The extraordinary media attention given over to London Fashion Week seems to expand each season.
Acres of space in print and even more online reveal what an excellent job the British Fashion Council has done to position the twice-yearly, five-day gathering of upmarket womenswear.
Inherent in all the hype is the presumption that LFW is the epicentre of the entire British fashion industry, but such a claim doesn’t bear close scrutiny. For much of the industry, LFW is no more than a mildly diverting irrelevance. The real substance of British fashion, what real people buy and wear, exists beyond the parameters of the London elite.
What LFW does reflect is two important facets of British life - the economic divide between the capital and almost everywhere else, and the disturbing obsession with the cult of celebrity. It is well known that LFW has had difficulties for many years in attracting British buyers to its events, especially its static exhibition at Somerset House. LFW’s date in the fractured autumn international catwalk and fair calendar doesn’t help, coming weeks after Pure London and Scoop have been and gone. (Obviously, the events are much closer together for the date in February.)
Although neatly laid out, the exhibition is virtually an accessories showcase now, with relatively little clothing. The reality is that the ‘designer market’ is tiny outside London, and just a few postcodes in central London at that. Aside from a few notable exceptions like Paul Smith and Burberry that have truly national coverage, what would a sales distribution map of most of the LFW names reveal?
In the current financial climate, small companies, which are an integral part of the industry, can’t afford the luxury of appearing at a show that doesn’t result in firm orders. For many years when things were better I was told by LFW exhibitors that they were there to meet the press but that they showed at Pure to meet buyers who actually placed orders. These days Scoop also attracts brands that once may have wanted to share in the LFW hype.
Probably wisely, and in common with events like Scoop and Pure, the BFC does not reveal detailed attendance figures for LFW. Always ready with a handy stat, however, this season it has been trumpeting that the 73 shows and events attracted, in the words of a large feature in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, “5,000 buyers, designers, celebrities and generally beautiful people”. Helpfully, the BFC lets it be known that all this activity “will also strike deals thought to be worth [note the careful wording!] £100m and form opinions with major ramifications for an industry that employs 816,000 people in the UK and directly contributes £21bn to the economy”.
The BFC has been very clever in rolling up all sorts of statistics that appeal to lazy journalists and politicians alike. If I’m not mistaken, the 816,000 people is a calculation of everyone involved in fashion retailing and distribution at any level and the more modest numbers (maybe 100,000) involved in clothing, textile and related manufacturing in the UK. I remain unconvinced that LFW greatly affects the entire industry. And given the tiny size of most of the LFW participants, I wonder precisely how much of that £21bn of sales and tax is accounted for by them.
The blanket coverage of celebrity attendees, store openings, parties and other events during LFW reflects rather badly, I feel, on our increasingly shallow society. We seem to set the bar very low when it comes to deciding if a personality deserves our attention. I could say the same about some designers’ ‘talents’.
Despite my long-held reservations about the true influence of LFW (and I have similar views on its newly arrived brother, London Collections: Men) I have to give full credit to the BFC for an amazingly impressive and efficient job. It wasn’t so long ago that LFW had a slightly amateurish air, but it is a slick organisation indeed now. The arrival this spring of Net-A-Porter founder Natalie Massenet as BFC chairman bodes well for an even more business-like approach. Fashion should be all about selling product. You can’t put PR in a bank account.