Every day during London Fashion Week, the narrow pavements outside the official BFC venue fill to bursting point. Fashion students, gawping tourists, celebrity spotters, and street-style photographers jostle alongside fabulously-dressed nobodies and anonymously-dressed somebodies for the prime corners. Inside, the photographers’ pit is rammed to capacity, and the long benches that line the skylit show space are thronged with international editors and buyers.
'On|Off Presents' live shoot, London (Courtesy of PR)
About twenty minutes’ walk away, at the far end of Covent Garden, the scene at the Freemasons’ Hall is somewhat different. Fashion Scout (a showcase founded seven years ago, as a platform for emerging talent) has its base here. There are still crowds, albeit smaller ones. And there is still press presence – over the seasons, Suzy Menkes, Sarah Mower, and Hilary Alexander have all sat on its front row – but the audience mix is skewed more towards stylists, bloggers, of-the-moment It-girls, and wealthy backers. In the years when the main schedule shows were concentrated at Somerset House, Fashion Scout was an easy five-minute stroll away – and a popular draw for visitors filling in short gaps in their show agendas. But now, thanks to the BFC’s move to Brewer Street, it is starting to feel pushed toward the margins. “The main schedule is so densely packed, not just with shows but presentations, that it has become even harder to keep track of those showing off this,” PR Antony Waller explains. An industry veteran, he works with brands on both schedules. “With the official schedule now hosting many of the big multinational brands, those showing unique or progressive collections off-schedule are not being noticed as much. But I understand the wish to move London away from its quirky reputation to something more commercial.”
“It's true, the official schedule is crammed,” Lee Lapthorne (founder of On|Off) acknowledges. “The BFC have done a great job, to create a successful event that is packed full of professional shows. The shows have become very slick and commercial – which is why off-schedule with its risk-taking designers, is still so relevant. I'm keen for On|Off to become more ‘off’ schedule and leftfield, and to be about experimentation and ideas.”
'On|Off Presents' live shoot, London (Courtesy of PR)
Lapthorne started On|Off back in 2003, to act an alternative both to the official schedule tents, and to the scattered off-schedule venues then spread all over London. He suspended it a few years back, in the midst of the recession. “The economic situation was poor,” he says. “I also felt that the creative talent wasn't there, and I didn't want to compromise. But last year we received a number of calls from designers asking to apply to On|Off, and the team and I felt we should return.”
Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2016 read-to-wear show finale, London (photography by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION)
Once upon a time, London was known almost solely for its unique off-schedule scene. It made its reputation as a fashion capital packed with Next Big Things, whose wildly inventive word-of-mouth showings made the main schedule seem staidly unremarkable. Alexander McQueen’s debut was a group event at the Ritz Hotel, with his garments shown on Dorothy Perkins hangers. And Gareth Pugh first came to public attention in an Alternative Fashion Week group show at Spitalfields Market. Incidentally, Pugh’s trajectory came almost full circle on Saturday night – his spectacular runway show took over Fashion Scout’s main show space. Lapthorne is particularly proud of having given Pugh his first solo showcase at On|Off, back in 2006; “The British fashion establishment didn't quite understand it, and they just thought he was a club kid. Gareth is such an appreciative person, so I was more than happy to give him the platform to be noticed and take his business forward.”
Gareth Pugh takes a bow at the end of his Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (photography by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)
“There seemed to be fewer younger designers then.” design duo Vin + Omi reflect, meditating on the fight for media attention. “It seems to have gone crazy in the last few seasons. For us, it has always been drumming to our own beat – we don't want to belong to the same circus that London sees as fashion.” Showing late on Monday evening (at the end of the schedule’s most punishing, starriest day), they managed to stand out with a little star power of their own; Jane Horrocks, whose costumes in the upcoming “Absolutely Fabulous” film were provided by the duo, closed their show.
Vin + Omi Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (Courtesy of PR)
Judy Wu, who launched her own label three years ago after stints at Jasmine Di Milo and House of Holland, is matter-of-fact about the situation. “I worked my ass off when working for other labels, so that I knew what it took when I was ready to start my own brand.” Showing off-schedule midway through Saturday afternoon, her slot was sandwiched between Holly Fulton and Emilia Wickstead. “Having an LFW slot brings recognition,” she reflects. “Fashion Scout is a very good platform for up-and-coming designers to showcase their work to media, buyers, and potential consumers. Given this great opportunity, I am able to achieve greater exposure for my brand, which will help it get to the next level.”
VFiles Spring/Summer 2016 ready-to-wear show, New-York (photography by Régis Colin-Berthelier for NOWFASHION)
“It means the world to me, really,” David Ferreira agrees. This year’s Fashion Scout Merit Award winner, the Lisbon-based designer graduated from the University of Westminster last year, and made his runway debut at New York’s VFiles in September “VFiles was just surreal – in a good way. It was my first ever runway show. It helped me to have a better sense of what goes on in the industry, in terms of presentation and buyers and all that stuff apart from the designing. But the Fashion Scout show is more like ‘home.’ It isn't only for the award itself but everything it involves: the fact that the panel understands and appreciates what I do, that for me is just absolutely incredible.”
Ferreira’s show, played out to a lively audience in the Freemasons’ Hall, was packed with effervescent color and quirky drama. But was it enough? “With a packed schedule and busy crowded social media frenzy during fashion week it's difficult to get noticed,” Lapthorne notes. “They say cream always rises to the top – but it's how to stay there that’s the issue.”
Wiao Li Fall/Winter 2016 ready-to-wear show, London (Courtesy of PR)
“For a designer to move on-schedule is quite a task!” Waller acknowledges. “NEWGEN is a fantastic initiative, but places on this are few and far between. And with the schedule being so packed, available slots are like gold dust. For a designer showing off-schedule, it can be hard to get the level of media you would wish to the show. But they can’t be everywhere. If it is good enough, people will find out.”
But it can – and has – been done. Xiao Li, who closed the main schedule on Tuesday afternoon, is a previous Merit Award winner. (Her trophy cabinet also includes accolades from Pitti, Loro Piana, and the ITS Diesel international showcase.) Li also showed with VFiles in Manhattan last season – and, like Ferreira, she’s happy to be showing in London again. “Fashion Scout gives terrific support to designers who are just starting out – I showed there for three seasons,” she says with obvious gratitude. But now, with support from Mercedes Benz China, she’s made the leap to a bigger platform. “It’s so different – the schedule, how everything is set up. And I think because of that my collection is different too. It’s more developed, and more mature.”
And easy as it might be to dismiss the off-schedule world entirely, it’s perhaps short sighted to do so. Yes, the names showing are often smaller, and have yet to hit their sweet spot. And yes, the audiences may not wield the same power of industry weight. But that’s not to say they won’t. Among today’s off-schedule faces are the industry figures of the future. Fashion Scout’s past designers have included Peter Pilotto, David Koma, Fyodor Golan – all of whom have gone on to achieve significant success. Xiao Li is only the latest Merit Award winner to go mainstream, following in the footsteps of Leutton Postle and Phoebe English. In addition to Pugh, On|Off’s alumni include J.W. Anderson, Louise Gray, and Roksanda Ilincic. A week ago, the International Woolmark Prize went to Teatum Jones, a duo whose presentations have been lurking on the fringes of London’s schedule for several seasons. And on Monday, LVMH announced the shortlist of designers for this year’s prestigious awards. Eight of them either show or are based in London – and yet only one (Caitlin Price) currently has an on-schedule womenswear slot. Ignore them – and the off-schedule calendar itself – at your own risk.