From The Issue: Designer Co-Op By Richard Gray
The fashion world is changing: the production, show and buying systems are evolving every season. In many ways, things have never been more difficult for a young designer – students, too. So how do London’s new and established fashion stars survive their first few years in the rag trade?
Floor 2, BA Fashion, Central Saint Martins, London: “the cupboard”. “Louis Vuitton are really good, they send bolts. And Lanvin. They’re also really good. Kim Jones sends some incredible things.” This is the fashion designer and Unit 1 Leader for MA Fashion, Louise Gray, talking. And “the cupboard” holds both bolts and neatly folded swatches of fabrics of the kind you hold up to the light. Leather, silks, cashmere, and so on. Everything in here, every single one of the extraordinarily expensive fabrics, has been given to the college by the world’s biggest fashion houses.
Just about everybody who studies is skint. The ones who aren’t are very lucky. As the government slashes funding for arts and art studies in the UK, affording food, let alone fabrics, is a very real problem for fashion students. Here’s Sarah Mower: as well as being a writer and fashion critic for American Vogue, she is the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent and chair of the NEWGEN committee. Last year she teamed up with Liberty London to create Sarah’s List, an initiative to support fashion talent that came out of the “depths of despair at Trump being elected and Brexit coming”. But it’s not all depths of despair – “I’m from the generation that came out of university in the days of Thatcher and that was really, really dark,” she says. “And yet it was the most creative and rebellious and fantastic [period]. A do-it-yourself time for young London.”
Art students really began to feel the squeeze in 2010, when the Browne Review, an independent report on higher-education funding in the UK, recommended that the then-cap of £3,290 for fees be removed. This would, the theory went, create a new system for financing universities and allow for a 10% increase in demand for degree-level education. And thus, government-funded education became increasingly self-funded.
“I’ve given up on the government,” says Mower, shaking her head. Her support of designers including Conner Ives (who is still studying at Saint Martins but producing a collection and selling through Sarah’s List at Liberty London), Marta Jakubowski, Kitty Garratt, Samantha McCoach, Richard Malone and Richard Quinn, isn’t new. Mower started going into colleges and seeing people such as Christopher Kane more than a decade ago. “I realised there was something about him, which was, first of all, fashion. [Fashion design now] has to be fucking amazing, it has to make your hair stand on end to be able to justify itself as an entity as something to buy.”
This current generation of young designers – a new movement that seems to have found its speed in the past three or four years – has the seeds of something particularly interesting. Graduates and undergraduates now are ethical and political. They don’t believe in exploitation, they pursue diversity and are community-minded.
Last year, Quinn, an MA Saint Martins womenswear design graduate, won the H&M Design Award. For the past six years, the fund has supported and promoted young fashion designers, offering a prize worth £44,000 for the winner. Quinn created a sell-out collection with the high-street giant, too, and invested his prize money into a self-named print works, producing for fashion students and some big fashion houses that he refuses to name. Fashion students, note: Quinn’s studio prints come in at about 40%-50% cheaper than the nearest rival. Take sublimation – another printer would charge, say, £40-£50 per metre for the particular print technique, but for students and members, Quinn charges between £15 and £25, depending on what you’re printing on and, of course, the process involved.
“The professionals and big houses have started coming here because we can offer them privacy,” says Quinn. “If they’re developing new samples and they want to keep it quiet, we can open the studio for them only.” According to him, resourcefulness is key for any fashion student wanting to get into design: “I’d advise them that there’s always another way of doing something. If you can’t afford a simple process in your fabric development, it’s your job to find an alternative way. Things like this make you more resourceful. A lot of students come here and say, ‘I can’t do this or that’, and you say, ‘Well, what about this way instead?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah!’”
Lulu Kennedy has been championing, inspiring and mother hen-ing young designers for the past 17 years with her non-profit initiative, Fashion East. It’s through these doors and from this catwalk that serious fashion-design businesses such as Holly Fulton, Craig Green, JW Anderson, Simone Rocha, House of Holland, Gareth Pugh, Roksanda Ilincic and many others have been propelled to success. Those lucky enough to be selected by the Fashion East panel also get free access to the London Show Rooms, the biannual showcase pop-up of London designers that welcomes and encourages some of the world’s biggest department-store, boutique and online buyers to spend their cash on our home-grown talent. It’s also now a place where young designers can swap information about which store buyers are spending on what and who is best to target. It’s an invaluable hub for fashion networking.
“It all used to happen at The George & Dragon [in Shoreditch],” says Kennedy. “Everybody used to help everybody else.” From 2002, that small pub at number 2 Hackney Road spilled fashion kids into the street on warm summer nights, and a few cold ones, too, for 13 glorious years until it closed in 2015. All swapped gossip and tips. I seem to remember a conversation about “the best zip producers” between Christopher Kane and Jonathan Saunders that lasted about an hour. Boring for some.
Follow the George & Dragon fashion ley lines up Hackney Road – a mere 10-minute walk – and you’re at The Joiners Arms (sadly closed, but with efforts to reopen ongoing). Here, too, much drunker by now, there was much of the same. And some pool and some dancing as well. Back down the Hackney Road, turn left onto Commercial Street, then take a sharp left onto Hanbury Street to get onto Brick Lane: “You have now reached your destination.” This is The Old Truman Brewery, home of fashion shows, sample sales, Fashion East and all things cool London for years and years. “When people go to the London Show Rooms in Paris, they sit and they chat and they really bond, just like at the George and Joiners,” says Kennedy. “You’re stuck in the showroom, meeting buyers, and in between appointments you swap gossip and also do the deals – ‘You should really speak to X’, and so on. And, of course, everybody goes out in Paris at night and gets drunk – just like we did back then.”
Fran Burns is the fashion stylist and one half (the other being the creative director Christopher Simmonds) behind the new fashion magazine PRINT. Burns is a keen supporter of young design: “Ashley Williams and Claire Barrow graduated together from Westminster.” Didn’t Barrow model in Williams’s recent show? “Yes, exactly,” says Burns. “The camaraderie among them all is really quite amazing. It’s a real community, like a fashion union. You have your peer group around you – they all help each other and inspire each other.”
Burns believes this “fashion union” is something that has always been part of the London scene. She recently found a box of old copies of The Face and i-D at a car-boot sale and has spent the past two days poring over every page. “Today’s culture is the same culture you used to see at both magazines,” she says. “There was a kind of pride in putting something together. And my God, all those fashion shoots in The Face by Simon Foxton and Caroline Baker, they are brilliant. It’s a top from a young designer and a top from Marks & Spencer and a top for £2 from a charity shop with a safety pin on the back – it’s all totally mixed up. I think that’s something, culturally, that we have here that’s so unique – we should be really proud of it.”
So far so positive, but it was only a few years ago that some shops in the capital were taking the fashionable piss with their “sale or return” policies… Store places an order for 25 pieces with a young London designer; the designer orders fabrics, sends them to a factory, or sews them in-house at great expense; the designer then delivers the 25 pieces to the store. However, sale or return means just that: if only seven of the 25-piece order sell, the remaining 18 are then returned to the designer and the store only pays for the ones they have sold. Thus, the designer is left with the original cost, no profit and out-of-season stock. Meanwhile, the department stores, for all their “we support young London designers” spin, only really support young designers on their very unhealthy terms, while garnering all the cool column inches the young designer brings. Tut-tut.
Thankfully it’s a little different now. Stores such as Selfridges have been “incredible” says Kennedy – early last year, the shop’s successful Fashion East pop-up sold young talent such as Caitlin Price, Matty Bovan and Christopher Shannon, with “really, really good sell-throughs”. Indeed, Selfridges have truly supported young London design talent. Since 2011, their Bright New Things initiative, now part of their Material World project, has given window and retail space to new labels for three months and, in 2016, young knitwear ace Katie Jones was awarded its first bursary of £30,000. In addition, the Old Selfridges Hotel has been provided, with no charge, as the venue for the past two Fashion East MAN shows.
Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt are Art School, the exciting London unisex label that incorporates and cleverly riffs on idiosyncratic queer codes and power dynamics. Their show at MAN last June, worn by friends and members of the non-binary community, was uncompromising and exceptional. But then they are uncompromising and exceptional. Their business model is unique in the way it operates simultaneously with, but also satellite to, the established seasonal buying system. The old theory goes thus: fashion house shows clothes, buyers buy clothes, customer waits six months to buy said clothes. Not even the relatively new system of “see now buy now” (nobody is still actually sure whether this is working at catwalk level or whether it will last) has anything on Art School’s ability to, as they say, “turn on a sixpence”. The two designers have developed close relationships with Matches and Selfridges.
“The label has quite an important message behind it,” says Loweth. “We have a responsibility to the individuals we work with and how we translate that into a business model. Non-compromise is the best business decision we made.” This “non-compromise” has worked particularly well in terms of the brand’s deliveries, and the house has made a deliberate attempt to cater for the pre-collection audience rather than the trade SS/AW way of delivery. Says Loweth, “We can have drops that come in, in succession, through the season, which basically means that we sell mainly to women’s but can also have our showrooms [when they show their products to store buyers] after our menswear-schedule show for a men’s drop.”
Art School also have stock throughout the year. By doing seasonal drops such as the Matches collaboration, the duo have regular conversations with Natalie Kingham, the store’s buying director, about ideas and product that chimes with a particular time of year. “It really helps in terms of both press and finance,” says Loweth.
This seasonal and drop culture – the elevated and thoughtful world of catwalk design coexisting with that year-long stream of drops, like, say, a unisex skate or T-shirt label – made the pair question what exactly they wanted Art School to say. “The show, for us, acts like Galliano did in the 1990s,” says Loweth. “And is an extension of our creative mind and shows everything in its wildest form, but then it filters down into pieces that people can really recognise themselves wearing, and that’s the element for us that means we don’t have to compromise. It’s interesting being a non-binary unisex brand, when people associate the idea of unisex with brands like Supreme. And I think that’s been a very interesting centre point to Art School, because the idea of unisex doesn’t have to mean streetwear. And I like the idea that people can buy something interesting after a show.”
Art School’s SS18 collection hit Selfridges last November, way before the competition – “But this makes you relevant and ‘out of season’ if people can buy things immediately and all year round – that’s important,” says Loweth, who advises students and young fashion businesses to look outside the system. “For anybody starting out in fashion design, don’t be restrained or restricted by the pre-existing boundaries of what you think the fashion seasons are. And how stores work.”
With the expensive fees the student demographic in London must have changed. “Oh God, yeah,” says the designer Richard Malone. Since graduating from Saint Martins in 2014, where he was awarded the prestigious LVMH Grand Prix scholarship, his bold and graphic pieces have been sold at Nordstrom, Joyce in Hong Kong, Brown Thomas in Dublin and our very own Machine-A. “The kind of student who goes to Saint Martins now is very different from those who went there in the past. Now it’s the rich. It’s just not accessible to people from a background like mine any more, so I think the diversity of the students, and the conversation you get from being put in that intense little room and having to work next to each other, aren’t things that happen as much. You don’t get those exciting conversations, because everyone is from a similar background.”
Not that having no money will stop those who really, really want success. In the old days, Saint Martins tutors such as Willie Walters and Louise Wilson told you straight: “You make it work. You find a way and you make it work.” It’s that kind of pragmatic and never-say-fold approach that taught Malone and his peers a valuable lesson.
“That was definitely the ethos that we grew up with,” says Malone. “They were like, ‘Just because you’ve got no money, you’ve still got no excuse not to make the most fabulous thing in the world.’ Or, ‘If it’s disgusting fabric, make it the most beautifully finished disgusting fabric in the world.’ And, ‘If you can tailor, then you make perfectly tailored polyester.’ Pull it out of the bag, pull yourself together and just make it! I think that’s what we learnt from those guys.”
Taken from issue 60 of 10 Magazine, ALAÏA SHIFT POWER NEW, on newsstands now…