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Close up: Wendy Malem, director, The Centre for Fashion Enterprise

The Centre for Fashion Enterprise director is rightly proud of the organisation’s unsung work nurturing London’s fashion stars.

For some years, London was seen as one of fashion’s most creative hubs, well regarded as a greenhouse for developing boundary-pushing designers, but not necessarily for creating the most successful businesses

Recently, however, designers such as Erdem, Peter Pilotto and Mary Katrantzou have begun to bloom, establishing London as fertile ground for flourishing brands.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE), an organisation that has had a quiet and humble part in supporting and nurturing each of these and many other up-and-coming designers, helping them transform into fully fledged, international brands that, most importantly, sell clothes and make money.

Meadham Kirchhoff, Richard Nicoll, Marios Schwab, Christopher Raeburn and James Long have also passed through the CFE, an organisation that invests in designers’ brands somewhat behind the scenes, offering everything from business mentoring to funding for legal, accountancy, PR services and free studio space. “What we do is add value to fashion designer businesses and help them monetise their talent,” explains CFE’s director, Wendy Malem.

At its east London studios, among sewing machines, mannequins and mounds of fabric swatches, I meet Malem, whose eyes light up as she smiles and asks: “Is that a Matthew Miller coat you’re wearing?” Her magpie-like eye immediately identifies the young designer’s work, demonstrating her knowledge and passion for London’s rising fashion stars.

Malem studied fashion design at London College of Fashion (LCF), followed by 17 years working for fashion businesses such as accessories and luggage brand Gino Ferrari and the now-defunct Gold, until she changed her career path. “I decided to do an MBA because I felt a lot of important decisions were made in companies by those who perhaps don’t have an empathy with creative people,” she explains. “But then I didn’t really fit into the fashion industry because people didn’t know what to do with a designer who had an MBA. I was a bit of an oddity, I suppose.”

But academia came calling and Malem worked at the University of Westminster for six years, until she was offered the post of director of CFE in April 2007, a role she now holds alongside her position as dean of LCF’s graduate school.

“Rather than being an organisation that gives out grants to designers, which isn’t always the best way to motivate business, the CFE looks at it as investing in designers’ businesses,” Malem says of her nine-strong team’s work.

“It’s about supporting the entrepreneurs that are driving fashion. It’s great when designers are in the press, but press isn’t business. It’s wonderful seeing fantastic catwalks at London Fashion Week, but that’s not everything.”

It’s this pragmatic focus that is the CFE’s core, working with up to 60 designers a year across different programmes offering various levels of support and guidance. The key programme is Venture, which was launched in 2004. This two-year package is worth £120,000, some paid in kind, some (£22,500) paid in hard cash. This goes beyond just pretty clothes and flashy catwalks; it covers the nuts and bolts the chosen eight Venture designers need to take their businesses to the next level.

The programme pays for accountancy and legal help, partnering with law firm Olswang.

It buys industry software such as Zedonk, the production and wholesaling computer program, and covers costs for a PR company, as well as two lots of sampling budget. The CFE’s team of business professionals is also on hand to help write business plans and organise cash flows, to find designers consultancy, sponsorship and licensing opportunities and assist with sourcing and production issues. European funding covers most costs, although the £22,500 cash subsidies for each designer have to be raised by the CFE through external consultancy work.

Studio and office space is also donated by LCF to allow Venture designers rent-free studios, a blessing considering the extortionate rates in London. “LCF is fantastic because this is space it could be teaching its students in but it decided to make the commitment to the CFE,” says Malem.

The CFE team (left to right): Judith Tolley, manager; consultants Angela Quaintrell and Toby Meadows; Wendy Malem; Jan Miller, consultant

The CFE team (left to right): Judith Tolley, manager; consultants Angela Quaintrell and Toby Meadows; Wendy Malem; Jan Miller, consultant

Malem speaks of the scheme’s designers like a proud parent. “It’s not hand holding though, that sounds too patronising. It’s supporting, it’s incubation of thought, incubation of business,” she says. “And it can be quite an emotional journey, it can be quite annoying, but it’s always incredibly rewarding. I feel totally privileged to work with these talented people.”

Asked who are her favourites and she reels off an extensive and impressive list of CFE names past and present.

“Designers I admire are the people who are natural entrepreneurs,” she says. “Like Erdem, who worked in this
very studio, and look where he is now. I was in New York in February going to Saks Fifth Avenue and there were Erdem’s clothes in the window. You can’t help but catch your breath and just think ‘wow, that’s fantastic’.”

And the designers themselves have plenty of complimentary things to say about the CFE. “It was amazing to have access to a studio in the first year that I started. The CFE was very supportive of me,” says Erdem Moralioğlu, who was one of the CFE’s first Venture designer.

“It’s about setting up your business ready for action. Wendy is an inspirational woman who is bursting with energy, as is [CFE manager] Judith Tolley, who is the backbone of the CFE.

I admire them both,” says designer James Long.

Current Venture designer Holly Fulton says the CFE taught her about things she had no appreciation of when she started out, such as financial issues and sales strategies. “But more than anything it’s nice to have friendly faces that you can ask any questions, supporting you throughout your evolution,” she says.

During her time as director, and since the CFE launched 10 years ago, Malem says the biggest change she’s witnessed is the confidence in London. “I think designers are much more professional in their thinking and how they put collections together,” she says.

“I can see how buyers are now buying into small businesses. No longer are people looking at London just thinking there are lots of new and interesting designers coming through, but they are actually saying to those designers, I’m going to put an order down.”

And what’s the plan for the next 10 years? Two new areas of focus include turning emerging designers’ attentions to the power of ecommerce as early as possible and working towards training designers to prepare pitches for investors. Malem says: “There are a lot of opportunities for retail. We’ve seen the [rise of the] pop-up and it’s not new anymore, it’s mainstream. So what’s next?”

She tells a recent story from Singapore, where the country’s planning department only allowed the construction of a store if it pledged to support new Singaporean designers, forcing it to give dedicated retail space to new talent.

“To me, that’s really good,” Malem enthuses. “I have great respect for the retailers but could they buy from more designers? I think it would be interesting if there was more putting together of collectives of young designers so it made business sense,” she says. “Going forward we’re going to continue to champion talent in the UK and hopefully help it multiply, create jobs and create revenue. We’re looking for innovation.”

And on that note, if you want to find the most innovative designers and brands that will get tills ringing in years to come, looking at current CFE designers and recent alumni such as Agi & Sam, Marques’ Almeida and Louise Gray is a good place to start, according to Malem. Here’s hoping the CFE will be turning up-and-comers into established names for another decade and beyond.

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