Fashion: pounds 25,000? That'll do nicely

How do young designers pay for those expensive catwalk shows? They put their commercial hats on.

Time was, fashion sponsorship entailed nothing more imaginative than a corporate giant slapping its rarely very stylish branding at the back of a young designer's runway for all to see, if not exactly marvel over.

While this may indeed have hammered any commercial message home, it did so very much at the designer's expense. Even the most creative of minds would find it hard to overcome the looming presence of the Lloyds Bank logo, say, threatening to overwhelm their clothes.

That was then. These days, fashion sponsorship is a rather more sophisticated - not to say competitive - affair. This is not surprising. Now that fashion has hit the mainstream, with even the more heavyweight media reporting on shows daily, the amount of column inches and/or airtime a sponsor may receive by associating itself with the right designer may be worth its weight in gold.

As for the designers, even in the British fashion capital, where shows are famously modest by international standards, a catwalk presentation on the official schedule is likely to cost upwards of pounds 25,000 when you take into account the venue, lighting, soundtrack, models, hair and make- up, as well as the clothes themselves.

Small wonder then that, with only weeks to go before the next round of women's ready-to-wear collections in this country, anyone who hasn't secured the financial backing vital to support the expensive business of showing may find that the money has been snapped up. Other, more motivated, designers have been keen both to nurture long-term relationships with their sponsors and to develop ever more lateral ways to give them something in return for their money.

To this end, our designers have by now committed to everything from consulting on the art direction of corporate sponsors' ad campaigns (Julien Macdonald/Max Factor) and designing special limited edition credit cards (Alexander McQueen/American Express) to putting their name to capsule collections for sale in high street stores (Hussein Chalayan/Top Shop).

"Straight after one season finishes, we start thinking about sponsorship for the next," says Macdonald, whose principle sponsor for autumn/winter was Max Factor. He not only art-directed the make-up manufacturer's spring colours campaign, but helped to decide on the colours of the lipsticks themselves.

"There are a lot of designers out there, but not very many companies around who are prepared to sponsor them," he says. And even with substantial backing from Max Factor, Macdonald still found himself in need of pounds 10,000 with not much time left. In the end, Tanqueray gin came up with the sum - and so the Tanqueray dress was born.

"I don't want to sell myself," says Macdonald, "and I would rather not plaster a logo across a dress. You need to negotiate with the sponsor to find mutually acceptable terms. The dress was inspired by the colour of the Tanqueray bottle."

Eighteen months before this, Alexander McQueen sent out a dazzling gold suit - a stand-alone showpiece designed with main sponsor American Express in mind.

"We launched the gold card in August 1997," says Doug Smith, a director at American Express. "We came across the idea of designing a gold suit to promote it, and McQueen was the designer we went to first. He's the leader of the pack, the best, really."

Not that this partnership was, in the first place, without its sticking points. The meeting between corporate and more obviously creative minds is always going to be an uneasy one. The show in question - where the heavens opened and models skipped down a Plexiglass catwalk in torrential rain - was intended to be called the Golden Shower. American Express weren't having it.

"It was the first show we worked on with McQueen," says Smith, "and we just weren't comfortable with that title. What you're tapping into with McQueen is someone who's very creative, and it did present some challenges. In the end, though, he's a sound businessman as well. That's why we're interested in him."

McQueen was forced to compromise: the show was, in the end, simply called Untitled.

McQueen's next project was to publicise the launch of the American Express Blue Card. For this, he designed a limited edition of 500 plastics which were sent out to people influential in fashion or specifically targeted by American Express. An Alexander McQueen American Express Blue Card now has pride of place in London's Design Museum.

In this ongoing relationship between designer and sponsor, McQueen continues to stage all after-show interviews in front of an American Express backdrop; ushers at his shows wear T-shirts printed with American Express; and the designer has even come up with the graphics for an American Express fleet of black cabs currently doing the rounds.

A McQueen show is likely to cost pounds 150,000. This season, however, he has chosen to show in New York which will come in at between $850,000 and $1m. As well as title sponsor American Express, McQueen has called on the services of his backer Onward Kashiyama, Swarovski and MAC. Raising money overseas has proved far more difficult than doing so close to home.

"In this country, people will do a designer a favour just to be part of an event they feel has creative significance," says Janet Fischgrund, PR consultant at McQueen and the woman responsible for raising sponsorship for the designer. "Nothing counts like money counts in America."

Of course, the people most likely to benefit from any creative significance arising out of a show are those involved in the same industry as the designers themselves. For this reason, fashion supporting fashion appears to be the most seamless way forward. Vidal Sassoon is London Fashion Week's title sponsor. The world's most famous hairdresser has recently pledged pounds 2.2m to the event, this amount to be distributed over the next 10 years.

Since 1993, meanwhile, Marks & Spencer have, without fanfare, pledged more than pounds 120,000 a year, aimed specifically at supporting the bright young talent London Fashion Week is famous for. Three designers receive show sponsorship. These are currently Tracy Mulligan, Robert Cary Williams and Anthony Symonds, chosen by a panel of designers, senior buyers and fashion journalists. Several more are given stands at the London Designer Exhibition, a static display that runs alongside the shows themselves. Past beneficiaries of the Marks & Spencer New Generation Award include Matthew Williamson, Antonio Berardi, Julien Macdonald and Alexander McQueen.

"The New Generation sponsorship scheme is just our way of putting money back into the industry," says Brian Godbold, design consultant at M&S. "We have always supported British fashion." But while the store has demonstrated typical restraint where plastering its branding all over the event is concerned, it has benefited from the association in a more lateral way. Julien Macdonald and Matthew Williamson have both designed collections for the store: Williamson's sparkly sweet nothings are part of this season's Millennium party wear.

John Hoerner, chairman of the British Fashion Council - the official body that oversees the London collections - and chief executive of the Arcadia Group, the conglomerate that is rapidly swallowing up the British high street as owner of Top Shop, Top Man, Principles, Dorothy Perkins and, more recently, Warehouse and Wallis, has a more overtly commercial approach.

"For us, sponsorship has to be about more than just association," he says. "There has to be a business reason for it. I think it's wrong to sponsor a designer for charitable reasons. Most designers who are unable to raise sponsorship are probably not aware that they need to approach things commercially to survive."

Arcadia sponsors British Designer of the Year Hussein Chalayan, plus Clements Ribeiro, Seraph and Boyd - all of whom design capsule collections for Top Shop. It also supports Amanda Wakeley, who puts her name to a Principles line.

This is a neat arrangement. The designers benefit from receiving money towards their shows, Arcadia reaps the rewards of using their names in store, so demonstrating a fashion-forward approach. The consumer, meanwhile, is able to snap up clothes by Britain's foremost designers at a fraction of the price of the original collections that inspire them.

It is estimated that pounds 1.5m is now raised to support British fashion each year. This can include anything from the olive green double-decker Harrods bus that ferries buyers and press between shows, to Moet & Chandon champagne sipped by visitors at London Fashion Week's official opening.

Like a lot of things associated with fashion, this may appear just too frivolous to be true. But, also like a lot of things associated with fashion, it is in fact big business. Whichever way you look at it, fashion sponsorship has come an awfully long way over the past five years.

"Of course, raising money is not as easy as we would like it to be," says John Wilson, director of the British Fashion Council. "But if you look at what has been achieved in a relatively short time... Sponsorship today is far more subtle. A lot of major events outside fashion have now become saturated. Fashion provides perfect corporate hospitality. Companies like to be associated with London Fashion Week's glamour and razzmatazz."

There's no such thing as a free ride, however. "Sponsorship is still a business," says Wilson. "Companies always want something in return."

CORRECTION

The address for Yasmin Cho printed last week was incorrect. The correct one is: Yasmin Cho, Level 1, 22 Poland Street, London W1, 0171-287 6922

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