Fashion stars who won't wear Britain: Roger Tredre explains why our top designers are quitting London and having their shows abroad

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LONDON Fashion Week opens in four days' time, but without the designers who have dominated British fashion since the mid-Eighties. The absentees include four former Designers of the Year - Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Katharine Hamnett and Workers for Freedom - and the current holder of the title, Rifat Ozbek. All have chosen to show their collections abroad, in Paris or Milan.

Also missing will be John Richmond, who is staging a catwalk show in Paris on 17 March. His reason for moving abroad is the same as theirs: 'London Fashion Week does not attract enough international press and buyers. If my business is to expand, I must show in Paris.'

Others are expected to follow. Jasper Conran plans to stage his catwalk shows in New York. This season, Arabella Pollen is holding salon-style presentations in Paris rather than a catwalk show in London. Helen Storey is also considering a move abroad.

The statistics starkly illustrate the decline of London Fashion Week. In October 1990, 21 designers staged catwalk shows, with 250 names taking stands at an adjoining trade exhibition. Next month only 13 designers are staging shows, with another 60 at an exhibition at the Ritz hotel.

Many designers believe the best bet is to move everything to Paris, now the acknowledged central market place for designers who want to export. Every international store buyer visits Paris.

However, this is balanced by a fear that young designers will suffer if they lose a launchpad in London. John Wilson, director of the British Fashion Council, said: 'Paris is getting too large. There is a real danger that new British designers will get lost.'

As Nicholas Knightly, one of the rising stars of British fashion, put it: 'There are something like 82 fashion shows in Paris over 10 days. I don't want to be the 83rd.'

There is no shortage of talent in Britain - the 'new wave' includes Bella Freud, Abe Hamilton, Amanda Wakeley, Flyte Ostell, Sonnentag & Mulligan, and Alexander McQueen. Money, rather, is the core of the problem. From its inception in the 1980s, London Fashion Week has struggled because of under-funding. It was most successful in the late Eighties, when its centrepiece was the British Designer Show, an exhibition held at Olympia.

Two years ago, the exhibition was reduced in size and moved to a custom-built venue at the Duke of York's Barracks on the King's Road. The designers themselves were the driving force behind the switch. They wanted to show in a smaller, more exclusive environment. Their champion was Annette Worsley-Taylor, a formidable enthusiast who took on the task of organising the new exhibition at the heart of the week - the London Designer Show.

But the move proved a mistake. Britain's designers are small-scale businesses, most with turnovers of less than pounds 500,000. They had neither the cash nor the resources to fund the event themselves and relied on support from the British Clothing Industry Association, which represents manufacturers.

The association is estimated to have put pounds 200,000 into the show over four seasons, and another pounds 145,000 into the staging of catwalk shows. But it saw little return for its money, and last autumn decided to withdraw, forcing Ms Worsley-Taylor to move this season's event to the Ritz hotel.

Many designers privately blame the British Fashion Council for the problems. The council, currently headed by Sir Ralph Halpern, co-ordinates London Fashion Week and is charged with finding backing for the event. Despite its impressive title, however, it is an ad hoc affair with no regular income and no full-time employees, relying on donations of time and money from interested parties. Sir Ralph receives no salary. Without the support of the clothing industy association, the council would probably cease to exist. It has had little success in eliciting more than nominal support from a government that believes that designers should fend for themselves.

This season the Department of Trade and Industry is underwriting the costs of London Fashion Week and hosting a reception at Lancaster House. But the French and Italian governments consistently make a greater contribution to their fashion industries. A catwalk complex is opening at the Louvre in Paris in October, and much of the pounds 40m cost has been paid by the French Ministry of Culture.

The British Fashion Council still hopes to find new sponsors for London Fashion Week. The event may survive in a truncated form, possibly as a market week with designers selling from their showrooms, with a handful of catwalk shows.

Some designers will move to Paris. Others may concentrate on Premier Collections, the mainstream clothing trade fair held in Birmingham. In the uneasy fashion world of the Nineties, commercial imperatives rule.

(Photographs omitted)

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