A duo's designs on an overdraft

Ren Pearce and Andrew Fionda are prize-winning designers who, if form is any guide, will hear their London Fashion Week show lauded to the skies. They are also penniless. By Tamsin Blanchard
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The Independent Online
Pearce Fionda make glamorous evening dresses, curvy suits and smart daywear for grown-up, sophisticated women. Their list of clients includes Elizabeth Shue, star of Leaving Las Vegas, Cher, Iman, and the singer Celine Dion. Their first collection, shown as part of the Marks & Spencer New Generation showcase, sold worldwide to 20 different stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus in New York. It was snapped up by Liberty and Harvey Nichols, two of Britain's toughest stores to sell to. Five seasons later, Pearce Fionda are stocked by 35 stores from the UK to Saudi Arabia. And today the designers hold their fifth show, hoping to win more acclaim from the press and buyers who swarm around London during Fashion Week.

But Pearce Fionda, purveyors of glamour and elegance, whose clothes have been featured in glossy magazines from Harpers & Queen to Tatler and French Vogue, are themselves penniless. When they are presented with a bouquet of flowers at the end of their show this morning, they will appear to be the very image of successful jetset designers, but beneath the surface, their working lives are about as glamorous as a mug of Cup-a-Soup.

Last year, Pearce Fionda won the Lloyds British Fashion Award for New Generation designer. Receiving the award was a sign that things were on the up, a much-needed pat on the back. Orders for the autumn/winter collection had increased to pounds 270,000, compared with their first season of pounds 80,000. At the dinner after the awards ceremony in the Dinosaur Room of the Natural History Museum, the designers were feted and congratulated. The label had pipped other well-respected and fancied names such as Hussein Chalayan and Clements Ribeiro to the post. The champagne flowed and endless rounds of fashion kisses were exchanged.

Today's show, in front of a select gathering of fashion press and buyers at Harrods, is for their spring/summer 1997 collection. As usual, the designers are completely organised: the collection was ready in advance of the deadline, and unlike many of their fellow designers, there will be no frenzied sewing of hems backstage before the show. The collection is perhaps the most focused to date, with just 40 outfits, mainly in black, all of them beautifully tailored and elegantly finished. The stores and boutiques that have grown loyal to Pearce Fionda over the years will love it, as will their customers.

But the show almost didn't happen. Last spring, Andrew Fionda and Ren Pearce were ready to give it all up and call it a day. The orders for the autumn/winter 1996 collection were rolling in, their best ever. But payments from the sales of their previous collection were yet to enter their bank account. The designers hit a cashflow crisis, and despite all the plaudits and the grand names with whom they had become associated they nearly gave up for good.

It is a consistently ironic twist in the stories of many young British fashion designers that their own success kills them. It was precisely because Pearce Fionda's business was going so well that it came to a virtual standstill in April, just after they returned from a trip to Istanbul, where they were given the award for Young Designer of the World. "There just wasn't enough money to produce the collection," says Andrew.

Small independent shops in Britain are notorious for not paying on time; Pearce Fionda have still not been paid by one of the shops that bought their first collection. Fellow British designers Clements Ribeiro say they would not be able to survive on UK stockists alone. British designers have to rely on orders from Japan and America, but those are not avenues open to Pearce Fionda. The domino effect meant that there was no money to pay for fabrics to meet new orders, and certainly none to fund a new collection for next spring.

"Show time is the worst time for cashflow," says Ren. "It costs up to pounds 40,000 just to get the samples made up. A single garment can cost pounds 200 in labour and tailoring alone."

When I spoke to them just a few weeks before the show, at their north London studio, they were half-jokingly considering the possibilities of signing on the dole. Even as students, they say, they had more money, and they have become dependent on sympathetic flatmates in order to survive.

"There must be some sort of help for people in our situation," says Andrew. "We've been unsalaried for the past six months. I don't know how we've been living. In fact, you have to forget about living and just get on with existing. The job has become our lives. We both wanted a job that would add to our lives, not be our lives."

In April, things looked bleak. The bank manager refused to raise their overdraft limit above pounds 90,000, the level it had been at since their second collection. They needed more money to order fabrics, not to mention looking ahead at getting their next collection started; they estimated an overdraft of pounds 120,000 would cover them.

With no financial help available, they decided to concentrate on honouring existing orders and then cut their losses. They had always worked in a rigorously professional manner and regarded meeting existing orders as more important than showing a new collection. They planned to go their separate ways and find more lucrative work, designing or consulting for other companies. That way, at least, they would be paid.

"You'd think that with Lloyds British Fashion Award for New Generation 1995 and Young Designers of the World 1996 tagged to our names, some major businessmen would have been inundating us with offers," says Andrew. But they weren't. That month, they cancelled their fabric orders for the spring/summer 1997 collection.

But after managing to meet existing orders and making sure they were delivered into some 35 stockists, 20 in the UK and 15 in Europe and beyond, Pearce Fionda felt that they couldn't go out on such a low note. They would use up all the fabric lying around the studio and produce a small collection of just 20 pieces to show at London Fashion Week. The collection grew to 35, as fabric would allow. Usually, they would produce twice that many outfits for a collection.

Still, without sponsorship, Pearce Fionda would not have been able to put their collection on the catwalk today. Harrods has provided the venue free, models will be paid in clothes, and the cosmetics company Prescriptives has also sponsored today's show by supplying make-up. And Lloyds Bank, which sponsored their last show, has continued its support to cover today's show too.

Charles Mears, head of brand support for Lloyds Bank, acknowledges the difficulties that young designers experience. "Lloyds wanted to be involved in something that is exciting and attractive to young people - and fashion is that. With the British Fashion Awards, we are supporting excellence. And in working with young designers like Pearce Fionda, we are thinking about the future of the industry, too."

Sponsorship is welcome, indeed essential, for Pearce Fionda, but it only enables them to put on a show. What they really need is long-term backing. Theirs has been an uphill, at times near-vertical struggle, but they are still a young company. One of their problems is that they are perceived by the fashion press and buyers as being on the same level as a well-established company like Montana, which has access to high-level manufacturing and sound distribution. In part, that perception is of their own making: they do not make the cutting-edge, avant-garde clothes usually associated with young British designers; their clothes have staying power and are designed to be worn for more than one season. "Perhaps we've been too impatient for something to happen," says Andrew.

What they need now is a backer who will embrace and exploit their potential, someone to relieve them of the burden of finance and manufacturing worries and free them to carry on with what they do best: design. Sadly, if there is a white knight out there, it is likely to be a foreign one.

Pearce Fionda have hopes for a deal; they are in the process of negotiating. They cannot reveal more, apart from hinting that the proposal involves a very good company and would save them from the abyss. Ren says: "We feel optimistic about next season. If this deal goes through, we won't have this sort of struggle looming. We won't have to rely on overdrafts from the bank."

Perhaps by next season, Pearce and Fionda will be back on their own payroll. Maybe they might even be able to take their lives off hold and live a little. After all, they have been nominated in three categories for this year's Lloyds British Fashion Awards, to be announced in October: New Generation for the second year running, Designer of the Year, and Glamour. And glamour, as far as the shopper in Harrods is concerned, is what Pearce Fionda are all about.

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