London fashion fights for clout on 25th birthday

LONDON Thu Feb 19, 2009 12:48pm EST

British fashion designer Paul Smith and model Erin O'Connor pose for photographers during a photocall to promote the 25th anniversary of London Fashion Week, in London February 18, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

British fashion designer Paul Smith and model Erin O'Connor pose for photographers during a photocall to promote the 25th anniversary of London Fashion Week, in London February 18, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen Hird

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Its designer graduates are some of the darlings of the industry, but does London Fashion Week still have a seat at fashion's top table?

London celebrates its 25th year from February 20 to 24 with a reduced schedule squeezed between New York and Milan fashion weeks, which along with Paris remain the biggest draws for designers and buyers.

The British capital and its design school Central Saint Martins are often lauded for being a hotbed of talent that has produced some of fashion's biggest names, including Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano.

But McCartney, McQueen and Galliano all show their major collections in Paris. London has also cut its schedule to four days after the U.S. fashion council pushed the New York shows back a week.

"Unfortunately, British fashion week is still the one week which is considered the least important of the four," said top British designer Paul Smith, who began designing men's clothes in a back-alley London shop in the 1970s.

The squeeze on London may force some overseas buyers to skip the event, which organizers say generates orders of about 100 million pounds ($143.3 million), since it overlaps by a day at either end with the shows in New York and Milan.

And designers say it's tough to survive in London because of a lack of investment and manufacturing facilities.

"London is by far the hardest place to survive," said designer Maria Grachvogel, who first showed at London fashion week in 1995. "We do not have a manufacturing base in the UK anymore which means there is no long term support/investment or sponsorship for shows that designers receive in other capitals."

Before becoming chief designer at Givenchy in 1995, Galliano struggled financially in London for several years and finally left for Paris.

London's champions say they are fighting back with efforts to reinflate the schedule to five days and add other features to support designers and attract buyers.

British Fashion Council (BFC) Chairman Harold Tillman told Reuters that he has reached an understanding with U.S. organizers that will allow London to expand its schedule in September to a full five days.

He said the BFC was trying to help designers cope with the lack of manufacturing facilities and promote them globally.

"I've always believed London punched above its weight anyway and will continue to do so," he said in a telephone interview.

The BFC, which organizes fashion week, also said it is trying to offset February's shortened schedule by housing both catwalk shows and exhibitions at the same location and that it will also hold its first dedicated menswear showcase this year in a city long famous for its tailored Savile Row suits.

GOLDMINE OF TALENT

London's advocates say it remains globally important by virtue of its vibrancy and the creativity of its designers. On Friday's opening day the Central Saint Martin's show is expected to pull in the talent spotters looking for future fashion stars.

"The key thing about London fashion week is the fact that it's a goldmine of talent. Lots of really good, young, creative talent constantly come out of British fashion colleges," veteran designer Paul Smith told Reuters.

McCartney, whose designs combine sharp tailoring with feminine details such as lace, was named chief designer at French house Chloe in 1997, two years after graduating from Saint Martins.

"There is an absolute determination to experiment that makes London vibrant and exciting," said Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. "Commercial success doesn't trump creativity in the way that some other cities favor."

In 1995, Alexander McQueen put on a show called Highland Rape with disheveled models that critics said glorified violence against women.

Supporters also point to rising London talent such as Gareth Pugh, who debuted in 2004, and Saint Martins graduate Matthew Williamson, who showed his first women's collection Electric Angels in 1997. Williamson told Reuters earlier this month that London was his favorite city to show in and that he hoped to return from New York, when this fits in with his overall business plans.

Both Betty Jackson, who participated in London's inaugural fashion week 25 years ago, and Paul Smith said they have considered showing elsewhere but have stayed in London.

"At one time we were going to go to New York and we were also going to go to Paris and then we took the view that actually this is where we work and I absolutely love London," Jackson said.

Smith said he was content with remaining in Britain and that comparisons with Milan or Paris were unwarranted.

"I'm still flying the flag."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)