At London fashion week last month, the chatter was as much about the shows that weren’t on as the ones that were. Several emerging designers — SS Daley, Robyn Lynch and Dilara Findikoğlu — were absent from the schedule, with Findikoğlu, who has dressed the likes of Cardi B and Margot Robbie, telling the New York Times that she cancelled because “we simply don’t have the finances for a runway show right now.” Her words are indicative of the difficulties that many up-and-coming designers are experiencing.
Faced with the cost of living crisis, Brexit and a risk-averse buying approach from retailers, the independent designers that London is known for are struggling to survive, let alone progress. The upshot is that the UK capital’s reputation as the home of creativity is under threat.
“Season after season you need to maintain and grow, and there’s not much room to make a mistake,” says Sinéad O’Dwyer, the designer who is pushing fashion to be more size-inclusive. She made a splash last year for her use of models across a range of body sizes on the catwalk, and uses a sample size of 18-22 to make her clothes.
Fashion week remains an important showcase — a way for designers to put themselves on the radar of the buyers and editors attending and, in turn, for these influential people to bring them into the fashion shoots and stores where the rest of us see them. However, the costs of these shows are prohibitive — Vogue Business estimated in September that a modest show could cost anything from £10,000 to £50,000 and emerging designers are having to think differently about how to showcase their work. The hyped label Chopova Lowena only shows once a year, cutting down on costs but upping the anticipation. The menswear designer Robyn Lynch is putting on an exhibition of her work — at the NOW Gallery in Greenwich from 8 December — as an alternative way to get her brand out there.
“[Staying afloat] just becomes unmanageable unless you really are selling a lot of product,” says Lulu Kennedy, who founded the new talent incubator Fashion East in 2000 — and whose show provides a platform for three emerging brands each season. She has watched as, over the years, money has become tighter. Sponsorship — once a given for emerging fashion brands — is thinner on the ground. “It’s getting harder and brands are pulling back,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. Brexit has complicated matters — it makes working with European manufacturers and exporting to European stores much harder and more expensive.
But these newer problems are stacked on existing issues. Education is a factor. While many of these emerging brands have significant fashion education — O’Dwyer graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2018, Findikoğlu attended Central Saint Martins (CSM) — there’s a growing disquiet that designers often graduate full of ideas but lacking business skills. “In school it’s like ‘I’m just going to be a designer and do my vision’ but [that’s] not really [how it will be],” says Nina Maria, a journalist who writes about emerging designers for publications including 1Granary, the outspoken fashion publication originally created by CSM students. “The business side of things is just highly underestimated.”
While many graduates from fashion design courses in London will go on to work at global brands (hence the logic behind the creativity-first approach), there remains a culture that those taking these prestigious courses are fashion’s next great talents — who will go on to become independent brands and shake up fashion. Nina Maria sees this as part of the danger. “The people that go there think: ‘I will have my own brand. And this is going to be my vision.’”
TJ Finley, a recent graduate from CSM, agrees. “St Martins is a place of dreams, right? I think the world is changing and when you don’t come from money, sometimes that maybe needs to stop. Because you can’t keep teaching people to dream. With the reality, it’s just not a feasible thing any more.” Finley, who is from a working-class background, made his graduate show, called Fags Forking the Rich, in part about the greed within the fashion industry — sprinkling cigarette butts across A-listers in the audience. It didn’t go down well. “There’s people moaning about the cigarettes being thrown, saying it’s aggressive, but do they actually realise that UAL [the University of Arts] has the food bank?” (He clarifies that he means food parcels, which he says are offered to the students on the highest levels of student finance.)
London has a reputation for producing gamechanging working-class fashion talent — from Vivienne Westwood to Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Christopher Kane — but there is an argument that with the financial pressures facing young talent, none of these designers would make it today. Designers from ethnic minority backgrounds with low incomes are even harder pushed, when you add fashion’s systemic racism into the mix. Nina Maria thinks fashion runs the risk of pricing out designers without independent wealth. “I don’t think that the spirit of London young designers will end but I think it will be different,” she says. “It will be a lot of people who come from wealth, people who can afford to operate a minus business for years to come.”
Rush wants to ensure this doesn’t happen. “I would like to see increased support,” she says. “Obviously we are going into a general election next year and that is going to be key, not just for the fashion industry but I suspect across the creative industry. It is one of our superpowers as a nation and we are definitely underinvesting in it.”
There is always the tricky argument that when things get really bad creativity flourishes. “The fortunes of designers are tethered to the economy and the recession,” says Sarah Mower, journalist and curator of Rebel, an exhibition telling the story of NewGen, the London fashion week platform for young designers, at the Design Museum. “I’m not saying that there’s some kind of airy-fairy rule, but very often when things aren’t the best you get the most incredible revolutionary people.”
“Change is coming,” says Finley. “Where’s the grit? London has always been about getting in trouble, making people angry. People are now [looking at shows at London fashion week and saying] ‘that’s a pretty dress, that’s beautiful.’ That’s never been what London’s about. It needs to be a bit disturbing.”
By Lauren Cochrane
The Legacy of London’s Original Young Designer Support Scheme
Many of the most promising young labels to participate in London’s NewGen scheme went boom… before they went bust. But the programme, which turns 30 this year, enables a laboratory of creativity that benefits the whole industry, writes Susanna Lau.