There is a new mood of seriousness at London fashion week. The opening honours are traditionally performed by a celebrity blonde who woos the audience with louche charm and giggly anecdotes, but Boris Johnson was nowhere to be seen as the lights went up on the Somerset House catwalks. Instead, ribbon-cutting duties fell to Sir Philip Green, whose deep pockets bankroll a sizeable number of the more fanciful shows that take place on the London catwalks, and who therefore presides over the week in the manner of a gruff sugar daddy.
The presence of both Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, and Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture and the creative industries, reflects how successful the British Fashion Council has been in getting the coalition on board with the message that fashion, being an arena in which Britain still leads the world, is an industry worth shouting about.
London fashion week has recently emerged victorious from a decade-long battle to defend its credentials as a serious player on the global stage, and successfully fought off attempts by rival cities to squeeze it off the schedule. Rave reviews for London’s designers in the global fashion press have become standard.
London fashion week’s new goal is to turn critical success into commercial expansion. “The catwalks are fantastic. Now, we need to look at manufacturing, and creating real businesses,” said Green.
The fashion industry accounts for 1.7% of UK GDP – twice as much as publishing, car manufacturing or the chemical industry – and supports 816,000 jobs. There are encouraging signs that on a small scale, British manufacturing is on an upswing. “China is getting more expensive, time-to-market is ever more important for retailers. This means there is now the opportunity to make clothes in the United Kingdom, and to remain competitive,” said Green.
Vaizey pointed to reports by retailers including John Lewis and Topman that “the ‘made in Britain’ brand is a powerful one that customers value, particularly in menswear”.
Last year Mulberry received £2.5m from the regional growth fund to build a handbag-making factory in Somerset which will create 250 skilled jobs. “That kind of money has traditionally gone to car factories, and those kinds of industries,” said Vaizey. “The fact that Mulberry can access that money is a reflection of the fact that the government acknowledges the role of fashion in our economy.”
“The conversations around British fashion have become more serious,” said designer Anya Hindmarch. “In Italy, when you speak to men in suits they understand fashion, because it employs lots of men like them. They have friends who are employed in the fashion business, and that alters the way they see it. Apprenticeship schemes are an important next step for Britain. We’ve got all these kids who can’t afford to go to university – let’s get them into business.”
The business side of fashion looks set to dominate the airwaves for some time. Yesterday Green announced that Topshop‘s 10-year sponsorship of London fashion week’s up and coming “NewGen” designers, which is in its final year, will be renewed. “We need as much focus on the next generation of production talent as there has been on new design talent. My goal is to see if we can achieve in manufacturing and business what we have achieved in design and retail,” Green said.
Morale-boosting though they are, men in suits are essentially window dressing at London fashion week, and by 11am they had been ushered aside to make way for the serious business of teenage girls wearing expensive dresses.
This season’s London fashion week will feature 59 catwalk shows, with an estimated total audience of 5,000. Last season over £100m of orders were placed during the week. The halo-effect of this year’s Jubilee and Olympic celebrations has lured star designers away from New York, Milan and Paris: Stella McCartney will show a collection of evening wear at a show in Mayfair on Saturday evening, Victoria Beckham is celebrating the arrival in store of her Victoria collection, and Sarah Burton will show her first collection in London when the McQ diffusion line takes to the catwalk on Monday.
Early trends to emerge from the London catwalk were gold lame, which was used for a black-tie-worthy pyjama-suit at Caroline Charles, and for the Harlow catsuit at Maria Grachvogel’s 1930s themed show. There was a tongue in cheek take on Jubilee chic at a strong show by Emilia Wickstead, a New Zealand born designer based in London who has become a favourite of Samantha Cameron: a cocktail dress was printed with had a toile de jouy pattern featuring views of Windsor Castle.
Caroline Charles’s catwalk show marked her 50th year as a London fashion designer. Asked how she had kept going so long in an industry famed for burnout, she said “it doesn’t feel like 50 years. I don’t think about the past, I think about next season. And how could I ever stop?” she said. “Fashion is addictive.”
Catherine Fuller, 27, Stylist
I’m here for the Corrie Nielsen show this morning. My jeans are by Topshop, my jacket is H&M, my top is vintage and my shoes are Aldo. The bag is Chanel, I wear it whenever I need to polish an outfit.
Yahaya Onalaja-Aliu, 28, Writer
I have a really busy day today – I’m going to nine shows. I would describe my look today as nonplussed. My coat is by H&M, my bag is by Bracher Emden, my shoes are by Topman, and my jacket and shirt are both by H&M.
Zoe Whitfield, 22, fashion assistant
I’ve come to cover a few shows today for Clash Magazine. I threw whatever I had on today so I’m wearing an M&S boys coat, my Dad’s Gap shirt, my jeans are by Topshop and my shoes are by Urban Outfitters.
Sarah O’Neil, 17, blogger
I’ve come to take photos for my street style blog. My skirt is by American Apparel, my jacket is Versace for H&M, my shoes are Jeffrey Campbell and my bag is from Primark.
Leonard Arceo, 21, fashion student
My look today is a modern gentleman but with elegance. I’m looking forward to the Corrie Nielsen show today. My coat is by Zara, my shirt is Asos, my jeans are Cheap Monday and my shoes are by Prada.
Nancy Stannard, 51, couture consultant
I am here as an assistant for Suzie Turner couture. I don’t think much of what I’m wearing I had a long day at work yesterday so put whatever was around when I woke up! My jacket is by Moncler, my jeans are HTC and my shoes are by Lanvin.
Interviews: Sara Ilyas