What the Future (and Present) Holds for British Designers
This week has been a good one for British fashion: full of critically acclaimed collections by emerging designers – Molly Goddard, Matty Bovan, and Rejina Pyo come to mind – and featuring more established brands than in past seasons – on top of Burberry, both Vivienne Westwood and Victoria Beckham decided to show in the British capital again –, London Fashion Week had something to offer to everyone in the industry. And yet, all the time an inescapable dark cloud was looming over the event.
Backstage at the Burberry Fall/Winter 2019 show in London. Photos: Courtesy of PR.
Unless a second vote, a delay in the proceedings, or some kind of Deus Ex Machina miracle takes place at the eleventh hour, we have just witnessed the very last fashion week before Brexit. Without a deal in place and with all options still on the table, incertitude is ubiquitous, but several questions arise: how will London Fashion Week and the BFC (which has until now benefitted from European Regional Development Funding) survive after this? How much money and talent will the industry lose in the process? And how will it affect the international presence of British designers, who in the past few decades have been inextricably intertwined with the continent and its most important houses? Does – and will – London still produce fashion eminences as it was in the past, or is it now just a playful ground with no means?
None of the answers are simple or straightforward. It’s undeniable that London is a global fashion capital, as proven by the 36 billion euro the industry is worth to the United Kingdom (which is, though, still a fraction of the mammoth 170 billion it produces in France). Insiders from all over the globe flock to the capital regularly, mostly in search of true creativity, which is what the British have always done best. As Lulu Kennedy, founder of Fashion East, explains, “individuality has always been the norm here, in part because fashion universities actively encourage it, but also because youth and street culture are so predominant here.” In the past, it was this individuality that drove troubled or lethargic yet legendary European houses to import London talent en masse (the biggest examples being Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, John Galliano at Dior, Stella McCartney at Chloé, and Phoebe Philo both at Chloé and Céline), but the trend has been steadily reverting in the past few years. With the notable exception of Jonathan Anderson, currently at the helm of Loewe and running back and forth between London and Paris to present his J.W. Anderson collections, most designers from his generation, once touted as the industry’s biggest promises worldwide, have been caught in a game of trying to get investment and globally scale their business that has often backfired and left them in the uncomfortable limbo between emerging status and truly established fashion brands. In 2013, Nicholas Kirkwood secured funding from LVMH and Christopher Kane did the same with Kering (the Scottish designer is now in the process of buying back his brand). None of the deals brought about the global, Stella McCartney-like breathtaking expansion most expected. A situation not unlike that of Roksanda, Erdem, or Mary Katrantzou: while they all enjoy the comfort of international recognition and steady sales, they seem to have reached the limit of their scalability.
Shrimps Fall/Winter 2019 show in London. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION.
And then, there’s Brexit. A subject so rife with uncertainty that it’s still difficult to grasp, no less because the British – with their usual charming mix of stiff upper lip and Victorian embarrassment – are mostly reluctant to discuss in a personal way (even if the BFC has put in place a detailed guide for designers in the case of a no deal scenario). Some of them do, though: “There is so little clarity, it’s hard to know what contingency plans to make, and this is what is alarming. In any case, leaving Europe will create delays in importing goods and shipping things to factories in Europe. Our business depends on speed, so it will set us back in so many ways… I am now dedicating all my energy to pushing for a final vote on whatever the deal is,” admits Bella Freud. Her concerns are echoed by Shrimps’ Hannah Weiland: “We mostly work and trade with businesses based within the EU. That helps us to keep costs down and helps us to achieve the results we want within our means, as well as hire international talent. Brexit would really compromise this for us and for our customers. I love having an international team and hate the anxiety and worry it is causing my employees.” Cozette McCreery, previously of Sibling and who now works as a connector and consultant for Iceberg under the creative direction of James Long (the latest Brit to thrive in a continental brand), says she’s lucky to have an Irish passport. “I especially worry for small fashion businesses: our pound is weak, manufacturing in the UK seems at its lowest point ever, and it’s a business that relies on working with Europe. Even getting your collection to a store in Europe feels more expensive and a chore of new paperwork requirements. Sending sample collections to Paris showrooms for selling could mean expensive carnets, tariffs, and additional travel expenses. Will the customer be happy that the cost of a garment has increased due to Brexit? I very much doubt they will be sympathetic,” she says candidly.
All in all, a dire prospect for most London brands. With that landscape to look forward to, it’s no surprise if the youngest generation on show at London Fashion Week feel like doing things in their own different way. Matty Bovan, LFW’s newest rising star, doesn’t even live in London. Instead, he has chosen to be realistic about the uncertain political situation and the limits of today’s oversaturated market, and stays at his parents’ place in York. His work philosophy follows suit: “There seems to be a consensus among people my age,” he says, “who are trying to find a way to operate in fashion that isn’t mass production. That, in my gut, just feels right. More than ever, we need less stuff. Mass consumption, mass production can’t go on forever.” His fashion is carefully crafted and soul-searching, just like those of his contemporaries Rottingdean Bazaar and Charles Jeffrey. Like Bovan, Jeffrey did a stint at LVMH but, as he admits, “was more interested in stapling stuff together.” The new generation’s work veers away from the polished style of their predecessor and mixes a take on creativity almost completely unconcerned by commercialism with a sense of urgency impossible to dissociate from London (“I started making tulle dresses because I was quite tight. I like something that’s £6 a metre so you can pleat it and gather it,” explains Molly Goddard).
Matty Bovan Fall/Winter 2019 show in London. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION.
There are obvious limits to these work methods in today’s industry, true, but, as Cozette McCreery says, “I have noticed that buyers, especially Stavros Karelis at Machine-A and Natalie Kingham at Matches are buying into and supporting designers and small brands that don’t exactly conform to the normal parameters of wholesale. Art School, for example, are inspired by the individuals around them and make garments for that person who then walks the catwalk. In many ways, this makes range planning difficult or obsolete. That Natalie buys theirs and Matty's collections I think shows how buying has shifted to accommodate both the creatives and a consumer looking to purchase something more exclusive/one off.” In that way, it would seem London has indeed become a creative playground with less global priorities and less means than it once had… Except, as history shows us, it’s at the most uncertain times that the British capital shines the most. It was in the midst of the early 90’s recession that the uncompromising, DIY genius of McQueen and Galliano put Britain back on the fashion map. Could it all happen again after Brexit with this new guard? Only time will tell, but we’re banking on it.