Tailor-made to take fashion into the 21st century

Richard Northedge talks to impresario Harold Tillman, the man who boosted London's haute couture reputation
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The Independent Online

As the last models strutted off the London Fashion Week catwalks, Somerset House launched into London Fashion Weekend, a shopping showcase in which the public can snap up designs that have been on display over the past seven days.

And today, Harold Tillman, the rag-trade entrepreneur who has revitalised the industry, can look back on another job well done. He estimates that the delegates and department store buyers who attended pumped £30m into London and will place £100m of orders for the designer brands they saw on the catwalks.

With a general election looming, the party leaders' wives, Samantha Cameron and Sarah Brown, welcomed an opportunity to be photographed beside top models and top designs. But if fashion is politics, it is money too, and the Chancellor's wife, Maggie Darling, invited the dapperly dressed Tillman and the industry's elite to breakfast at 11 Downing Street.

"Fashion is about more than just the clothes people wear or buy," she said. "It plays a key role in our economy and culture, which is why today's meeting is so important." While her husband read the headlines about his "forces of hell" interview the previous evening, she introduced designers such as Ozwald Boateng to trade officials and ministers.

Lord Davies, the former chief of Standard Chartered bank who resigned to become a trade minister, says: "I am fiercely proud of UK fashion. London Fashion Week is innovative, urgent and revolutionary. However, the contribution that this explosion of creativity makes to the UK economy is not fully appreciated or understood."

British designers export two-thirds of what clothing they still produce and the UK footwear industry sells more than 90 per cent of its output overseas. That's why UK Trade & Industry, the government body that promotes exports, is one of Tillman's sponsors for Fashion Week.

Tillman, 63, became chairman of the British Fashion Council, the trade body behind London Fashion Week, two years ago, succeeding the Marks & Spencer chairman, Sir Stuart Rose. To coincide with the week's quarter-century he has launched a "25-year legacy plan" to give the event a new strategy. After years when the week shifted from Chelsea to Battersea to South Kensington, he found it a new home in central London, beside the Thames at Somerset House.

His reconstruction of the fashion council brought in two full-time paid chief executives and a determination to make the London show rank beside Paris, Milan and New York.

"In September, we celebrated our 25th year and our schedule is arguably the most exciting, and certainly the most diverse, of the four international fashion weeks," says Tillman. "One of our most exciting initiatives this season is the launch of London Fashion Week's digital schedule to stream their shows live."

Twitter and Facebook carried updates on the week while website visits jumped by 30 per cent. Burberry's show was broadcast live in 3D to Tokyo, Dubai and Los Angeles and, pointedly, to New York and Paris.

Some 68 designers had runway shows last week with another 29 showing elsewhere, electronically or in person. The Fashion Week exhibition featured 200 designers selling and showing their collections.

And prominent among the labels is Jaeger, the 125-year-old company bought by Tillman in 2003. The retailer was close to collapse then but now sells through 765 outlets worldwide and made over £6m profit in its latest reported year on turnover of £86m. He recruited Belinda Earl, the former Debenhams boss, as chief executive and she sits on the British Fashion Council's advisory committee beside rivals such as Jane Shepherdson, the one-time Topshop director who now heads Whistles. Last September, Tillman added Aquascutum to his portfolio, buying it back from its Japanese owners. He admits: "We are pleased to be able to return this global luxury heritage brand to British ownership."

His business interests also include chairing Complete Leisure Group, the sports marketing company where Lord Coe is a director, and Allders, the Croydon emporium that claims to be the world's third-largest department store, plus a restaurant group.

But his career has not always been so successful: after bringing Lincroft Kilgour to the stock market at 24 – the youngest person to float a company – he came unstuck when he sold out and bought into another textile group that went bust. Department of Trade inspectors were critical and proposed his disqualification as a company director: Tillman settled for spending three years outside the boardroom. He says his greatest achievement is the complete recovery of his reputation.

The Londoner came from a textile-trade family and after training as an accountant he studied at London College of Fashion – which he now supports with a £1m scholarship fund. He rose from apprentice to managing director at Lincroft Kilgour, employing the young Paul Smith at the Savile Row firm.

That background has allowed Tillman to make the week more commercial while it remain a showcase for cutting edge design. "Talent is at the heart of London Fashion Week," he says. It is what attracts sponsors such as Canon, BlackBerry, Mercedes, Tesco and Coutts.

The UK clothing and footwear industry's output is around £9bn a year, with exports totalling an impressive £6.4bn. However, they are dwarfed by imports: UK consumers spend £46bn on such items. The designer end of the market is worth £2.1bn and makes an estimated annual net contribution to the British economy of £450m.

Tillman hopes fashion week can help redress that trade imbalance. His latest project is to chair a designer fashion fund that will give £200,000 and mentoring support to help turn an established designer from a developing talent into a global fashion brand.

The shortlist includes Christopher Kane, Angel Jackson and Nicholas Kirkwood; the winner will be announced in May. Tillman has recruited sponsors including HSBC, Marks & Spencer and Harrods. He is still looking for additional backing but says: "The industry support that we have received so far has been fantastic. I strongly believe this scheme will play a key role in developing business in the future."

Meanwhile, trendsetters eager to wear what will not be in the shops for several months have their chance today at Somerset House before the Fashion Weekend ends. Discounts of up to 75 per cent mean that high fashion from 100 designers, including Vivien Westwood, Versace and Lulu Guinness, is on offer at low prices. Tillman will be counting his success.