Why London can still strut when it comes to fashion

With buyers from wealthy emerging markets flocking to Britain's style showcase, Simon Evans asks: who needs the Americans?
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The Independent Online

Today marks the beginning of the high point in the British fashion calendar when the capital hosts London Fashion Week. It should be a carnival championing the best of British fashion from the experimental to the mainstream.

But already the naysayers have been plenty in evidence in the run up to the celebration of British style and clothing. The reason – a dearth of Americans.

As the US leads the world into recession with an ailing economy and historically weak dollar, the hordes of Yanks that normally choose to visit these shores to assess our fashion wares are apparently deserting in large numbers.

Buyers from influential American firms including the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys and Neiman Marcus are all apparently either side-stepping or cutting back on their presence and are instead choosing to make their European stop offs in Milan and Paris. Not even talk of generous enticements to get the style gurus to head over to Blighty have worked.

Doesn't it feel a bit like history repeating itself? Back in 1999 when Tony Blair was still popular and Cool Britannia was in full swing, the doomsters were out in force. At the time, there was no John Galliano, no Rifat Ozbek, no Vivienne Westwood at London and we were told "all countries are tightening their travel budgets for senior buying staff" with London the loser.

"We have had some drop-out from the US," says Hilary Riva, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council. "But it's not just about the US ."

Indeed it's not. London's fashionistas are taking their lead from their financial cousins in the Square Mile courting those cash laden barons in the east.

"The emerging markets presence we have this year is the strongest ever," says Anna Orsini, a spokeswoman for London Fashion Week. "Chinese and Russian presence is at a high with both Vogue editor in chiefs coming over. On the buyer front, we have Crocus and UK Style from Moscow and Day and Night from St Petersburg. We have presence from South Korea, Ukraine and the Middle East too."

Melanie Rickey, the fashion news and features editor at Grazia, agrees that while the American influence might be on the wane this year, buyers and interest from the East is more than taking up any slack left.

"London is obviously a lot more expensive for Americans this year so they aren't coming in the same numbers," says Ms Rickey. "But the influx of interest from the likes of China, Russia and India is more than going to make up for it. You get the feeling we are in the midst of a 'fashion moment'. We've launched the magazine in China and India which have both gone down very well. The Indian middle class is a huge market and one that London is well placed to take advantage of."

Brands such as Burberry, long since viewed as horribly chavvy in Britain, have gobbled up sizeable market shares in China and India.

And while Americans might be deserting, it seems our European cousins are coming over in droves. The notoriously difficult-to-please Italians and French are putting in a strong showing by all accounts.

"There's a strong presence of buyers with the likes of Corso Como, Penelope, Colette, Maria Luisa, L'Eclaireur," says Ms Orsini. "On the department store front we have Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marché, Frank et Fils and Vittorio Radice's new venture La Rinascente in Italy."

There are other reasons to be cheerful. Much is made of young designers leaving these shores for life across the pond but it isn't all one way traffic. Luella Bartley might have upped sticks for America a few years ago, but she's back in London this time around.

David James, executive professor of marketing and growth management at Henley Management College, says: "I think London Fashion Week benefits the UK economy both directly and indirectly. It keeps British fashion brands at the forefront, and it shows the world what the UK is good at: design and creativity."

The highlight of week is undoubtedly the return of that most understated of dames, Vivienne Westwood, who is showing in London after a nine-year absence.

She might have looked anything but the fashionista when pictured cycling last week but the return of the Godmother of punk is sure to cause a stir when her Red Label womenswear range is unveiled. With a brief, and frankly ill-judged, foray into the political sphere with her "Active Resistance to Propaganda" now behind her, Westwood alone is reason to cheer.

Fewer Americans? So what? Far from going pear-shaped, London as a fashion capital is still in ruddy shape.

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