Until the end of last year it looked as though the coming round of London shows would be the most exciting and unmissable in a decade. But with the sudden chill wind blowing through fashion retailing, the massed talent of Hackney, Dalston, Shoreditch and King’s Cross might well feel that, this time, they’re designing for their lives.
Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, has been monitoring the likely attendees at fashion week for a month. ‘We have a load of publications coming in from China, Russia and other emerging markets,’ she says. ‘And buyers from Europe and the Middle East. But on the Monday the stock market dropped, we were taking calls from American buyers cancelling their trips. It’s that issue of London just being too expensive.’
The fear in any downturn is that the youngest, weakest and most dispensable designers may go to the wall, a repeat performance of the culls that took place in previous economic bad patches. Time and again, London’s hyped hopefuls have flared in the media limelight, only to sink to obscurity in a welter of shoddy quality, poor deliveries and debt.
Yet this time around, it’s possible that the new tranche of designers have a fighting chance with buyers who are betting on what, if anything, will entice women to part with money in the next six months. ‘Going into a recession, what do you do: play safe, go classic?’ asks Averyl Oates, fashion director of Harvey Nichols. ‘If you do, you end up with a sea of black and you lose the pop. Women are not going to buy something they already have in their wardrobes. We stock Giles Deacon, Jonathan Saunders, Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab – London gives us that standout creativity. My advice to them is to be careful about prices, but they’re listening. You hear more about the £120 dress now than the £200 dress a year ago. I think they’re very responsible, this generation.’
What may set these designers apart from their predecessors is that, from the start, they’ve had to be super-careful as well as creative. What made them attractive was the way they threw off the timid lady-pleasing malaise that had cramped the mentality of young designers in other cities. They started using their own formative references, drawn (and some elder commentators could hardly take it at the time) from the glam early Nineties, Gianni Versace, Azzedine Alaia, MTV.
The good news, from the risk-limitation point of view, is that they are not wholly dependent on the fluctuating American economy. The ‘emerging markets’ have, in the past two years, zoomed ahead in both wealth and fashion. Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Greeks and shops from the Middle East are turning up to place orders – and they’re not looking for anything wishy-washy.
‘Russians are quite experimental,’ says Aliona Doletskaya, editor in chief of Russian Vogue. ‘There’s a lot of optimism around, a crowd who are young and happy, who do not have 75 years of Soviet rule on their back. When they earn money, they spend. There’s something very special and quirky about the English they like, that you can’t find with a Chanel or Louis Vuitton.’
As a representative of the market potential of the new China, Sarah Rutson, fashion director of Lane Crawford (which has branches in Hong Kong and Beijing), is flying in to visit designers in their showrooms with a large budget at her disposal. ‘I feel very strongly that the creativity from London needs to be supported. The talent pool is incredible and over the years I’ve seen many designers develop unique looks women find approachable. Our clients are incredibly knowledgable and nuanced in what they want to buy.’