Topshop: A Decade Of Design
When London Fashion Week starts on Friday, Topshop will celebrate 10 years backing its brightest young stars, says Rebecca Gonsalves
It is no secret among those who pay attention to these things that London has a reputation as the breeding ground for young fashion design talent.
In part, this is down to the design schools which feed the industry a steady stream of creative, inspired and well-educated twenty-somethings from home and abroad. An arts education and pure ambition can only take you so far, though, and it is when a fledgling designer takes their first shaky steps after their graduate show that the support system in London swoops in, in a bid to stop talent falling through the cracks.
There are many such schemes in the British capital, from individual collaborations between design schools and labels to sponsorship schemes – the offerings of which run the gamut between business mentorship and bursaries, and guidance in creating and showing catwalk collections. NEWGEN (formerly New Generation) was started by the British Fashion Council nearly 20 years ago – and the list of names which have received support reads like a who's who of British fashion.
In 2001 Topshop, led by the then brand director Jane Shepherdson, decided to financially back the NEWGEN scheme. Kate Phelan, creative director of Topshop, is frank about the mutual benefits the scheme provides. "Topshop's sponsorship has given us access to some of the best design talent in the UK and helped to democratise fashion, enabling us to provide our customers with amazing collaborations and allowing us to offer a much broader, more exciting, product. And we give the designers we work with a global platform."
NEWGEN sponsorship is provided in a variety of ways, and means different things to different designers – from an all-important slot on the fashion week schedule, to free use of a venue and production guidance and business mentorship.
Known for her bright and bold textural experimental designs, Louise Gray first received Topshop's backing through Fashion East – another initiative which provides two to three seasons of support straight from the MA programmes of London colleges. "I then progressed to NEWGEN," explains Gray, "which allowed me to continue on the schedule in my own right and to show my label – which is so important in the first few seasons when you are trying to establish yourself."
She adds: "NEWGEN has supported us over multiple seasons rather than just one – giving a longer-lasting effect on our business and allowing us to really develop. If NEWGEN wasn't there to support us in the early seasons then it would be impossible for us to show. "
Phelan reiterates the importance of a well-rounded approach, "NEWGEN helps designers in a variety of ways – it offers financial support towards show costs and the opportunity to use a show space. It also provides mentoring support – without business acumen it's impossible for designers to succeed and make the money they need to continue. Any scheme that brings talented people into the limelight is incredibly valuable."
For Michael van der Ham, life after graduating from Central Saint Martins was a reality check. "I learned so much about creativity and design, but I didn't know anything about the business side except for basic stuff I picked up along the way on internships. With NEWGEN I learned all about how to work with buyers, set out business goals and other necessary things like cash flow."
Jonathan Saunders, the Scottish designer whose collections are both a critical and commercial success, received NEWGEN support in the early days of Topshop's sponsorship. "NEWGEN helped my brand both financially and on an advisory level. It also allowed for my label to be put in front of a set of editors, buyers and industry influencers that have gone on to be incredible supporters. My relationship with the BFC and NEWGEN influenced how I perceived my brand and with their support I was able to understand what was required in terms of developing the label into the strong business it is today."
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the relationship, Topshop has commissioned NEWGEN recipients to create a T-shirt, the profits from the sales of which will be donated to the charity Centrepoint, which helps the young homeless. Explaining his design, Saunders said: "It's based on an original signature print from an archive collection. It's extremely personal as it shows the progression of the label from the formative stages to now."
Roksanda Ilincic, whose elegant column gowns and cocktail dresses often make an appearance on the red carpet, echoes Saunders, "The support early on in my career led to me showing on schedule at London Fashion week. It has been great to work on the T-shirt project, particularly as it's for such a good cause. I incorporated my own drawings of hearts in a colour palette from my spring/summer 2012 collection."
The Art Deco inspiration behind Holly Fulton's print-led collections has won her international praise. "The platform NEWGEN offers at the international showrooms [where young designers' collections may be seen in fashion capitals other than Britain's own] are where I generate all my sales, and this offers a supportive environment to take your first steps into the world of sales and production."
She adds: "I now appreciate the value of a sales collection and have a comprehension of the international markets and their buying demographic. I'm keen to expand my business steadily with a view to creating something with a long-term signature – none of which I ever considered when designing my first collection."
Phelan too talks about the longevity of the designers' ambitions, but also the lasting relationship they will have with Topshop. "People who come through NEWGEN with us tend to stay friends for life, we never turn our backs on them and work with them for many years." The T-shirt project is testament to that.
Danish designer Peter Jensen could no longer be classed as a "young designer" – he celebrated 10 years of his eponymous label last year. "The support we received from Topshop allowed us to put on much better shows, and the use of their venue really elevated the standard," he says. "Obviously the money was great, but they just made it all easier taking away a lot of the production work and the scheduling stress."
The design duo Meadham Kirchhoff, whose dramatic show staging is as exciting as their collections, talk of their relationship with the high street sponsor in equal terms, "Working with NEWGEN was the right platform at the right time, we consider Topshop a partner more than a sponsor and our relationship has helped us to grow and collaborate in ways that were so mutually respectful."
The prodigious designer Christopher Kane, who has gone from strength to strength since his striking neon-hued debut in 2006, received support from the very beginning. "NEWGEN gave me a platform to show my collections immediately after graduation, without it I wouldn't have been able to do a catwalk show, and for that I will always be grateful."
With such ebullient support of the scheme, it is little wonder that Mary Homer, managing director of Topshop, is full of excitement for its future. "We're proud to have been a part of the scheme over the last decade and have seen some of fashion's leading lights pass through on their way to stardom. We look forward to providing ongoing support to London's design talent over the next 10 years... and beyond."
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