The Big Question: What is the point of London Fashion Week, and does it matter?


What is London Fashion Week?

To guess from the photos it is one long Moet-fuelled party for leggy, teenage girls from Estonia and Dalek-like glossy-magazine editors who never remove their sunglasses. But London Fashion Week is actually an important industry event that maintains the city's status as a top "fashion capital".

Over six days designers of every level of experience present their collections for the forthcoming season to an audience of department-store buyers, journalists, stylists and, of course, the odd celebrity.

It takes place each February and September, and gives buyers and press an advance viewing of collections that won't hit the stores for another four to six months.

Most choose to show their clothes on models on a catwalk, but many more stage static presentations in an exhibition at the fashion week marquees, presently outside the Natural History Museum in west London.

Along with Paris, Milan and New York, London is one of the major biannual ready-to-wear fashion weeks, and jealously guards that status particularly since, over the past decade, every city from Barcelona to Zagreb has launched its very own "fashion week".

While Paris focuses on avant-garde design and ladylike chic, Milan is the home of big luxury labels and New York prefers labels designed by socialites, for socialites, London is the seedbed for new fashion talent.

This is largely due to the success of the capital's top fashion colleges such as Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, coupled with a vibrant street style culture.

Without the manufacturing might of northern Italy, or the mega-budgets of the French luxury goods conglomerates, designers in the UK have little choice but to innovate however they can.

The city has been a hotbed for creativity in fashion since the 1960s (think Biba, Mary Quant) and 1970s (Ossie Clark, Vivienne Westwood) but London Fashion Week itself has grown organically. From a small event in the 1980s based in Olympia to a fully fledged fashion week in the mid-90s with 15 designers.

Now there are 53 catwalk shows on the official schedule, with many more presenting collections in small off-calendar events in bars, warehouses and theatres around the capital. Without a high-profile fashion week, UK designers would struggle to gain recognition and grow their businesses.

Who is involved?



Paul Smith, Betty Jackson, Nicole Farhi are some of the more established designers that take part. Luella Bartley and Matthew Williamson, two successful Brits who have shown in the more commerically-viable New York fashion week for several years, return to London this season.

Stella McCartney staged her earliest shows in London in the late 1990s and tomorrow night she is back to present her collection for Adidas.

British brands attempting to revive a long heritage also prefer to test the waters in London. They include Aquascutum, Biba and Asprey.

But the biggest hype surrounds the fresh-out-of-college designers such as Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh and Marios Schwab, who are given the space and attention at London Fashion Week that they would struggle to find in other fashion capitals. Young talent showcases/ awards such as Fashion Fringe (Tom Ford is a judge), MAN and Fashion East also crowd out the schedule this week, giving new graduates the first step on the ladder by exposing them to the press.

Buyers from American, European and Asian department stores are in town to make orders for deliveries next season.

Models, most of whom live in New York or Paris, fly in for the shows.

Journalists from all the major British newspapers attend, as do stylists and editors from the glossy magazines. Industry publications such as Women's Wear Daily also cover LFW, as do influential websites including the influential Conde Nast site Style.com, which reviews many shows.

The crowd that jostles at the entrance to all the shows also includes photographers, fashion students and the inevitable hangers-on. In total organisers estimate 5,000 guests this week.

Who organises and pays for the event?

The British Fashion Council , a non-profit making organization, runs London Fashion Week and has a brief to promote British fashion worldwide.

At present Hilary Riva, formerly of the retail group Rubicon, is chief executive of the British Fashion Counci and Marks & Spencer's Stuart Rose, the chairman. To survive, LFW relies heavily on the largesse of commercial sponsors. Camera brand Canon is currently supporting the event overall but it is Topshop that is the single biggest sponsor of designers, spending in excess of £500,000 per season on cash and venues for young designers.

With a catwalk show costing anywhere between £15,000-£80,000, the pressure on designers still only in their twenties to overstretch themselves is immense. Many will comment that their notoriety far outstrips the size of their small business bank account.

What's it worth?

The UK clothing market was worth £33.5bn in 2006 and while the majority of that is likely to be high-street fashion chains, one can argue that the buzz surrounding London designers trickles down to mass-market retailers and keeps shoppers hungry for newness. The organizers of London Fashion Week say that last season's event produced editorial media coverage worth £24m, orders worth £40m and business for London worth more than £100m. Last year numbers of UK buyers were up by 20 per cent and international press by 10 per cent.

What/who has it given the world?

Vivienne Westwood was part of London Fashio Week in its earliest incarnation the 1980s. John Galliano, now the chief designer at Christian Dior, also started his career in London. The star couturier, who once wore an astronaut suit to take his bow at the end of a show, is now based in Paris but was in town last night at a glitzy dinner at the V&A to celebrate the opening of The Golden Age Of Couture.

In the late 1990s star designers Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan wowed the fashion pack with their spectacular shows that were closer to theatre than a catwalk presentation. They have since moved on to Paris. One thing LFW does not give the world is dull but commercially safe trends – plenty of which one can see on any given day during Milan Fashion Week.

How does it influence the high street?

Catwalk trends from every fashion capital eventually end up on the high street, thanks to 'copycat'designs, which cannot be good for designer's small businesses. But there are schemes to harness the creativity of UK designers for the mass market. In exchange for sponsorship many of the 15 designers supported by Topshop this week will design less expensive capsule collections for the chain.

Teenage girls can already buy Christopher Kane for Topshop, or similar collections by Emma Cook, Peter Jensen and Ann-Sofie Back. In an industry where celebrities from Kate Moss to J-Lo are launching their own clothing lines, it is hopeful for the future of fashion that real designers should also be accessible to the younger end of the market.

Who are the names to watch?

The 25-year-old Glaswegian Christopher Kane has fans in US Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Donatella Versace – and recommendations don't come much higher than that. Kane's take on bad-taste glamour isn't for everyone (Monday's show featured snakeskin prints and ripped, bleached jeans) but his technical ability and focus is impressive.

Kane himself has vowed to stay independent and remain in London. This is in contrast to the likes of McQueen and McCartney who chose to sell their brands to the Gucci Group following their rise to fame in the 1990s. Scots are hot this season; two more north-of-the-border talents to watch out for are Deryck Walker and Louise Gray. From Kingston, west London, Danielle Scutt, 26, is a new name whose dominatrix designs are young, fierce and attention-grabbing. Which just a bout sums up London Fashion Week.

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