotto and Nathan Jenden also created their own fashion moments, contributing to a fashion week that had an amazing balance of innovative creativity and commercial fashion sensibility; a balance of emerging designers, old stalwarts and one undisputed mega luxury brand.
Which brings us to the week's undisputed climax on Tuesday night, when Burberry invited 1500 guests to a spectacular evening of events unlike any other to ever hit London Fashion Week. Christopher Bailey's masterful collection was beautifully presented by the world's top models in an elegant tent with plush white carpet. This was the show that brought in all the major powerplayers of global fashion to London. The international A-list was represented by Indian actress Freida Pinto, Chinese actress Maggie Cheung and American actress Liv Tyler. 'Big' editors and important buyers were also out in full force. In short, Burberry brought the kind of fashion frisson to London that is usually reserved for Marc Jacobs in New York, Louis Vuitton in Paris, and Prada in Milan.
Afterwards, at the jam-packed Burberry afterparty, Carine Roitfeld hung out with Christopher Bailey in a blogger bar cum VIP room while the Kooks played a live set to more than one thousand revelers gathered in the cafeteria at the new global headquarters of Britain's largest luxury brand. But the question on everyone's lips as the week came to a close was whether the London show was a one-off move for Burberry just this season, or the beginning of a new strategy to show in London on a longer-term basis.
On the one hand, by showing in London, Burberry would continue to get the biggest buzz of the week and more closely associate itself with its British heritage. Somehow, it made sense for Burberry to show in London this week. It just felt right. In Milan, Burberry is forced to jostle with Italian mega brands on their home turf for attention and mindspace. But in London, Burberry would be the prodigal son; the undisputed, most highly-anticipated show of the week. If the wall-to-wall international media frenzy that Burberry created this week is any indication, it could work again.
On the other hand, in order to make a more permanent shift to London, Burberry must also be able to justify the higher costs of showing here. It must also be certain that fashion flock will make the effort to attend each season, adding to an already manic schedule of shows in three other fashion capitals.
Indeed, the editors and buyers I spoke to said that while this was certainly the most exciting London Fashion Week in memory (and would possibly have been the best fashion week ever if Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney had also returned), they really weren't sure if this could work on a long-term basis. Despite the weak pound, it is still expensive to travel to and stay in London. And, it would also mean some editors would be away from their families, offices and teams for three or more weeks in a row.
So while the official jury's still out on how things will unfold, most observers expect that Burberry will be back in Milan in February. I still hope they might consider coming back to London next season to give it another go.
Nonetheless, if the response from London's financial markets is any indication, Burberry's fortunes are looking up either way. Following Tuesday's sparkling show and CEO Angela Ahrendts' comments that the UK business is "on fire," the company's stock price has risen more than five percent, closing at 500.50 pence in Thursday's trading on the London Stock Exchange, where Burberry was also recently admitted to the elite circle of FTSE 100 companies.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion