the british

Is London Fashion Making a Much-Needed Shift Toward Commerce?

Photo: Getty Images

For young designers who like to experiment, London Fashion Week is basically an anything-goes playground — and I mean that in a good way. Last season, Meadham Kirchhoff’s carnivalesque show featured life-size valentines, Henry Holland had so-called “HOH harlots” partying in a car park, and Toga introduced a rockabilly band and models in cages. London-based designers aren’t terribly concerned with keeping things safe and salable, which is certainly refreshing after the commercialism of New York, and part of the attitude that contributes to the city’s reputation as a hothouse for fashion talent.

The city draws talent from all over the world: think of Mary Katrantzou, who hails from Greece; Ashish Gupta, from India; the duo behind Ostwald Helgason, who are from Iceland and Germany; Eudon Choi, of South Korea; and David Koma, who grew up in Georgia and Russia. There’s a reason they all elected to settle in the Big Smoke, and it’s not the weather. Central Saint Martins is one of the best fashion schools in the world, and attracts plenty of A-plus talent. The British tradition of eccentricity energizes designers to try new, sometimes wacky, things. The British Fashion Council and Topshop both provide amazing opportunities for young labels — the BFC has partnered with Farfetch in the past, and Topshop has recruited Gupta, Katrantzou, and scores of others for collabs. But the focus has historically been either at the very high end, where it’s tough for those experimental types to actually break out commercially, or on the low end — in the form of ephemeral high-street collaborations that provide an injection of cash and notoriety but are a temporary fix. Some lucky young’uns have scored jobs with major luxury houses, like J.W. Anderson at Loewe and Koma at Mugler. But most aren’t so fortunate, and fashion is a tough business anywhere, even in the seemingly paradisal city.

A new partnership between the BFC and eBay aims to change that. As part of a yearly program, London designers will receive mentorship with an eye toward conquering the contemporary market — and produce clothes that are more affordable than runway collections, but well above fast-fashion prices. The program aims to help give young talent a leg up when it comes to the oft-neglected question of selling their clothes. According to The Guardian, the participating designers — Alexis Barrell, Prism’s Anna Laub (above, center), Zoe Jordan (left), Paper London, and Georgia Harding (right) — will create designs at the contemporary price point to be sold at Somerset House, London Fashion Week’s headquarters, in September. The BFC’s Sophie McElligott told the paper, “We recognized that a lot of designers can’t afford to start their business by creating high-end artisanal pieces, or by putting on fashion shows, which are very expensive. There is nothing wrong with that system, but it’s not for everyone.”

While this will be a small-scale program, it has interesting implications for the future of British fashion, where art, not commerce, tends to rule the day. Contemporary labels like Maje and Sandro, from France, and Tibi in the States have lately been excelling at pulling in hyperfashionable customers, though their price points fall well between the H&M and runway extremes. Britain has a flourishing high street — maybe the best in the world, but a paucity of contemporary labels, with the exception of a few homegrown labels like Whistles and Reiss. These brands either don’t show at fashion weeks, or favor low-key presentations, allowing them to put more funds toward their businesses. McElligott makes a good point that the runway-and-prestige route isn’t the right one for all designers, and some might be better served by directing their talents to the contemporary space. While no one wants to choke off the creativity flowing out of London right now, the industry there is maturing, and with that comes the quest for commercial viability — which happens to come more readily off the runway.

Is London Fashion Becoming More Commercial?