A decade of enterprising design

The Centre for Fashion Enterprise  has married creativity with commerce  for a decade. Stephanie Hirschmiller looks back on its catalogue of success stories

London has long been a breeding ground for some of the most creative and exciting voices in fashion, but those skills don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with commercial nous.

Thanks to an ever-growing support network, however, the capital’s young designers are able to get a foot firmly on the fashion ladder. The Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) is one such initiative, which celebrates a decade of success this year.

Mary Katrantzou, JW Anderson, Erdem, Peter Pilotto, Simone Rocha, Sibling… these are just a handful of the 245 emerging designers with which the enterprise centre has worked since its geneses. The not-for-profit initiative originally took funding from  the Mayor’s Office and opened in a space donated by the London College of Fashion (LCF), with the aim of assisting a generation of  talented designers who were perplexed by  running a business.

Now with Wendy Malem, an expert in the field, as director, served by an advisory board – including Sarah Mower, Jane Shepherdson and Frances Corner – the Centre boasts an accumulative sales turnover of £20m and generates its own income from international consultancy projects. The well-rounded blend of industry insiders goes some way to explaining its success rate – 85 per cent of its alumni are still in business, a statistic more than double the national average for start-ups.

There are three levels of participation  – “market entry”, “pioneer” and “venture”  – which range from an induction to advanced development.  “When you first start you don’t really think like a business,” concedes Sam Cotton, one half of Agi & Sam, who have  graduated from “pioneer” to “venture” and are recipients of funding from Topshop’s NewGen initiative, too.

Malem describes “venture” as “a growth development programme”, explaining that the board selects designers to which they feel they can add value, looking for those that fill three criteria: Design leadership, entrepreneurial spirit and the right personality. In addition to the continued support from the team, the two-year programme offers studio space at its Hackney headquarters with access to  LCF’s facilities, such as screen printing and laser cutting machines, legal support from the law firm Olswang – £250,000 yearly investment – and PR fees paid as well.

Peter Pilotto’s Christopher de Vos cites the “amazing machinery” they were able to access during their tenure before they could afford their own, while menswear designer James Long confided that the CFE’s lawyers dealt with a serious copyright issue and set up his VAT and international trademark. He also received the coveted “fashion forward” award for menswear after working closely with Malem on his business plan.

In addition to the undeniable tangible  benefits, it’s also the networking with others that designers find invaluable. According to Holly Fulton: “It’s nice to have people in the same position to bounce off each other and ask things like ‘this store hasn’t paid me, have you dealt with them?’” She admits that “creative people are not that well versed in the business side of things”.

So should fashion colleges offer a business grounding to aspiring designers? It’s a matter of some debate in the industry, but the general consensus among the CFE’s alumni is “no”.

Long is adamant that college should be a time “to completely indulge yourself creatively” while de Vos advocates learning on the job: “That’s what’s so exciting about fashion – you learn so much the first day you enter the industry and you never actually stop learning.”

However, although Mary Katrantzou admits “when it’s your own business, you learn really fast”, she would have preferred prior knowledge, and Thomas Tait would certainly have welcomed some degree of preparation: “I think it’s very important for colleges to communicate to students exactly how competitive the industry is – it’s so cut-throat!”

Malem agrees that UK colleges could do more; an ideal “bare minimum” would see graduates knowing how to cost their garments. “Commerce still doesn’t drive business in the UK,” she says. “You go to America and they have commercial ideas for breakfast.”

As the industry changes, so too do the demands on designers, and Malem is happy to launch a new programme of investment readiness. “This has been our dream for a long time,” she says – and isn’t it fair that the woman who makes fashion dreams a reality gets to live her own?

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