As London celebrates the best of British fashion at London Fashion Week, the next generation of designers face challenges to make their way in a demanding industry.
The eyes of the world were trained on London Fashion Week this week – a hotbed of young talent with a global client base, such as Jonathan Anderson, Simone Rocha and Craig Green. But while these success stories draw aspiring designers to study in London and set up their brands in the capital, succeeding in the fashion industry is no mean feat.
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The UK has a strong support network in place to help emerging designers get a foothold in the fashion world, but the realities of fashion business means that some still struggle to survive. In March this year, London-based knitwear-focused brand Sibling went into administration, just a year after winning the British Fashion Council’s (BFC) Newgen Men award in 2016. Similarly Osman, which has received Newgen sponsorship since 2008, was bought by private equity firm Luxcite in a pre-pack deal to rescue the business in August.
For those in the early stages, funding is a particular dilemma. Although not unique to fashion, it is felt more acutely because of the nature of the industry.
“We’re quite a capital-intensive business,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive of the BFC, which organises London Fashion Week. “A lot of the products, from samples through to production and stock, you have to fund up front, and you don’t get the returns until you are much further down the line.”
While there are numerous awards and grants available – including the BFC’s Newgen scheme, the Fashion Trust and other prizes such as the Asos Fashion Discovery competition – pressures could become even more intense.
Martyn Roberts, founder of young designer showcase Fashion Scout, says: “It will become more challenging over the next few years with Brexit, as funding streams, such as the European Regional Development Fund, dry up. Support networks will have to change.”
Footwear designer Alexander White experienced the challenges of accessing traditional funding when he started his eponymous business in 2014.
“It’s incredibly difficult to attain access to funding when you’re a new company with no trading history and you’ve never been a director of another company,” he says. “The banks weren’t, and aren’t really still, lending. One bank manager said to me: ‘If you had come to me before the recession, it wouldn’t have been a problem.’”
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For White, the key to solving the issue lay in determination and pragmatism, focusing his efforts on building the brand profile: “I went down a few routes to ensure the business continued running in the early days, from freelancing to selling overstock off to stores in countries where we had no presence.”
While alternative incomes, savings and freelancing are all options, one route slowly gaining popularity is crowdfunding. Fledgling crowdfunding platform Curated Crowd works with the BFC to provide a platform for designers to raise funds directly from consumers. It also offers mentoring for brands. Ada Yi Zhao, the platform’s founder, a former investment banker, is an now active member of the BFC Fashion Trust, providing funding and business support to the emerging talents.
“The negative cashflow cycle is extremely long, especially for the those who produce multiple collections a year,” she explains. “The idea was to connect the designer with the consumer, cutting out all the middlemen and allowing projects to be funded directly.”
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Currently, labels including JN by JN Llovett and POAN (Peoples Of All Nations) are funding collections through the platform.
For Georg Weissacher, founder of POAN, part of the appeal is the insight into consumers’ needs: “With crowdfunding you’re not just trying to anticipate what the market wants, but you are engaging up front with the consumer. You have the advantage of building a business model around what is needed in the future.”
This shifting nature of the industry is another challenge emerging designers are having to navigate. “The industry is going through a great deal of change and for a young designer they need to understand where to show, hold catwalks, exhibitions, trade shows, presentations,” explains Martyn Roberts. “It is a big challenge and it’s a relatively new problem young designers are facing.”
Another factor that has caused difficulties is the shift to a four-season production model. When Sibling went into liquidation, the founders cited the pressures of creating four collections a year as one of the issues that lead to the collapse.
“The fashion industry can be an uncompromising place for new businesses and young designers,” agrees Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion (LCF), University of the Arts London. “As production cycles get faster, emerging businesses need to become more agile and innovative.”
Rejina Pyo, whose eponymous brand is stocked by Net-a-Porter, Harvey Nichols and Browns, produces four seasons per year. She concedes that, for smaller businesses, the requirements of big retailers can cause difficulties: “If you don’t have the resources to do four collections a year, then it is a pressure. I decided to move to four collections only because I can cope with it. We now have bigger stockists who need constant newness.”
To mitigate the pressures, a realistic outlook is key and it is important not to overstretch capabilities. Zhao encourages the designers she works with to focus on two seasons a year “to ensure they can maintain their creativity and healthy business cashflow”, while Pyo is tackling the four-season model by designing two large collections and staggering their releases. This allows her to avoid feeling like she has to “churn out” collections.
Pyo adds that many designers do not realise the amount of business involved in running a brand: “You’re not just a designer any more – you have to look after every aspect. I’ve seen designers who really didn’t like the business side, who have just closed their businesses and got a job as a designer, so they just do the designing.”
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The BFC’s Rush believes this lack of awareness is a result of the way in which most designers start out: “Designers end up in business before they’ve really thought about it, and they’re immediately starting to play catch-up,” she says. “They sell their graduate collection and they might have had some funding to create a small amount of stock, then they’re already being asked for designs for the new collection. They don’t have the chance to think whether that is exactly the kind of business they want to build.”
Rush advises to plan, prepare and research: “The main thing is writing the business plan and really thinking through the kind of business you want to have. Having some kind of road map helps with the many decision-making processes you will face along the way.”
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For those seeking advice, the BFC offer business support across levels, starting with Newgen, which provides showcasing opportunities to businesses in their first three years and supports designers including Molly Goddard and Richard Malone. The Fashion Trust programme offers more established womenswear businesses financial support and mentoring, while the Designer Fashion Fund helps them develop the business infrastructure and increase their profile. The BFC is also building up its Designer Fact File, which offers free advice on everything from cashflow to PR.
The Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE), a fashion business incubator, provides training for fashion businesses, ranging from free two-day workshops to six-month programmes. It also houses and coaches six businesses at its studios in two-year cycles.
“We describe what we do as the grit behind the glamour,” explains Judith Tolley, head of the CFE. “No book is going to replace real-life experience, but pre-warned is pre-armed. Running a fashion business is complex and precarious – you need to give yourself the best start possible and, most importantly, decide if it’s for you.”
LCF is similarly developing its focus on business, with a new, dedicated campus for its Fashion Business School in east London, which will offer designers business training, as well as affordable work spaces. LCF also has a Student Enterprise Team, which has so far helped 493 students with business planning.
While those at the top of the design profession bathe in the London Fashion Week spotlight, emerging designers need to prepare themselves for a rapidly changing, cash-intensive industry. Above all, young designers need to be honest about what kind of business – if any – they want to build.