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If Paris is the capital of chic and Milan the mainstay of manufacturing, then London is the land of hype and glory. It’s an old saw, but like most clichés, it contains an element of truth. While undeniably a hotbed of unbridled creativity and cultural vibrancy, London has earned a reputation over the decades for producing dazzling supernovas, like Body Map in the early 1980s, that burned out as quickly as they ascended to the fashion firmament.
“All mouth and no trousers—that was always the rap on London,” says Tim Blanks, the noted fashion writer for Style.com. “Whether unfairly or not,” he says, “the paradigm that stuck was that London was fabulous but had no follow-through.”
Until now. Not since the Swinging Sixties—when labels like Foale & Tuffin, Mr Fish, Granny Takes a Trip and Mary Quant hijacked the public imagination and became the last word in youthful sophistication—has the London fashion scene enjoyed so much cultural traction. Designers such as Christopher Kane, Giles Deacon, Erdem Moralioglu, Peter Pilotto, Mary Katrantzou and Nicholas Kirkwood are no longer just names to watch and to drop, but they’ve emerged as bona fide players whose collections make critics gush and cash registers sing.
Lest they become complacent, nipping at their heels is an ever-growing list of contenders, including Richard Nicoll, Simone Rocha and current media-darling label Ostwald Helgason. It’s an impressive talent roster that has been further bolstered by the return of Preen and Julien Macdonald and by the addition to the official London fashion week schedule of established international stars L’Wren Scott and Tom Ford, whose design headquarters are there.
Not to be outdone, breakout menswear designers such as J. W. Anderson, James Long, Agi & Sam and Lou Dalton are doing their bit to ensure that London remains the lodestar of masculine glamour—a standing that was given further credence by the presence at the recent “London Collections: Men” spring/summer shows of internationally recognized brands Rag & Bone, Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Gabbana.
As if to underscore the point, the shows in June marked the return of Burberry Prorsum’s menswear collection after more than a decade of being presented in Milan. “It’s a special time for British fashion right now,” says Christopher Bailey, the chief creative officer of Burberry. “The country’s menswear heritage and outstanding contemporary talent give it a unique and powerful energy that is truly inspiring. There’s a true buzz in the city.”
Not surprisingly, overseas buyers and fashion editors, who in previous years were content to sit out the London shows in preparation for the grueling Milan and Paris legs that followed, attended in droves. As Tim Blanks points out, “International retailers and media would be willful if they denied what was happening here.”
The perfect storm that has led to the current focus on London is due in part to the attention the city received last year from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and its hosting of the Olympics. More specifically, Burberry Prorsum’s decision, in 2009, to decamp from Milan and present its women’s collection in London was an important gesture that signaled it was commercially expedient to be based in its hometown.
The global spotlight on Burberry in turn prompted other designers to clean up their act, especially when it came to the spectacle of fashion. “Until not that long ago, the typical London show ran five hours late and involved an asymmetrical haircut, an old car door, a burning rubbish bin and a model with a broken leg,” jokes Giles Deacon, whose runway productions are generally regarded as among the best in any fashion capital. “Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.”
That London fashion week is now a professional showcase to rival Paris, Milan and New York is a testament to the efforts of the British Fashion Council (BFC), which more than any other fashion protectorate has focused on ensuring that young designers have the professional support and tools to help them grow into sustainable businesses.
At the heart of the education and mentoring programs offered by the BFC is an emphasis on the importance of digital in helping to reach a larger audience.
“You cannot underestimate the impact the Internet has had on British fashion,” says Natalie Massenet, the rainmaker founder and executive chairman of e-tailer Net-a-Porter, who became the new chairman of the BFC in January this year. (See “Q&A: Natalie Massenet.”) “The United Kingdom has traditionally been a very small market, and even though you had such a creative group of designers, they represented a risk to department stores. With the global reach of the Internet, you can sell the most beautiful, exquisite, expensive things to your niche target market wherever they are, and when you put them together, it becomes a big market that can’t be denied.”
Whether the new Anglomania becomes just another moment in the ineluctable ebb and flow of fashion remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The current crop of designers is as fixated on the bottom line as it is on hemlines. “Everyone is a lot more business-minded these days,” says Erdem Moralioglu, the inaugural recipient of the Vogue/BFC Designer Fashion Fund in 2010. Adds Stephen Jones, the transcendent milliner and soi-disant grandfather of the London fashion scene, “I think Body Map were serious, too, but they also really wanted to go to the party. Nowadays the store deliveries are more important than the parties.”