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From London to the world

It’s one of the UK’s most exciting labels, but for the duo behind Peter Pilotto the journey has only just begun.

Creative people have a tendency to overuse the term ‘journey’ to describe how they go about their work, but for design duo Christopher De Vos and Peter Pilotto it carries more meaning than just that of passing time – it’s an intrinsic part of their whole brand identity.

Peter Pilotto the label, the result of a collaboration between a globe-trotting, Libyan-born Belgian-Peruvian who spent most of his childhood jetting between the Middle East and South America following his parents’ work with oil companies (De Vos) and a Tirol-born Austrian-Italian whose parents owned the first shop in Austria to stock Azzedine Alaïa (Pilotto), is a global brand in every sense of the word.

With 10 seasons of London Fashion Week under their intricately printed belts, the duo now boast in the region of 140 stockists worldwide including the likes of Joyce in Hong Kong, Colette in Paris and LN-CC in London, as well as gathering a posse of hugely famous fans from all corners of the globe. Barely three months have passed since the label’s stunning presentation at Pitti Uomo in June, an event both De Vos and Pilotto cite as one of their career highlights to date and one of the latest stops on their extensive global tour that has taken them, most notably, to visit their Indian craftsmen this year. But more of that later.

They’ve clearly got a lot going on so the pair could have been excused for being a little frantic when I visited their studio on Kingsland Road in east London barely two weeks before the start of London Fashion Week. However, instead of being met by a blizzard of fabric swatches, the air thick with a cloud of iron steam and the relentless hum of sewing machines reverberating around the room, the Pilotto studio was an oasis of calm, at the centre of which I found two confident designers seemingly taking the fashion week build-up in their stride. Everyone was quietly going about their business, a quality that’s mirrored by how De Vos and Pilotto have built their brand.

The pair refuted my claim that they seem very much in control, insisting it can be crazy sometimes. They decline to reveal the brand’s turnover, but say it grew 180% from autumn 11 to autumn 12 – hardly surprising when you consider buyers and press haven’t been shy in praising its prints and punchy silhouettes. The growth figures and stockist list are impressive and indicate the pair have made the transition from hot young things to genuine fashion brand. 

“When you graduate you have this ideal of design and I think what happened after was a bit of a reality check. You’re not just designing, it’s about so much more,” says De Vos. “There’s a lot of learning by doing.” Pilotto elaborates: “We don’t start with a statistic and follow it in this way. It’s nice that we can still follow our instincts rather than be systematic at this stage.”

And their business instincts are telling them that for their wholesale accounts this is a period of consolidation rather than accumulation, as Pilotto and De Vos favour a hands-on, relationship-building approach: “We try to get around at the start of the season so we will be travelling to America, having a trunk show at [department store] Neiman Marcus and different locations – that’s something very important, to stay in touch, to meet the stores and the customers,” says Pilotto.

But they’re also keen to emphasise what the capital offers them too. The at times pensive Pilotto continues: “That’s what’s so exciting about London, it attracts people from everywhere in the world.”

There’s a sense Pilotto and De Vos know they’re in the best place to grow the brand – De Vos’s rhetorical question, “How many young designers are there in Paris?”, and pledge that London would be the home of their global flagship when the time comes to go into retail, say it all – and that the evolution is unlikely to have happened anywhere else, such is the wealth of well-established support systems and awards available to them and their contemporaries.

“All the support from those different organisations that allow young designers to start up and get the attention” are some of the best aspects of setting up shop in London, claims De Vos, before Pilotto seamlessly finishes the statement: “It’s also the opportunity and what you make out of it, but at least you’ve got the chance.”

Both De Vos and Pilotto consider the NewGen and Centre for Fashion Enterprise schemes, as well as the Fashion Forward funding and the Fashion Trust, as invaluable, but say it shouldn’t stop at design.

“In the beginning we made almost everything in the UK,” says De Vos, “but there should be more support for British industry. We want to continue to make [the collection] in the UK, but for separates we had to move to Portugal – [and] since adding that category our business has tripled.” The tousle-haired, laid-back Belgian-Peruvian continues: “UK businesses, the ones we’re working with anyway, need the same sort of support we need. There’s only so much business they can take on because they’re such small units. They need cash-flow advice, business advice, and advice on financing production runs. As a designer sometimes it’s hard to pay on delivery of goods and that’s something they need.

“They’ve reached their capacity in a way, just as they should be growing instead of saying ‘No, we can’t make as much as you want produced,’” Pilotto adds. For the pair, the education system has to shoulder at least part of the blame.

Pilotto explains: “People don’t want to work in factories. It’s becoming a forgotten craft, but it’s important to bring all that back.”

“[Fashion] education is too focused on design whereas there are so many different aspects that could be studied. Everybody wants to be in fashion design,” asserts De Vos, before Pilotto cuts in to say: “It’s so hard to find a good pattern cutter. Education should focus on the skills of people and the craft,” a deficiency in skills that nods to the perfect storm that’s seen more of their production travelling abroad.

But it’s not all bad, as this global outlook has given rise to one of the big sources of inspiration for the spring 13 collection – the aforementioned trips to Pitti Uomo and the subcontinent, where they worked closely with their embroiderers and beaders.

“It’s about the last year, our experiences and the places we’ve seen” says Pilotto. “I definitely think our trip to India and Nepal has had an influence,” reveals De Vos, giving me the impression their travels and experiences are absorbed osmotically into the duo’s collective subconscious, giving the prints, silhouettes and mood that intangible feeling of being reminiscent of something without it being too literal. “I think our time in Florence had an effect – the research for the venues was so incredible. We took loads of pictures of details, stuccos and wallpapers. But it’s always this journey that inspires us in a way, the journey to different places.”

One trip the brand won’t be making, in the short term at least, is on the Eurostar to Paris, traditionally seen as the jewel in the global fashion week crown. As De Vos explains: “I don’t know if taking the brand to the next level is going to Paris. We’ve never had this in mind. I think London Fashion Week is at that level where you can really get attention worldwide. The British Fashion Council is doing a great job to get the right people here and the schedule is great.”

It’s a real shot in the arm for British fashion that the pair aren’t looking to add a Parisian stamp to their passports just yet (De Vos even calls London “our home town”), but where Peter Pilotto the brand is concerned one thing’s for sure – this is only the beginning of a long and illustrious journey for these globe-trotting designers.

What they say

Judd Crane, Head of womenswear, Selfridges

How long has Selfridges stocked Peter Pilotto?

We introduced it for spring 11 which, for me, was the collection that really established them as a global player.

What is it about the brand that appeals to you and your customers?

It has all the hallmarks of great British design in terms of creativity, while retaining a maturity that makes it very commercial.

How big could the brand be?

I anticipate we’ll see them continue to deliver on what they do so well – season-defining prints – while evolving their shapes and fabrications.

Maria Lemos, Founder of Peter Pilotto’s agent RainbowWave

What is the sales strategy for Peter Pilotto?

We’re looking at growing the brand in depth with our current partners and expanding into new territories worldwide.

What territories do you think are key to its growth?

The US is a territory with great potential and for this reason a US showroom (CD Network) has been appointed to better cover the needs of that specific market.

How have you seen the brand grow over the past few years?

It has grown significantly. Great deliveries, good price point versus quality of production and fantastic design have contributed to that.

Peter Pilotto in numbers

2000 - the year De Vos and Pilotto met at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp

140 - stockists worldwide

10 - seasons showing at London Fashion Week

60/40 - ratio in favour of pre-collection sales

180% - growth in turnover from autumn 11 to autumn 12

2009 - year they won the best emerging talent award at the British Fashion Awards

32 - countries the brand is sold in

Men at work: Christopher De Vos (left) and Peter Pilotto

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