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Harold Tillman

After completing the first London Fashion Week of his three-year stint as chairman of the British Fashion Council, the Jaeger and Allders boss is determined to give more young designers the chance to shine on the capital’s catwalks of London Fashion Week and looks forward to what his new role has to offer.

It is difficult to imagine Harold Tillman in anything but a sharp suit, and even though he admits to wearing jeans at the weekend, he would never compromise on quality tailoring. “I don’t like clothes that relax into nothing. Even casualwear can be tailored,” he smiles.

His passion for design – Tillman is rumoured to have changed his outfit three times a day during London Fashion Week – is what prompted Sir Stuart Rose, joint chairman and chief executive of Marks & Spencer, to hand over the baton of chairman of the British Fashion Council, which organises LFW, to Tillman in September. Tillman fully took up the role at this season’s LFW.

Tillman explains: “When Stuart asked me if I wanted the job, he said ‘I’m a retailer. I can sell books, food and clothes, but I don’t come from a design manufacturing background’.

I have an empathy with designers. I see a runway show and look at how the clothes have been made. I look at the work, the design, the machining, the colouring. The whole thing registers with me. I couldn’t run M&S, but Stuart could go from M&S to Sainsbury’s, to anywhere. I couldn’t. I just wish I’d done this 10 years ago.”

Tillman, who also owns womenswear retailer Jaeger and Croydon department store Allders, is an alumni of the London College of Fashion (LCF) in London, where he studied design in the 1960s, and he has remained close to his roots ever since.

Two years ago, Tillman set up a scholarship at LCF, pledging £1 million to sponsor 10 MA students each year. He also sits on the board of the Fashion Enterprise Forum, which raises cash for young industry entrepreneurs. This year he was appointed chairman of the Alumni Board for the University of the Arts London, which comprises six London universities including Central Saint Martins College and LCF.

He may have only been in the role for one season, but Tillman already has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve by the time he steps down as BFC chairman after three years, which is the period served by every chairman.

“I want to achieve two goals as chairman,” he explains. “I have a strong passion for our design colleges, having studied at LCF. The skills are still the same: understanding how the fabric is made and how it is cut, for example. But the students need a showcase and I would like to see the BFC working even more closely with our colleges to help young talent get on the ladder. I also want to bring fashion together on an international level.”

Tillman has already made headway on both counts. At this month’s LFW, which drew to a close on September 19 having attracted big names such as Temperley London, (who returned after several seasons in New York) Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Luella, Tillman unveiled plans to launch the largest-ever UK fund to help develop designers.
The announcement was made at a party at 10 Downing Street, hosted by the Prime Minister’s wife Sarah Brown, to celebrate the BFC’s 25th anniversary next year. The fund, which will be awarded in November 2010, will be worth more than the Council of Fashion Design of America/Vogue Fashion Fund in New York, which awards designers a total of US$300,000 (£168,500).

“It is an open-ended fund based on the CFDA/Vogue model, which was set up five years ago,” Tillman explains. “We’ll start to raise money during the course of next year and allocate it in 2010 to deserving designers who need the support. A committee will decide who gets the funding.”

On the global front, Tillman has helped secure LFW a five-day slot on the international fashion calendar, after meeting with his international counterparts during LFW. This was prompted by the announcement by New York Fashion Week, just before LFW was due to start earlier this month, that New York needed to move back its own slot by a week in order to give its designers enough time to complete their collections. But the move would have left London with only a four-day window, squashed between New York and Milan Fashion Week, which was understood to have been unwilling to shift.

“We had letters of support from Sarah Brown and [London mayor] Boris Johnson, which were powerful things to take to the meeting. We let the other fashion weeks know in no uncertain terms that we are quite powerful,” says Tillman.

As a result, London will lose only one day from its current six-day schedule from September 2009. It is unclear what will happen at next season’s show in February, but Tillman admits that there will be some “overlapping”, with the BFC saying other fashion week organisers have agreed to “work closely” with London for its February edition.

However, given London’s reputation as the least commercial of all the four fashion weeks, cutting back the length of the event, even by just one day, could mean that buyers and press skip London altogether and head from New York straight to Milan.

But Tillman is confident of London’s draw as a hub of creativity. “I’m happy with five days. In all fairness, London was always a five-day show until two years ago so we know it works perfectly in five days,” he says. “We have to respect the press and buyers too, who are being asked to travel all over the world. We can easily do it in five days and all the designers who want to show will be able to show. And London’s position [between New York and Milan] won’t be jeopardised because we’ll have sympathetic scheduling between each fashion week, with major shows taking place in the middle.”

Tillman is also a supporter of London’s reputation as the most creative of the fashion weeks, and is happy for the title to remain. “We all have our place and it is important for London to maintain its edginess,” he says.

It is no wonder then that Tillman’s LFW highlights this season were not Giles’ bright body-con dresses or Christopher Kane’s large semi-circular fish scale-like plastic discs. “The two highlights for me this season at LFW were the party at Downing Street and making sure London had a five-day slot,” he says.

“I’m grateful to our prime minister for allowing fashion to be recognised in such a sacred place. I first met Sarah Brown at the British Fashion Awards last November and she seems to have warmed to us. She has a fondness for the creative industries and fashion seems to be well up there for her,” says Tillman. “The summit meeting with the US, France and Italy to resolve our scheduling differences was the other highlight. We’ve reached an agreement going forward to work together and respect each other. The result has been excellent.”

But there was one issue where the international fashion weeks did not see eye to eye. The Model Health Inquiry, set up by the BFC and the London Development Agency last year, before Tillman was appointed, had proposed that models should be asked to obtain doctors’ certificates to prove they are in good health. This followed the size zero furore earlier this year, but the BFC was forced to abandon its plans just before the start of LFW after other major international fashion weeks refused to follow London’s lead.

Under the plans, models would have been required to pay between £250 and £500 for health certificates, which were to be renewed annually. The BFC admitted that some models had felt discriminated against by the plans and it has since called on the modelling industry to take leadership and establish best-practice measures. “The decision [to ask for doctor’s certificates] was taken before I joined, so while I am familiar with the issue, it wasn’t something I initiated,” says Tillman. “One has to take advice and we’re the BFC, not doctors. If medical certificates are intrusive, we need to respond.”

A decision which Tillman has been a part of this season is the BFC’s move to commission a report next year into the importance of the fashion industry to the British economy. The BFC will tackle various issues including the need for increased business support and training for designers and working with colleges to incorporate more business development into courses, as well as creating the first MBA in Fashion.

“We want to establish how important the fashion industry is to the country in general and provide a simple guide that people can get into and understand,” explains Tillman. “The aim is to give people more insight and knowledge into the industry for when they choose a career. Retail is the second largest employer in the UK and not many people know that. There are many career opportunities out there in the fashion industry.”

Despite the obvious turmoil facing the UK and global economies, particularly the chaos in the US market, Tillman maintains that LFW has escaped the effects of a downturn.
“I don’t think LFW itself has been affected by the credit crunch,” he says. “In fact, I was talking to one exhibitor about it and he said to me: ‘Credit crunch? What credit crunch?’ A lot of the collections at LFW are quite small too, so to get a few new accounts helps them to increase their market share.”

He adds that international buyers’ attendance has also given LFW a healthy sales boost. “We’ve had buyers from across the world, which is great, especially when the economy at home is struggling.”

With his first season over, Tillman is already getting excited about the next one, which will see the BFC celebrate its 25th anniversary. But he is keeping his cards close to his chest about how the event will be marked. “Next year will be particularly important and interesting because there will be a buzz around the 25th anniversary,” he says.
“This November’s British Fashion Awards will kick-start the celebrations and there will be several events taking place next year, including an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London.”

How would he sum up his first season as chairman? Like all good retailers, he looks to the weather, which has been mainly sunny and mild throughout this September week. Tillman smiles: “The shows have been as bright as the weather. The exhibitors have been delighted with the amount of orders that have been placed, despite the concerns about the economy. London has been very busy too, with the buzz filtering down to the high street. I’m very pleased. From what I’m seeing, we get better each season.”

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