Suddenly, London fashion loses its sparkle as big designers look abroad

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The Independent Online
HYPE IS always a dangerous thing, and nowhere more so than in the fashion business. No sooner has London Fashion Week established itself as a force to be reckoned with, than it seems the catwalks of Cool Britannia are cooling more rapidly than planned.

The leading British designer Alexander McQueen, who put London on the fashion map before being invited to head Givenchy, is considering quitting London's runways. "I'm thinking carefully about where I'm going to show next autumn. If I get bad vibes from the British Fashion Council, I'm just going to go. I've got too much at stake. The dollar and the yen just aren't coming here."

In February, McQueen, who holds the BFC responsible for failing to attract serious buyers to the capital, intends to give London one last chance. If the international press and buyers do not show up next time, he will take his fashion extravaganza to New York. "Unless they change the BFC, I will leave London. I've put so much money and energy into my work and that elevates London. But they still don't get the press and buyers here. Their job is to bring commerce into London and they're really pitiful."

When McQueen started out with his collection for spring/ summer 94, his shows cost him pounds 3,000 to produce. Now, he says, the price is closer to pounds 330,000. For that amount of time and money, he expects to be rewarded with a whole bank of buyers. But instead, buyers attending his London shows fill a mere couple of rows. If he showed in New York, his sales would double.

Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, does not consider the London shows important enough to be graced with her presence and, until she does, London will not be in the same league as the other fashion capitals. Another complaint is that there is not enough quality control on the schedule. Designers have been thrown into further disarray by the fact that the New York shows will take place earlier than usual, squeezing London off the schedule.

Rumours have been circulating that other key designers are thinking about leaving London's catwalks. The first expected to make the break is Antonio Berardi. Although he wants to keep London as his creative base, he feels Milan is a more logical place for him to show. Like many British designers, Berardi has manufacturing backing in Italy where his collections are produced. Showing in London actually costs his backers, Givuesse, more than if he were to show in Milan. Hussein Chalayan, meanwhile, is having to juggle the collection he designs for TSE New York with his own label. If New York continues to show before London, he may have to move his own label elsewhere simply to have enough time between his two shows.

The knitwear designer Julien Macdonald showed his collection in New York in October after he won sponsorship from Vidal Sassoon. If the arrangement continues, he will not be able to afford to show in London as well. Besides, 80 per cent of his business is in America. The milliner Philip Treacy plans to show in New York this spring, but he will show in London as well.

London's reputation has been built on young designers who take risks to launch their careers. Yesterday, at the British Fashion Council in London, the next batch of young designers to receive Marks & Spencer's New Generation sponsorship were being chosen. There were about 70 applicants eager to become the next McQueen.

According to John Wilson, director of the BFC, there has been consistent growth in numbers of buyers attending London over the past four seasons. He claims buyers are flocking to the shows not just for McQueen, but to see the "critical mass of 40 to 50 designers" who have established themselves over the past four years.

British designers, although internationally famous, are still young, and do not have money to spend on advertising to lure the fashion press to their shows. "In terms of business, we are still tiny," says Inacio Ribeiro of Clements Ribeiro, one of our most commercially successful labels.

While attendance at London Fashion Week is better than it ever has been, if it began to decline, designers such as Clements Ribeiro would be forced to move. At the moment they are contemplating putting on a small-scale show in Milan.

"We don't want to show in any other place," says Ribeiro. "But if it was necessary, we would find the money from somewhere and go."

Antonio Berardi

Antonio Berardi, 28, graduated from Central Saint Martin's in June 1994, the same year as Matthew Williamson. His graduation collection featured shoes by Manolo Blahnik and his own perfume. It sold to Liberty and A La Mode in Knightsbridge and he showed his first collection for spring/summer 95 with a little help from models Stella Tennant and Kylie Minogue. After his third collection, he won a manufacturing and distribution deal with Italian company Givuesse. He has showrooms in Milan and Paris. His name has been on the shopping lists of fashion houses Givenchy, Celine, Iceberg and Versace. Berardi's clothes are known for innovative cutting.

Philip Treacy

Philip Treacy, 31, the milliner from County Galway, was educated at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, moving on to the Royal College of Art in 1988. While there he worked with Rifat Ozbek, John Galliano and Victor Edelstein, and opened his showroom in 1991. He has worked for and with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and at Givenchy; as well as creating his own runway shows for London fashion week. His hats are famously worn by Isabella Blow, and other well-known clients include Boy George and Honor Fraser. Five times winner of the British Accessory Designer of the Year, Treacy also designs for Debenhams.

Hussein Chalayan

Hussein Chalayan, who is in his late twenties, graduated from Central Saint Martin's in June 1993. His graduation collection was bought by Browns of South Molton Street and featured clothes made from envelope paper as well as pieces that had been buried and left to decompose in his back garden, with iron filings. Chalayan started to design for New York cashmere company TSE in spring and also designed a capsule collection for the high street giant Top Shop. He was nominated for British Fashion Designer of the Year last November. He is acknowledged internationally as one of today's most influential and interesting avant-garde designers.