As London Fashion Week kicks off its spring 11 edition today, the publication of a report into the value of the fashion industry by parent company the British Fashion Council (BFC) has led industry insiders to believe the organisation should seize the moment to assess the event’s future format and objectives.
Over the past few years, LFW has reached an international level where it can sit confidently alongside Paris, New York and Milan fashion weeks after being dubbed for so long as the creative - read ‘least commercial’ - of the four events.
Thanks to the charm of current BFC chairman Harold Tillman and the financial prowess of his predecessor Sir Stuart Rose, the event has gone some way to uniting financial viability with an enviable creative line-up.
Rose helped to secure a £4.2m, three-year funding package from the London Development Agency (LDA) for the BFC, of which about £1.2m went to LFW - double the amount it used to receive from the LDA - during his tenure until September 2008.
Tillman, meanwhile, successfully sweet-talked the likes of Burberry, Matthew Williamson, Pringle of Scotland and Jonathan Saunders to show at LFW, bringing the buzz back to the capital. He also courted the then Prime Minister’s wife Sarah Brown to host a reception at Downing Street for the industry to celebrate LFW’s 25th anniversary last year. So, what does the industry need next from the BFC?
Long-time LFW designer Mark Eley of Eley Kishimoto believes LFW has become so diverse - incorporating international big hitters, up-and-coming designers and retail businesses like Topshop and Jaeger on its catwalks - that the BFC needs to focus on the individual needs of those that are part of the event.
“The BFC needs to take on board these differences and recognise the different skill base and creative culture we have in the UK,” he says. “The big names often use the event as a platform to market themselves, but how can younger brands compete with them? There is a lot of focus on the high street now, too; it seems to have taken over LFW.”
Conversely, one industry veteran thinks LFW is not working in its current format and should embrace the high street more.
“The purpose of the BFC should change to celebrate what the UK is good at: retail,” he says. “The other fashion weeks saw themselves for what they really are - a marketing exercise - but LFW never embraced that concept.”
Luxury consultant David Jones, who has worked with the likes of Matthew Williamson and Preen, is also concerned about the future of LFW, believing there is a “serious question mark” over whether the Government will renew its funding of the event next year.
“Orders get written at Paris Fashion Week,” he says. “In London, the order books are not as good as they used to be; the return on investment is not as good as it used to be.”
With these factors in mind, will Tillman continue to be the right man for the job? If history is to repeat itself, then Tillman will be putting the feelers out for his replacement as his three-year tenure - the traditional time period to hold the role - comes to an end after next year’s February edition of LFW.
The BFC certainly want him to stay, with a spokeswoman saying it would like him to develop a strong relationship with the coalition Government and see them through the London Olympics in 2012.
One BFC insider says the ability to get the Government onside will be vital over the next few seasons and that Tillman, much like Rose, has the credentials to do that.
“With Stuart and Harold, the bar has been raised so that the BFC chairman has to have a very high profile,” he says. “You should see how they chair meetings; it’s phenomenal how they get things done. They get people to trust them. Stuart can just pick up the phone and get funding. Having influence over government is key.”
He believes Richard Bradbury, former chief executive of River Island, who resigned earlier this year, could be an eventual candidate for the role. “Richard would be excellent, having worked with Graduate Fashion Week and our fashion colleges. He’s a businessman who understands the media and has the energy to get the Government onside.”
Marshall Lester, chief executive of transatlantic brand management consultancy ML Marketing, says Tillman’s eventual successor will have large shoes to fill. “Harold has done an amazing job in bringing LFW to equal the stature of New York, Paris and Milan by bringing big designer names to London,”
“Maintaining that momentum will be key, as will enticing more big names to show. The challenge now is to bring non-British, international names to London, in the way that Brit designers like Stella McCartney show in Paris, for example.”
Brix Smith-Start, co-owner of London designer indie Start, agrees. “During Harold’s term in office, LFW has been elevated to a much higher position in world fashion, where previously it had always been considered creative, but not a particularly big player,” she explains.
“Harold’s dynamism has generated an atmosphere which marries commercialism with the unique style of Britain, culminating in many of the world’s favourite designers coming back to show in London.
“Whoever replaces Harold must have a vision that can capitalise on the momentum he has harnessed, which in a sense is more difficult.”
Perhaps someone with a stronger, more direct relationship with international designers could hold the key.
One industry source suggests Net-a-Porter executive chairman Natalie Massenet would be an ideal candidate, given the strength of her relationships with designer brands and her publishing background, including a stint as fashion editor of Tatler magazine. After selling the luxury etailer to luxury goods group Richemont this year, she may have a bit more time on her hands, too.
“Natalie is an interesting one because she runs a modern retail business and supports new designers,” Eley adds.
Interestingly, a woman has never taken on the role of BFC chair, with industry insiders questioning whether the time has come for a female leader. “I wouldn’t assume Harold will step down, but the new chairman would need a background steeped in UK fashion and a sufficiently high profile to get people’s attention,” says Rose. “I think [Burberry chief executive] Angela Ahrendts would be fantastic. She has the energy and runs a fantastic business.”
It may be too soon to start putting candidates forward for the position of BFC chairman. Whether Tillman continues in the role or if a successor is appointed for next February, the job will be a challenging one for whoever takes it on.
The BFC candidates
four people to take LFW to the next level
four people to take LFW to the next level
Harold Tillman, current BFC chairman, owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum
Tillman could leave the role satisfied with his achievements. But as a lover of the limelight and a shrewd businessman, he may have his eyes on a bigger prize if he can sweet-talk the Government into renewing funding for LFW and exploit the opportunities offered by the London Olympics.
Angela Ahrendts, chief executive, Burberry
Nominated as a future BFC chairman by Sir Stuart Rose, Ahrendts could please all of LFW’s exhibitors. Running a retail and wholesale brand, she understands both and has the global experience that could lift LFW to an even higher level.
Natalie Massenet, executive chairman,
Massenet is a strong candidate as next BFC chairman. The darling of online luxury fashion, Massenet convinced international designer brands to be stocked on her site at a time when few would touch the internet. Some question her ability to influence government.
Richard Bradbury, former chief executive, River Island
One of the most experienced retailers on the high street, Bradbury was instrumental in the success of Graduate Fashion Week, raising its profile and making it a credible place to find talent. He has the credentials for the job, but would he want it?