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Buyers look for inspiration in London

As the economic downturn worsens, London Fashion Week’s reputation for originality and creative energy could provide buyers with the means to get shoppers spending again.

The run-up to London Fashion Week may have been overshadowed by the media’s obsession with the British Fashion Council’s [BFC] failure to ban “size zero” models from its catwalks, but for buyers attending the capital’s glitziest event, London could well provide the inspiration needed to ride out a tough economic climate.

Last month Hilary Riva, chief executive of the BFC, which organises LFW, said in an open letter to the industry that its plans for models to obtain a doctor’s certificate to prove they are healthy were unworkable, after other international fashion weeks refused to follow London’s lead. The BFC has since called on the modelling industry to establish best practice measures.

But buyers attending LFW this week are pinning their hopes on London’s reputation for creativity and hoping to find inspirational pieces to lure shoppers into stores and convince them to part with their cash.

Of all the major international fashion weeks, London has always been best known for hosting the most creative designers, while Paris Fashion Week balances edgy design with business and Milan and New York reap the commercial benefits of safer designs.

This month’s edition of LFW will showcase 53 catwalk designers. The Exhibition at LFW will host more than 200 exhibitors this season, including newcomer Berlin Represents, a group of three German designers – Kaviar Gauche, Lala Berlin and Sabrina Dehoff. Estethica, the spin-off show featuring eco labels, has 14 new designers on board, taking its total to 35.

Making their catwalk debut this season are Australian label Josh Goot, whose pre-collection at Browns in London sold out, and Peter Pilotto, which has been awarded Topshop’s New Generation sponsorship. Temperley London is back after several seasons in New York, Vivienne Westwood returns for a second consecutive season and Luella is in London for the third consecutive season after an earlier defection to New York.

Until now, the premium end of the market has remained relatively untouched by the economic downturn, but Walpole, the trade body that represents 100 British luxury firms, has warned that even luxury brands will soon start to feel the full force of the credit crunch.

Last week, womenswear label Allegra Hicks was forced to pull out of LFW after its sponsors withdrew support for its catwalk show. The label blamed “economic circumstances” for the decision by its backers.

But even with the absence of Allegra Hicks, the contrast of established designers with up-and-coming names at LFW this season could be just the boost that buyers need.
Michael Fink, fashion director at US department store Saks Fifth Avenue, says he will be coming back to LFW this week after skipping the event for a few seasons. “The fashion show circuit is so long that it’s hard to always be on the road,” he explains. “I think the tough economic conditions could affect attendance at LFW, but it’s precisely when times are tough that we need to look for something new and inspiring.”

It is understood that international buyers, including fashion directors from US department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, could miss out on LFW as US retailers slash their travel budgets to cope with the slump in the US economy.

But Fink points to supporting events, like OnOff, the off-schedule LFW event, and store visits as integral for inspiration.

OnOff celebrates its 10th season at this month’s LFW with a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and a limited edition book. It will showcase collections from designers including Sinha-Stanic, Duro Olowu and Felder Felder.

Also, Vauxhall Fashion Scout, the largest catwalk event for emerging designers at LFW, has launched a mentoring scheme for spring 09 to help designers build their businesses.
The scheme, called Fashion Scout Salons, will explore topics including selling tactics and pricing strategies, how to get the most out of PR, finding sales agents, cash flow and funding opportunities.

The pressure is on for LFW to deliver, but with a host of catwalk shows, exhibitors and supporting events, it has certainly laid the foundations for a strong spring 09 season.

Buyers’ labels to watch:
“The highlights for me will be Danielle Scutt and Henry Holland. They’ll be more impressive than the established names.”
Lyn Gardner, owner of The Square in Bath

“I’m looking forward to the UK debut of Charles Anastase and Josh Goot, but most of all to seeing Louise Goldin. She gives knitwear a modern twist and I’m looking to stock the label next season.”
Brix Smith-Start, co-owner of Start in Hoxton, east London

“The labels to watch will be Peter Pilotto and Meadham Kirchhoff. I’ve also taken great pleasure in seeing Roksanda Ilincic and Erdem mature as designers.”
Averyl Oates, fashion buying director at Harvey Nichols, London

“We’re looking carefully at Marios Schwab and Louise Goldin. Cooperative Designs is fantastic and we’re going to look at Josh Goot and Graeme Black.”
Bridget Cosgrave, fashion and buying director at mini chain Matches in London

BRIDGET COSGRAVE, Fashion and buying director at London mini chain Matches:
“I have gone from a year and a half ago buying hardly anything at London Fashion Week to buying quite a lot. We stock Nathan Jenden, Peter Pilotto, Todd Lynn, Erdem, PPQ and Joanne Sykes. There is a fantastic energy going on in London and the designers are creating garments of beautiful quality which in the past hasn’t always been the case. There is a definite level of maturity to these designers and they understand it is not just about a press rush. The sponsorship schemes and business mentoring are helping.”

BRIX SMITH-START, Co-owner of Start in Hoxton, east London:
“I do the bulk of my buying in Paris, but LFW is an important event which I’m really looking forward to. As a high-profile buyer I make sure that I go to all the shows, all the social events and do all the meet and greets. The Exhibition at LFW is also very important. A couple of years ago, I discovered Japanese label Lungta de Fancy and snapped it up. It sold out within days. In these tough economic times, we need to cherry-pick from every collection to offer great taste at affordable prices. But people are also willing to invest in expensive, timeless items. Every buy counts.”

MICHAEL FINK, Fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York:
“I haven’t been to LFW for a few seasons, so I’m looking forward to September’s show. London is the incubator for fashion – it generates new ideas and has a unique energy. With a large contemporary business at Saks, we get inspiration from looking at what people on the street are wearing in London. The women have a distinct way of dressing – it’s very avant-garde. It does have the reputation for being the less commercial of the international fashion weeks as a lot of the designers aren’t established, so it’s a risk to invest, especially with the current exchange rates.”

AVERYL OATES, Fashion buying director at Harvey Nichols in London:
“Christopher Kane was the highlight last season so I’m sure he’ll be spectacular. The world looks to London for creativity, breaking boundaries, innovation and translating the mood of the moment and it is notorious for putting on a good show. Designers are given a huge amount of support from leading UK retailers, which is a great way to establish themselves. With concerns of a recession on the minds of designers, I expect to see collections that reflect the times with a more understated mood.”

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