Starting at the stately headquarters of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, it is just a short and scenic Paris stroll – taking in the Champs Elysées, a view of the Arc de Triomphe, a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower – to the equally imposing offices of that rival giant of luxury fashion, Kering, home to Gucci, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney. Last year, each of these conglomerates announced that it was committing to a serious investment in a young fashion designer: a strategic move that had been out of favour in the investment community for more than a decade. LVMH took a minority stake in 29-year-old wonderkid JW Anderson; Kering a majority one in 31-year-old Christopher Kane.
A Eurostar hop away, the studios of Kane and Anderson are just two blocks apart on the very same scruffy road in Dalston, east London. This is more than a coincidence: it is a mapping of the dynamic at work in global fashion. Paris, the long-established nerve centre of fashion-as-a-business, is right now tapping directly into the rich vein of fashion talent that runs through London. The buzz around London fashion week for the past few years has finally transformed into something more tangible. Nicholas Kirkwood, who reigns as British Accessory Designer of the Year, sold a majority stake in his business to LVMH in September. And the most recent spin of the fashion merry-go-round saw veteran British design talent shuffled higher in the pack across the Atlantic, where Stuart Vevers – alumnus of Mulberry, Bottega Veneta and Loewe – has taken the helm of Coach, and Katie Hillier has lured Luella Bartley out of a four-year fashion hiatus to join her at Marc by Marc Jacobs.
Suzy Menkes – who has just been appointed international editor of Vogue – was style editor of the International Herald Tribune, now the International New York Times, since 1988, playing a crucial role as scout and champion in the careers of many British fashion designers. It is, says Menkes, “the dynamism of London and its international status as the New York of Europe that makes the fashion scene here so energetic. There is so much money sloshing about in central London that it has spilled over to where the designers work, in Dalston and Mile End.”
Lulu Kennedy, who as founder of Fashion East has held the hands of many talented young British designers along the nursery slopes of their careers, also sees a fearlessness and ebullience about the scene at the moment.
“A couple of weeks before London fashion week I was at a friend’s house for dinner and lots of the designers were there, and they were all talking quite openly about their ideas and references. There’s a confidence, a belief that there is plenty of talent, plenty of ideas to go around. I find it really inspiring.”
What makes British talent compelling to international business, says Kennedy, is that “whereas French ideas about fashion are based around history and traditional notions of chic, the British take is about the future, about what we want to see next. Phoebe Philo has been a game-changer for the whole industry by addressing femininity and modernity, opening up a wider discussion about women’s lives that reaches beyond fashion.”
Paula Reed has recently joined Munich-based international retailer MyTheresa.com as creative director, having previously worked in London at Grazia magazine and Harvey Nichols. “The modern fashion shopper is addicted to ‘newness’ and London delivers that in spades,” she says. “It’s the pure energy of the city. Now that I work abroad, it strikes me every time I come home how vibrant and unique the atmosphere is here. There is a cultural eclecticism that underpins everything we do.”
It is telling that the current generation of hot British designers differs from their forefathers in the McQueen and Galliano era by being far less likely to set their collections in the past. History book references, once considered de rigueur for adding gravitas and culture to a collection, have fallen out of favour. Galliano’s 1984 graduation collection, Les Incroyables, was inspired by the French revolution; McQueen entitled his 1992 MA collection Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims; three years later his infamous Highland Rape collection was based on the historical English slaughter of Scots. These lyrical, storytelling collections have disappeared in favour of personal stories and abstract references that keep a brand feeling constantly modern.
Also falling out of favour on the catwalk, notes Menkes, is “the squiffy, jokey, ironic aspect of Britishness. Burberry has some of those elements, but they seem rather carefully introduced to pepper up the plain”.
What’s more, this shift is based on sound business sense in the age of the brand. “Young designers today are much more aware of the concept of brand-building,” Menkes says.
Jonathan Anderson named his label JW Anderson because from the beginning he was clear that “it wasn’t just about me, it was about a brand,” he has said. He was just 26 when he created his first diffusion collection for Topshop, but he pushed the limits of what was expected: as well as clothes, he produced logo-ed scarves, pens and sweeties in a deliberate strategy to offer the JW Anderson name at pocket-money prices.
Anderson’s studio is “so, so different” from the early days of McQueen, Menkes says. “My earliest memory of Lee at the same age is of a chaotic room with bits of frayed cloth and stuff all over the floor and him sitting on a rickety chair effing and blinding over the fit of a jacket shoulder.”
The new generation of hot young things is more likely to be found sweating over how that shoulder speaks to their brand values or plays to the house codes.
“Each designer approaches collections in their own way and it is hard to have a generalist view of the contemporary scene,” Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, says, “but there is certainly an awareness of the importance of defining what a brand will stand for very early on.”
For the past decade the BFC has worked hard to secure and bolster the businesses of emerging designers. There is a deep desire not to repeat the mistakes of previous eras, in which wave after wave of talented young innocents were vaulted out of the safety of the college system into an industry for which they were unprepared, only to be felled at the first hurdle by their lack of financial acumen, or absence of manufacturing contacts or industry muscle.
“A great deal of business support goes on behind the scenes,” Rush says. “There is now a safety net around designers so that they can learn about the nuts and bolts of the business. The industry has come together to create a mentoring environment.”
What’s more, Rush says, the digital age has altered the fashion industry, giving greater visibility to the less commercially mighty brands; to the benefit of London’s new generation.
“Social media allows you to create a lot of noise around a collection without an advertising spend, and that is really being exploited by this generation of young creatives.”
The next challenge, Rush says, is for the new wave to seize more control over the business side of their industry. “The luxury investments we saw last year are just the beginning. They have sparked a great deal of interest from the investment community. This is great news for our designers. But the real hunt now is for the next generation of homegrown CEOs.”
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