London’s prodigious fashion talent is known for many reasons. First, it has long been renowned for innovative ideas that sow the seeds of global trends. Then there is its ability to mastermind spine-tingling shows that set the fashion world on fire – a movement that began with Alexander McQueen’s bravura storytelling in the late 90s. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – London’s youthful designers are known for their headstrong determination to survive at all costs in a luxury market dominated by powerful brands.
Yet, despite all that, the city’s world-class designers have never built major brands – until now. The announcement at the start of the year that the French luxury behemoth Kering, whose stable of labels includes Gucci, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, had taken a majority share in Christopher Kane, was proof, if any were needed, that the current generation of fashion talent fuses cutting-edge creativity with serious business savvy.
When Kering came knocking Christopher Kane was already building a profitable business with a multi-million pound turnover, employing 25 people since launching in a blaze of glory in 2006. And while he may well be the most headline-grabbing designer of his generation, when it comes to nurturing solid businesses that could be the global luxury brands of the future, the young Scot is not alone. ‘The success of this deal goes to show that London is a recognised centre of excellence in creative entrepreneurs,’ said Hugh Devlin, one of the lawyers involved in negotiating Kane’s deal. ‘We would anticipate that there will be other investment transactions involving London designers in the coming 12 months.’
When the Kering deal was announced, Erdem Moralıoğlu was touted as the next name likely to follow suit with a major investor. The Canadian designer, who launched on the London scene in 2005 after studying at the Royal College of Art and a stint in New York working for Diane von Furstenberg, has built a globally renowned label, worn by princesses (the Duchess of Cambridge is a confirmed fan) and political wives (including Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron) as well as movie stars (Keira Knightley has wowed on the red carpet in Erdem’s dreamy prints). Like Christopher Kane, Erdem has managed to fuse his creativity with entrepreneurship and steadily build a brand with a global reputation. Similarly, the willowy Serbian designer Roksanda Ilincic launched her label of elegant, soigné dresses and separates in 2003, and, just like Erdem, has built up an impressive – and equally starry – clientele.
The latest crop of London design talent understands very clearly the commercial effect of celebrity dressing. Whether it’s Alexa Chung wearing a Christopher Kane shift to the Met Gala in New York or Gwyneth Paltrow wearing an Antonio Berardi gown to her own premieres, having the ear of fashion’s key celebrity stylists and creating pieces that are star-ready is all part of the job for today’s most commercially successful designers – and something London designers have learned to embrace.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Saunders and Mary Katrantzou, both of whom are cleverly diversifying and extending their brands, have learnt that to build a solid business it’s key to broaden their appeal with other lines, whether it’s a range of affordable T-shirts or a denim range: a lesson learned from Brit successes such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. While both these brands are now major luxury labels, they have slowly developed over the past decade and followed very different business models. McQueen, now in the hands of Sarah Burton, produces rarified collections with a focus on workmanship that was put very firmly on the world stage with the 2011 royal wedding. Stella McCartney, on the other hand, has carved a niche by giving women the kind of easy, approachable but still cool collections they crave. Both have shown a new generation of designers how to progress from local to global.
And, finally, London has learnt to nurture and support its fledging designers. Fashion writer Sarah Mower has been at the forefront of a movement to mentor our most talented new names through the British Fashion Council; the London Show Rooms initiative, for example, takes young designers to network and show their collections in other fashion capitals including Paris, New York and Los Angeles. All this is a very far cry from the mid 90s, when the entirety of London Fashion Week was reduced to a series of rooms at the Ritz, with collections swinging sadly on rails.
As well as huge sponsorship projects such as Topshop’s long-running NewGen initiative, other outposts like east London’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) have begun to hothouse developing talents too. ‘It’s not about changing them into being a business person,’ says the CFE’s director Wendy Malem of her charges, who currently include one of London’s most talked-about new names, Thomas Tait. ‘But we do want to give them an entrepreneurial outlook that will help them fulfil their dream.’