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London’s Next Wave Embraces New Pragmatism

Reacting to the challenges of the current economic climate and a fashion industry in a state of flux, London’s emerging designers are embracing a new sense of pragmatism.
Faustine Steinmetz Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent months, the shuttering of beloved labels like Meadham Kirchoff, and once-confident brands like Jonathan Saunders, Marios Schwab and Richard Nicoll, has underscored the fragility of independent fashion businesses operating in the British capital. Indeed, for every J.W. Anderson and Christopher Kane, which have both secured the backing of major French luxury conglomerates, there is a long list of failed businesses.

At a time of major industry flux and as bigger brands, from Burberry to Tom Ford, embrace direct-to-consumer strategies, these closures raise questions about the future of the wholesale-dependent business model that most emerging designers employ.

For London’s next wave of young designers — already susceptible to cash flow problems from bearing the costs of production upfront before retailers pay for their orders — it’s a challenging time. “It’s fucking terrifying, you have to learn as you grow,” said Phoebe English, founder of her 6-year-old eponymous brand, backstage at her recent Autumn/Winter 2016 presentation. “I feel steady, but the canvass that I am painting on is moving a lot. And I am trying to ensure that I remain super sensitive as to where that canvas might be going.”

For her presentation, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, English transformed the subterranean space into a waiting room, where despondent models collected tickets from a deli-counter dispenser before sitting on benches, and processing to a photo area when their number was called. Given budget constraints, the concept was well realised, giving editors cause to pause a moment longer.

However, atmospheric lighting meant the “laboured construction” techniques English places at the centre of her brand were largely indiscernible. The exception were impressive woven monochrome intarsias, which had been inspired by white noise on television, while an oxblood leather apron dress, worn over a white shirt with what looked like an updated take on Edwardian cuff buttons, was another clear standout.

Phoebe English Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

Entering her tenth season, English has entirely self funded her label. Backstage, she was duly proud of having taken on a third member of staff to help with in-house production, which still accounts for a significant proportion of manufacturing. “It is daunting. I am a designer, not a businesswoman. My aspirations for now are to pay my employees, pay the rent. You have to learn as you grow.” Two seasons ago, she launched a menswear collection with a series of simple cotton pieces (including shirts, T-shirts and trousers) that found immediate traction. “It’s much more commercial, in terms of production and the scale of stockists,” said the designer.

“A lot of people have told us handmade product is not commercial enough, because of when we show and how we produce,” said French CSM graduate Faustine Steinmetz, who debuted her label in Spring 2015 with a labour-intensive collection of unpicked recycled denim, hand-loomed into new pieces. However, with the help of her boyfriend and business partner, Steinmetz has leveraged her couture-like craftsmanship (she recently met with Paris’ Chambre Syndicale) to build a buzzy brand aimed at discerning consumers with an eco-conscience.

To do that, Steinmetz labours over "crazy show pieces for the press — which can take four people four weeks to make, sculpting from cotton," before harnessing media interest to build out her denim and accessible knitwear lines — stocked in Opening Ceremony, Selfridges and Dover Street Market — where she recognises a broader commercial opportunity.

Faustine Steinmetz Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source: Courtesy

This season, Steinmetz was inspired by sculpture. Her presentation, staged in Tate Britain’s Clore Galley, consisted of four vignettes grouped by colour: cerulean blue, temple marble white, marigold and fawn. Unfortunately, however, her models, who had been boxed into crates as part of the creative display, were only visible through arrow-slit sized cut-outs.

The fuzzy Pan-like leggings and sculpted metallic breastplates that were visible landed somewhere between the chryselephantine statue of Athena in the Acropolis in Athens, and the satyrs and shepherdesses in the surrounding Attican hills. Undulating waves appeared on plush trousers and tops, with some becoming hanging appendages reminiscent of the Trojan priest Laocoön's twisting serpentine killers, while ribbed tunics had added eyelets and ties that enabled wearers to sculpt the clothes around their bodies. The brand's first foray into accessories came in the form of envelope clutch versions of these chest-pieces.

Matthew Harding and Levi Palmer, the designer duo behind 4-year-old London brand Palmer/Harding, are also convinced by the need for a signature specialisation. “We started with £5,000 in savings and went into shirts. Not many people were doing [shirts] and it was easy way to compose a setting for the brand,” said Harding. Today, the label’s shirts — deconstructed, reconstructed, elongated and reimagined in every which way — represent 65 percent of the collection. “We are building a language by developing our core,” added Palmer. “To be known only for an aesthetic, today, I think there are very few brands that can survive like that.”

The collection was plain sailing: elongated lines, well-judged leather accents and arresting appliqué on some of the cuffs provided little novelty, but were wholly desirable. “Customers want to be their own aesthetic, it’s about style not fashion,” said Harding. “We removed a lot of concept; concept feels dated. Making reality is interesting; that inspires us now.”

Palmer/Harding Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source: Courtesy

It’s an unusual position for an emerging London label. As a hotbed of youth culture and home to some of the industry’s most prestigious design schools, London is the fashion capital best known for producing young conceptual labels. But with its generous and well-oiled support systems, such as Fashion East and NewGen, it is also perhaps the city that’s guiltiest of the premature idolatry that can easily derail the rise of promising brands.

Claire Barrow, who spent three seasons at Fashion East before receiving NewGen funding three seasons ago, is just the kind of designer that needs to navigate London and its approach to talent carefully. At her presentation, also held in the Institute of Contemporary Art, attendees were confronted by 15 metre canvasses depicting Barrow’s interpretation of ancient Egyptian art. These were mirrored by the collection’s conical-shaped ball gowns crafted from paintings in the same series. Some models stood on raised plinths, with gallery-like white cards printed with descriptions of the clothes before them. It was an evocative touch, but in this setting the initial impression was one of unbridled artistic creativity, not fashion.

Claire Barrow Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source: Courtesy

On further inspection, however, several very wearable and desirable pieces emerged from the tableaux. A series of jacquards and knitwear pieces, created in partnership with the renowned John Smedley mill, captured the character of Barrow’s artistry; their cartoonish depictions of the suffragette movement and female empowerment both sharp and charming. An illustration of a woman burning her bra looked like a 17th Century woodcarving, liberated from some despotic tome on witch hunting.

As both a fine artist and a fashion designer, Barrow sees no reason to compartmentalise her creative expression or the differing branches of her eponymous brand. When asked whether one day she envisaged selling her clothes in department stores around the world, she answered: “Of course I hope my clothes sell. When you see them on the rail, there is a commerciality about them. But why just the clothes, why not art as well?”

Molly Goddard  was another NewGen name this season.Two seasons into her career, she is already stocked at Dover Street Market London, Dover Street Market New York, IT Hong Kong and Club 21. "It is important that we don't grow too quickly," said Goddard, who is also conscious that, last season, her pieces became "a little expensive."

Molly Goddard Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source:

The collection of ruching and ruffles, gauzy 'Sunday Best' party dresses and satiny shifts (with more ruffled construction at the shoulder and along the sleeves) was inspired by Thierry Mugler's couture shapes, and was certainly technically accomplished. The Londoner first became interested traditional techniques such as hand pleating, smocking and crocheting, during her studies at CSM, and the skills she developed there paid dividends in the collection's romantic aspect, some of which was bravely shown in blancmange pink. "I am focused on making desirable, different and buyable clothes," said the designer. The best of her collection, especially her netted occasion wear, scored across all points.

Korea-born Rejina Pyo has previously ghosted for a major Italian brand, worked in-house at a Korean department store's private label, spent time on the design team of Christopher Raeburn and worked as Roksanda Ilincic's first assistant designer. The same kind of easily accessible, grown-up glamour aimed at women who want to be tastefully off-beat that imbues Roksanda's collections was the aesthetic mainstay of what was a desirably mature collection.

Well-proportioned and cut throughout, Pyo showed metallic skirts with blue peacoats, exaggerated jumpsuits and cocktail dresses with sheer sleeves and coats (her most successful product category) enlivened with martingales in primary colours and contrasting front-fastening panels.

Rejina Pyo Autumn/Winter 2016 | Source: Courtesy

Yes there was something of Phoebe Philo and Miuccia Prada in the line-up, but Pyo's approach runs deeper than designing in line with the pre-eminences of directional womenswear. "I make sure the collection sells, I imagine beyond the show. What it will look for on the shop floor, how consumers can wear it, [durability], that's all in my process from the beginning," she said, going on to explain that her experience has enabled her to ensure high production values.

And with those in mind, is the woman in Hong Kong’s IT, or London’s Harvey Nichols, or perusing Net-a-Porter (all stockists) really going to care that another designer laid the ground work for her tasteful, if derivative, coats? And even if she does, is she still going to care when she discovers that, priced at £700, they are less than a third of the price?

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