Top British fashion designers claim London Fashion Week is being intentionally crushed by its rivals because it has refused to surrender its independence. The flagship UK fashion festival, which is held twice a year and opens today, is facing a threat that could reduce it from six to four days in its spring incarnation next year.
The claims emerged after the rival New York fashion week announced it was going to show its collections a week later than usual in February next year, a move that would cut London Fashion Week down to a bare four days, forcing top designers to abandon it and go elsewhere.
Designers such as Zandra Rhodes claim the London show has been under threat since the marketing giant IMG was thwarted in a bid to secure control of it. IMG has lucrative part or full ownership rights to London Fashion Week's main rivals, New York, Paris and Milan, as well as lesser-known fashion weeks.
It currently owns London's Fashion Fringe, a forum for up-and-coming talent held in Covent Garden, but has no hold over London Fashion Week itself, which is controlled by the British Fashion Council. There have been behind-the-scenes discussions in the past about IMG extending its hold over London Fashion Week, but the British Fashion Council insisted there are no talks taking place at present.
"I heard that there is a problem in that IMG, which owns New York fashion week, wanted to buy it [London Fashion Week] but had been unsuccessful. That is why they've cut a day out of London, so people going there will have to cut short their visits," said Rhodes.
"It's certainly odd that there is no squeeze being put on anybody else," said the designer Betty Jackson. "This is an issue that needs to be raised. They are pushing London because we are not as strong as New York or Milan. London has always been vulnerable from a lot of perspectives – it is young and innovative but this industry functions more on finance than aesthetics."
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), which works closely with IMG, announced it was moving the dates of the New York show back one week in order to give American designers extra time to finish their collections, which are sometimes delayed by mill closures.
It is not possible to move the entire fashion calendar forward to solve the problem – as some have suggested – as this would not leave Italian designers enough time to get their collections in shops.
Many fear the reduced number of days, together with the prospect of dwindling sponsorship, as well as the absence of leading designers such as Alexander McQueen, Ben de Lisi and Gareth Pugh, could seriously undermine the UK's main fashion shop window.
IMG denied it was behind London Fashion Week's problems. "IMG has a close relationship with London Fashion Week and we are always open to discussing ways that we might support their efforts," said a company spokesman. "IMG is not a part of the conversations that are going on regarding the international fashion week schedule, and we will follow the lead of the CFDA in the scheduling of the shows in New York."
An IMG insider admitted that there were ongoing discussions regarding the company's level of involvement with the London event.
"London Fashion Week is rich in talent. We currently have one of the most exciting crops of emerging designers showing," said a spokeswoman for the British Fashion Council.
London Fashion Week is funded by corporate sponsors and a grant from London's City Hall. Several of last year's sponsors have declined to fund it this year. A further threat to funding emerged last week when the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, revealed that government funding may also be under threat if action is not taken on the issue of underweight models.