Are shows a 'media circus' or a way to showcase talent?: London fashion's dilemma

LONDON: London fashion is sometimes accused of having lots of great ideas but of not having the discipline to produce commercial, desirable clothing.

And yet when one of the city's stars, Julien Macdonald, orchestrated a Champagne-drenched catwalk happening for autumn/winter 2003, he was crucified by the local fashion press. It seemed that by putting on a camp, glamorous spectacle with Elizabeth Jagger on the runway, Justin Timberlake on the sound system and Shirley Bassey and Pink in the front row, Macdonald had somehow let the side down by the slickness of his presentation.

A miasma of negativity continues to swirl around London fashion after the autumn/winter shows.

Macdonald is one of Londonís craftsmen. Remember his big break came when Karl Lagerfeld invited him to spin gossamer-fine golden knits for Chanel couture. He remains creative director of Givenchy couture despite the British press doing their level best to unseat him. No wonder his peers Matthew Williamson and Luella Bartley don't perform in front of the home crowd and choose New York as a more suitable showcase. It seems the more money a London label attracts, be it sponsorship or sales, the lower critical opinions sink which is why this season's London pride — Sophia Kokosalaki, Blaak and Roland Mouret — should be considering their options.

"New Yorkers would think you were insane to say that, just because you have a successful business, you are irrelevant creatively," says Jasper Conran, whose cool, elegant autumn/winter 2003 show was at odds with the Cardin-crazy silhouette that dominated London Fashion Week.

The designer shone as one of the few in London capable of cutting clothes worthy of being modeled by Erin O'Connor: a cute, demure black cashmere coat trimmed with a powder puff of white ostrich and matching ostrich feather handbag and a scallop-edged ash satin coat and matching knife-pleated skirt being highlights of a highly desirable collection.

With Mary Quant for a godmother and Jean Muir as mentor, Conran is a giant of London fashion. He, Paul Smith and Betty Jackson are London's Calvin, Ralph and Donna.

"Jasper Conran products turned over roughly £100 million in the U.K. alone last year," says the designer. Mainline is admittedly a small part of Conran's empire that includes licensed ceramics for Wedgwood, crystal for Waterford, more than 30 collections for the department store chain Debenhams, plus furnishings, wallpapers and a debut perfume for men and women launching in May.

Sound licensing does seem to diminish a designer's London edge. "It's not about slapping our name on everything," says Conran. "We do design everything. I don't think it is detrimental to have a pyramid approach to our price architecture." Pondering showing his mainline collections in New York, Conran says, "I would feel I was up against my peers in New York. The customer would understand what I do and it is extremely tempting. The decision would rest with being logical for my business. It's not about me flouncing out of town because I'm not appreciated here. I am."

Mark Eley, one half of husband and wife London-based print label Eley Kishimoto, agrees with Conran that London is a perfectly good base to grow a business. "Right from the beginning it's been our quest to be recognized within the global fashion scene with a personal voice," says Eley, though he adds, "it's become a tradition for an overtone of negativity to anticipate London Fashion Week then follow in its wake."

Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto have cleverly moved their own penchant for print into very witty, wise licenses.

"From the beginning we did sunglasses and umbrellas," says Eley. "We never made show pieces for the catwalk's sake. If we transferred the print to trainers, pop socks, bags or luggage then these pieces were for sale."

A capsule luggage collection with Globetrotter sold 700 pieces in its first season while Eley Kishimoto printed pop socks sell between 3,000 and 6,000 pairs a season.

"We have no real aspiration to move away from London," says Eley. "There are very good companies that exist here and we don't really like the exodus from London. But I am intrigued as to how we can survive in the global market. I am desperately searching for a notion or vision of how to take us to the next level eloquently."

Eley Kishimoto has been sponsored the past three seasons by the fashion label New Look (which also supports Luella Bartley). New boy Ashley Isham is privately backed and showed on the official London Fashion Week schedule for the first time this season. The designer, 26, and his partner Richard McLaren, 25, were able to open a shop, Aquaint, in 2002 in London's Seven Dials quarter and chose to stock the boutique not only with his clothes but those of fellow young London designers Roland Mouret, Emma Cook, Warren Noronha and Tracey Boyd.

Back to top
Home  >  News