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Lee Lapthorne

As OnOff enters its 10th season, its director Lee Lapthorne tells Emily Seares what he looks for in an up-and-coming designer.

Why did you decide to launch OnOff?
We first started OnOff as a hub for the industry. Buyers and press were fed up of walking from venue to venue to see off-schedule London Fashion Week designers.

How important is OnOff to London Fashion Week?
The legacy and heritage of OnOff is that buyers can come to us and see something unique. We’re an integral part of London Fashion Week. For example, Steph Aman is
a craft-based designer whose work we showcased at OnOff two years ago. We took her to Milan, then Paris last season, and she has seen an 800% increase in sales and now has six international stockists.

How are you looking to grow OnOff?
In 2009 we’ll be looking at going more niche. We’ll be more selective of the designers we take forward and have fewer catwalks and more installations. We won’t be showcasing at The Royal Academy next year either – we’re looking at new buildings.

So, what do you look for in an up-and-coming designer?
Designers that have a London-centric appeal and are fashion-forward. We also need designers that can produce a collection. We have about 80 applicants and show 16 on the catwalk and 15 at exhibitions.

Will London ever be as commercial as it is creative?
London is full of originality, but Paris will always be where business is done. London has the creativity, but to be an international fashion event, it needs big names. London’s good for profile, but less so for order-writing.

So what big names would you like to see at London Fashion Week?
Boudicca. It has an eccentricity and is everything a professional London designer should be. I’d also like to see Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Preen.

Does London Fashion Week benefit from having high street sponsorship?
I am nervous of the high street becoming too involved in London Fashion Week, but it is a double-edged sword. London Fashion Week would not exist without the
high street.

Etailer Oli sponsors OnOff, but how difficult is it to get investment from retailers at the moment?
It’s hugely difficult. Five years ago, drinks brands would pay to be at the show, but that’s not the case now. Sponsorship has to be right for the brand and the designer.

What is your fashion background?
I have an MA in textiles and fashion architecture. I do casting, design my own fabrics, do TV and so on. I also run MA fashion courses at Birmingham City University.

And what has been your best fashion experience?
There was a Robert Cary-Williams show when we had a dress dipped in ice. The venue was The Tram Shed in Shoreditch, east London, and the ice dress rose out of the floor at the end of the show.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in fashion?
Designers need to be open to learning and they need a five-year business plan. It will take three seasons before they get stockists, as buyers want to see if they have staying power.

What do you enjoy outside of work?
I’ll be at home with my chickens and dogs. I’m looking at getting pigs too.

Fashion Icon: Who is your fashion icon and why?
Boudicca. The brand does not compromise on its religion, what it is, what it believes in and its values. Everything it makes should have a cult following.

Womenswear brand Boudicca encapsulates Lapthorne’s sense of London-ness. This eccentricity is shown in the name of the label’s website,, which is dedicated to the supposed resting place of the label’s namesake, warrior queen Boudicca, under London’s King’s Cross train station.

Despite this non-intuitive web address and its pop culture associations, the 10-year-old brand has built up a raft of hip stockists including Browns Focus in South Molton Street in London, and Dover Street Market, also in London, Barneys in New York and Wynn in Las Vegas.

With an approach to fashion design verging on the philosophical, the brand maintains that clothes are expressive of the wearer’s emotions. This means a fusion of austerity and flamboyance. Tailoring is infused with oversized bow fastenings, and dresses with oversized origami folds.

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