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Centre stage at fashion's Oscars

The annual celebration that is the Drapers Awards is 25 years old this November. Eric Musgrave looks back at what has become the fashion industry’s biggest night.

On the evening of November last year, the stage at the Drapers Awards was filled with very excited and happy employees of Bonmarché as the mainstream womenswear chain scooped one of the top prizes of the night - Fashion Retailer of the Year among businesses with sales of over £125m.

Chief executive Beth Butterwick was surrounded by just a few of the team that had made her turnaround strategy a success. For me, the sight of a band of colleagues from the Bradford head office going slightly barmy with delight encapsulated all the great aspects of our annual prize-giving.

The Drapers Awards highlights and celebrates the best in fashion retail. The black-tie dinner is merely the culmination of a nine-month process designed to encourage competitors large and small, new and long-established, to present their performance over the previous year for our judges’ examination.

The event that will bring together more than fashion retailing talents and decision makers at Old Billingsgate in the City of London on Thursday November 26 has its roots in a modest lunch held at the Inn on the Park on Park Lane in 1991 to present just five awards to independent retailers. Back then the publication was in a shortlived period of being called DR The Fashion Business and our branding is not the only aspect that has changed over years.

By 1995 department stores were included in the listings and the first Department Store of the Year Award went to Brown Thomas in Dublin, which coincidentally was our first Irish winner.

The first multiple to pick up an Award was the now defunct men’s casualwear chain Fosters in 1996 in the Challenge Partnership category, which was designed to highlight retailers working with suppliers. Levi’s was Fosters’ partner.

By 1997 fashion multiples were fully on board. Oasis took two Awards Store Brand Image and Challenge Partnership with its supplier Styletex, while New Look picked up its first top prize for Customer Loyalty.

The Awards’ hall of fame is a fascinating reminder of how the industry has developed in the past quarter of a century. Selfridges had a superb run between 1999 and 2002, winning seven awards in all, including three in 1999 (Debbie Taylor won the Top Buyer prize, the business took the Store Brand Image Award and it was named Large Retailer of the Year).

The etailer category was added in 2005 and won the first of its seven Drapers Awards.

The Value or Discount Retailer category was also introduced that year - Peacocks was the first recipient. Its larger rival Primark first picked up a Drapers Award - Best New Store - in 2007 for its Marble Arch flagship and has since added another nine, including another Store Design Award for its Berlin flagship in 2014. Reflecting the variety of the Drapers Awards, Primark’s nearest rival in the number of Awards is John Lewis, which has nine in its trophy cabinet.

In 2013 the joint awards became two events with the creation of the separate Drapers Independent Awards, which has reverted to being a lunch.

Since 2002, the Drapers Awards have been recognising leaders as well. Sir Philip Green took the first such award when it was known as Fashion Retailing Personality. In 2003 we renamed the Award Lifetime Achievement and have presented it to some hugely in influential names including George Davies, Bernard Lewis of River Island and Betty Jackson last year, our first female recipient.

In 2013 the accolade went to Derek Lovelock, who began his career at C&A and almost years later was running the Aurora group. Reflecting on the Drapers Awards and its role of recognising great work in the industry, he said: “It’s been a pleasure to watch and be part of the growth of the Drapers Awards from its original admirable focus on independent retailers. They now reward the whole spectrum of the fashion industry from the largest to the smallest businesses.”

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