Since its launch in 1984, London Fashion Week has had a distinct reputation among international fashion weeks: When compared to those of other industry capitals — that’s New York, Milan and Paris — it’s often described as more “experiential,” “playful,” “punk” and “over-the-top.” It was, well, a bit scruffy.
“Until not that long ago, the typical London show ran five hours late and involved an asymmetrical haircut, an old car door, a burning rubbish bin and a model with a broken leg,” joked British designer Giles Deacon during an interview with Departures in 2013. “Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.”
What’s more, London’s considered a fashion month underdog, long an optional stop for models and editors. Though it still does not have the status of Paris or Milan, it is mid-resurgence and finally seen as deserving of its fashion calendar slot.
For years, the event was known as a launch pad for young designers emerging from local fashion schools such as Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion and Royal College of Art. It featured bold, if impractical fashions like Henry Holland’s colorful slogan tees and Vivienne Westwood’s monarchy-inspired tartans, corsets and crowns. On the downside, it was also known for inadequate venues and runways of unrecognizable models. No Gigis or Kendalls in the bunch.
Vivienne Westwood Red Label Fall 2011 collection at London Fashion Week. Image via fashionqanda.com.
In addition, London has always been a short fashion “week.” It’s currently five days long, while New York Fashion Week is eight. London also suffered from poor timing, tightly sandwiched between major shows in other cities. Marc Jacobs takes place in New York City the afternoon before LFW starts, and Milan-based Gucci plays out the day after it wraps. In short, there have been plenty of available excuses for anyone looking for an out. But lately, more insiders are more worried about finding time to get there. As opposed to seasons past, London Fashion Week is a draw.
The British Fashion Council, a non-profit trade group established to promote British designers globally, has been heading up the operation since Day 1. However, it wasn’t until recently that the Council found its groove — showcasing respected, commercially successful designers in addition to London’s emerging “names to watch.”
In large part, it can thank Christopher Bailey, who — in 2009 (the same year he was promoted from Burberry’s design director to its chief creative officer) — decided to bring the label’s show back to its home turf after showing in Milan for over a decade.
While that alone didn’t exactly put LFW on the map, it did attract attention from some major players. Several editors came to stop by London Fashion Week for a day or two to make cameos at the Burberry show, check out what some buzz-worthy designers were doing, then bounce. Likewise, many popular models were cast in Bailey’s shows — if they weren’t, they’d maintain their routine of skipping the week, opting instead to head straight to Milan for fittings, castings and rest.
According to Lizzy Bowring, head of catwalks at trend forecasting and analytics company WGSN, early London Fashion Week shows that were “too extrovert in creativity” did damage that could not be repaired overnight.
“Editors did not take the shows seriously, and there was a trickle-down effect: Many key British designers decamped and opted to show in other cities,” she said. She called out designers Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Victoria Beckham, who — to this day — show in Paris (McCartney and McQueen) and New York City, respectively.
However, as big names skipped town, London became a hotbed of opportunity for British designers on the cusp.
“When London Fashion Week was not so well-attended, the designers had the time and space to grow their brands,” Lauren Santo Domingo, co-founder of online retailer Moda Operandi, told WSJ. “Now it’s become incredibly exciting as these designers hit their stride, offering editors and buyers great design and business partners.”
In addition to time and space, many British designers were granted local sponsorships, awards and mentorships that worked to boost their businesses.
In 2008, the British Fashion Council established the Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which grants yearly winners approximately $300,000 and support through high-level mentorships. Recipients of the Fund have included popular London Fashion Week designers Erdem Moralioglu of Erdem (2010), Christopher Kane (2011), footwear designer Nicholas Kirkwood (2013), Mary Katrantzou (2015) and Sophia Webster (2016).
In addition, there’s Fashion East, a not-for-profit incubator established in 2000 to champion emerging designers. Talent chosen for the incubator have the opportunity to present a collection at London Fashion Week. The program has worked to catapult the careers of many Brits, including Simone Rocha (winner of British Womenswear Designer at the 2016 Fashion Awards) and Roksanda Ilincic. Similarly, there’s the BFC’s NewGen sponsorship program, set up to identify and promote local talent. Former winners include cult favorite J.W. Anderson.
E-commerce sites including Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi have given these brands a global retail platform. What’s more, backing from investors and luxury groups (Kering took a majority stake of Christopher Kane in 2013) have made it possible for British designers to make a go of it at home.
Backstage at the Erdem Fall 2016 runway show at London Fashion Week. Image via nytimes.com.
This season marks the 65th edition of London Fashion Week, and according to a statement by the British Fashion Council, the event is expecting 5,000 attendees. It will take place in new locations, the main one being The Store Studios, which will prove crucial to its evolution, according to Bowring: “Moving from a tired old building, Brewer Street Car Park, to other venues presents a new identity with a modern approach.”
In addition, the bi-annual London Fashion Week Festival is changing: Formerly London Fashion Weekend, it will be reintroduced as a 10-day event that will give the public opportunities to celebrate fashion on the days during and surrounding the shows. Many of the included events feature shopping opportunities, answering the timely see-now-buy-now trend.
As for designers, there are some fresh names in the lineup, including Parisian designer Roland Mouret. After showing in Paris for the past ten years, he will return to London Fashion Week — where he launched his career— to present his 20th anniversary collection.
According to Bowring, others showing — including Christopher Kane, J.W. Anderson, Simone Rocha, Erdem, Preen and Burberry — embody the youthful approach that is key to future success. And she called the fact that London is still the place where one can find emerging talent a plus.
“The ‘cool’ factor is returning, and I am wondering if we might see some major designers coming back to show in London,” said Bowring. “There appears to be a boundless amount of energy, excitement and anticipation in London — especially having just been at NYFW, where a somber mood prevailed.”
London Fashion Week image via Harper’s Bazaar.