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Undressing the £21bn fashion industry: can London compete internationally?

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As London Fashion Week continues we examine London’s place as a fashion capital, and why clothes matter to the economy.

She emerged from the Rolls Royce Phantom VI and fashion lovers all over the world gripped their sofas with anticipation. There had been fleeting glimpses through the windows of the car, a flash of lace, the veil and long sleeved arms holding onto her father. But as she stepped out in the McQueen dress, Britain beamed with pride.

An estimated 2 billion people around the globe tuned in to watch the royal nuptials and there was one thing on most people’s mind: the dress.

The Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen gown that Kate wore propelled British couture back to the forefront of the fashion world’s mind and reminded the world of Britain’s place among the elite group of fashions capitals.

But the British fashion industry is so much more than delicately embroidered McQueen dresses, handmade leather Mulberry handbags and killer Westwood heels. There is a real and quantifiable value added to our economy by our thriving and well respected fashion industry.

A stylish injection of cash in the capital

The fashion industry spans textile production, design, wholesaling, marketing, manufacturing, education and media.

According to a recent survey by the British Fashion Council (BFC) fashion directly contributes nearly £21bn to the UK economy. It also has an indirect economic impact, in encouraging spending in other industries, of over £16bn.

Significant contributions to this total are made by marketing (£241m), the fashion media (£205m) and fashion education (£16m).

Employment totals roughly 2.8 per cent of the UK’s total. Fashion education and fashion journalism alone create 3,700 jobs.

“The UK fashion industry is one of the most vibrant and creative business sectors in this country,” Harold Tillman CBE, chairman of the British Fashion Council said, “It has universal appeal and a unique DNA that has visually defined periods in time across the centuries.”

Kate Middleton waves as she arrives at Westminster Abbey where she is helped with her dress by her sister Pippa ahead of her wedding with Prince William.

Kate Middleton waves as she arrives at Westminster Abbey where she is helped with her dress by her sister Pippa ahead of her wedding with Prince William.

London’s heritage

London has always been the epicentre of the country’s fashion industry with an enduring, proud and multifarious history, comprising distinct connections with historical eras – from the Cool Britania image of the 1990’s, back to the Punk and New Romantic movements of the 1970s and 1980s. And of course the “Swinging Sixties”.

“London is one of the key players globally it has had a core and strong role for many years – everyone knows how dominant Paris is but London has always been hot on its heels,” explains Pat Lyttle, fashion assignments specialist at Getty Images.

A report by PR agency Threepipe published at the beginning of the summer found that the most popular FTSE 100 company on Facebook is luxury fashion retailer Burberry.

Burberry’s pioneering approach to social media including its site Art of the Trench has ensured its popularity of Twitter. It is the FTSE 100’s most powerful tweeter and has more than 253,000 followers.

London Fashion Week

London Fashion Week (LFW) first took place in 1984 and it currently ranks alongside New York, Paris and Milan as one of the ‘Big Four’ fashion weeks. Essentially it is an apparel trade show, but for London’s fashion industry is represents so much more.

For six days, Anna Wintour-esque steely gazes will be practiced on the front rows, hundreds of assistants will be barked at, wrong sized shoes will be thrown around numerous back stages, the sale of coconut water will spike (model’s favourite) and fashion’s elite will gather around Somerset house for the 27th year of LFW.

It’s an event that effects tourism, retail and hospitality and gathers the eyes of the world’s media in one place for six days.

With 68 catwalk shows, 45 salon shows and numerous presentations happening over the city, we will welcome an estimated 5,000 visitors all eager to get a piece of the fash-action. According to the BFC, media coverage during the period equals or exceeds most major sporting events.

Retail spaces from the brand new Westfield Stratford City to New Bond Street will be buzzing with frenzied fashion followers. It is expected that over £100m worth of orders will be placed following the shows.

“LFW’s presence on the world stage is growing despite the recession,” says Lyttle. “Over the years fashion houses that were exhibiting elsewhere have come to show in London.”

Recently decided to show at LFW:

  • Burberry
  • Vivienne Westwood
  • Sass and Bide
  • Mathew Williamson
  • Jonathan Saunders
  • Pringle

Recent reports have claimed that London doesn’t have the financial sway to attract the biggest models and designers to show here. Absence of the mega-rates combined with LFW’s position in-between that of New York and Milan means that many on the fashion circuit skip London, it has been claimed in a recent Guardian article.

But London overtook New York City as the Top Global Fashion Capital for 2011, and many of London’s fashion industry have rubbished the naysayers with this evidence.

The Duchess of Cambridge and designer Alexander McQueen both boosted the profile of London’s fashion industry in the fashion world and media following in the past year.

Vivienne Westwood on the catwalk at the Vivienne Westwood Red Label Catwalk Autumn/Winter show at the Royal Courts of Justice as part of London Fashion Week in February

Vivienne Westwood on the catwalk at the Vivienne Westwood Red Label Catwalk Autumn/Winter show at the Royal Courts of Justice as part of London Fashion Week in February

Haute couture high street

There’s a particular British brand that celebrities all over the globe can’t get enough of. Any whirlwind trip to London isn’t complete without a visit to the flagship store and stateside celebs such as Beyonce, Lyndsay Lohan, Liv Tyler and Olivia Palermo parade their latest finds in front of the world’s paparazzi.

I’m not talking about Burberry, I’m not talking about McQueen and I’m not even talking about Vivienne Westwood. It’s Topshop that is on the top of everyone’s list.

The rise of the high street brand is a unique phenomenon that has taken the UK by storm and cements London’s position as one of the world’s fashion capitals.

Designers such as Stella McCartney, Karl Lagerfeld, Orla Kiely and Sonia Rykiel have all designer ranges for the high street.

“The strength of the London and UK fashion brand can be seen in the evolution of the high street,” says Lyttle. “Major designers are climbing over themselves to get a piece of the high street. Michelle Obama even wears ASOS!”

 The Moss-effect may have kicked off the revolution. Kate Moss’s Collection at Topshop reportedly made £3m in its first week and added around 10 per cent to overall sales at the store but it didn’t stop there. Unique – Topshop’s Ready To Wear collection spearheaded by British designer Karen Bonser, has quickly gained reputation as a show not to be missed.

 Too cool for fashion school

London College of Fashion

London College of Fashion

 The London fashion education system is widely recognised in the UK and internationally as one of the best in the world.

Central St Martin’s, London College of Fashion, Kingston University and Westminster University all have world renowned fashion courses – the graduates from which are often headhunted by big design houses.

The international reputation of the education in London has created a truly global student base which only serves to exaggerate the diversity of London fashion talent pool.

“The courses offered in and around London are internationally respected”, explains Paul Alger, director of international affairs for the UK Fashion & Textile Association.

“London is a melting pot of international talent as graduates flock here from all over the world.”

London College of Fashion has just launched their College Shop – a pop-up retail space where they are selling designs from their multi-talented alumni – another way, they claim, to give their graduates a leg-up into business.

The College Shop - London College of Fashion

The College Shop – London College of Fashion

It’s not just London’s education system that is renowned for practically supporting emerging talent; there are a large number of associations and platforms in place to help young designers to establish themselves once they have graduated.

Take Lulu Kennedy, founder of not-for-profit organisation Fashion East. She is often referred to as fashion’s fairy god mother for the support she provides young designers. Her keen eye for talent has helped her launch the careers of many well-known names.

But competition for places on support schemes is fierce. Like any industry, fashion requires investment to help it grow, and to keep the talent here in London.

London’s Fashion Platforms – Fact file

  • Fashion East

Founded by Lulu Kennedy and funded by Topshop, TOPMAN and the London Development Agency, they helped launch Richard Nicoll, Holly Fulton, Jonathan Saunders, House of Holland and Gareth Pugh.

  • Vauxhall Fashion Scout

An independent showcase of emerging talent that runs alongside fashion week, responsible for the launch of David Koma, William Tempest, Louise Amstrup.

  • Talent Launch Pad

Supported by the British Fashion Council and ELLE magazine, previous recipients are Clemency London, Holly Fulton and David Longshaw.

  • On/Off

Launched in 2003, this showcasing platform has pushed the likes of Hannah Marshall and Mark Fast.

  • Fashion Forward

Scheme sponsored by Coutts & Co and supported originally by the London Development Agency and now by the Greater London Authority was established five years ago. Previous winners include Christopher Kane, Erdem and Giles Deacon.

  • Designer Fashion Fund

 In partnership with Vogue, the fund was launched by British Fashion Council Chairman Harold Tillman in September 2008 as a legacy project for the BFC’s 25th anniversary celebrations. Providing one designer with £200,000, it focuses on slightly more established talent – Erdem won last year.

Street style spotter

 It’s not just the catwalk stars that are teaming with new trends. London’s streets are renowned for their trend-spawning hipsters. Lyttle’s role at Getty Images involved him capturing and tracking trends:

“There are various places around the world that are key for street fashion. If you go to Shoreditch on a Sunday afternoon you will see photographers from around the world all clambering to capture the style on camera.”

The stylistic rebirth of the rugged, chlorophyll-green waxed jackets of Barbour and Hunter willies began as an ironic Shoreditch whim. Before long celebrities up and down were taking style notes from the Queen, and high street stores were stocking heritage-esque knockoffs.

Paul Alger agrees: “There is a perception that fashion in London has a unique edge,” he says. “Londoners are seen as being fearless in their fashion choices and their fashion brands have the same perception. We are known for our creativity and quality of design.”

This reputation no doubt goes a long way to heighten the demand for British brands abroad. The much documented rise of British heritage labels in the emerging markets is only set to grow and hopefully with it, our economy.

“There is an increasing appetite for British fashion coming from overseas markets,” says Susan Perry Whitehead, Director of Industry Sales (Fashion and Retail) at DHL Express (one of London Fashion Week’s sponsors). As this international demand increases, British fashion businesses could be incremental to domestic economic growth.”

When the soon-to-be Duchess of Cornwall walked up the aisle of Westminster Abbey she announced her dedication to promoting UK design, and the timing of this sovereign chic couldn’t be better for London’s Fashion industry. With all eyes on her latest outfits, this LFW promises to be a show stopper, and no doubt this injection of royal glamour will translate into an added injection of capital in the capital.

Related Files

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The Value of Fashion – BFC




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