Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Business Of Fashion Week

A decade  ago, London Fashion Week was just a tearaway little sister to three more established elders: seen-it-all, done-it-all, post-coital-cigarette-smoking Paris; corporate focused, financially fly New York; and straight-A student (albeit smouldering) Milan. In those days, London's most successful designers inevitably eventually graduated to one of these international outposts, but today its reputation for producing talent affords us a fairer share of the global limelight.

Natalie Massenet  was named chairman of the  British Fashion Council a year ago, and we're now beginning to see signs of the effect she and the weight of her £350m company is having: significantly inflated sponsorship; 75 12-ft flags hanging the length of Oxford Street; Manolo Blahnik and Smythson on the schedule for the first time; a new designer shop in Somerset House during Fashion Week; constant chatter on the social mediawaves - plenty of new developments will be credited to Massenet's leadership. She insists, however, that the developing success of the event is down to the expertise of BFC chief executive Caroline Rush. Massenet's self-determined brief is in her efforts to bring British fashion close to the consumer. "In New York everybody knows when Fashion Week is on - it feels like Fashion Week - I want it to be the same here," she says.

Nathalie Massenet
"Our visual message will travel digitally to let people all over the world feel the excitement - and that drives desire and sales," she says, her crisp Brooks Brothers shirt and tailored black skirt matching the glass-fronted, white-plumped-sofa office as if to encapsulate the gloss of her success.

In addition to getting all designers online and transactional as soon as she can, her BFC ambition goes far and wide. Less concerned with persuading big labels like Stella and McQueen to show here - "because whether you're showing in Timbuktu or London, you're still marketing British fashion" - she's more about positioning London as to fashion what Silicon Valley is to technology.

"It's undisputed that we have the most dynamic, creative designers here - luxury businesses everywhere are infused with our talent - but we haven't championed our industry as a business," she says of an industry worth an estimated £21 billion to the UK economy. "If you're a teenager in Palo Alto launching an app, you know from the outset how you plan to finance your business. If your 16-year-old neighbour were creating an app, everyone at a dinner party would ask, 'How much is he raising to do it?' We need the same question asked of anyone starting a label."

To make that happen, Massenet has pulled together a dream team to lead five pillars of activity - Reputation; Business Know How: Education; Digital & Innovation; and Investment - headed up, respectively, by "pillar presidents": creative director and front-row titan Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou; James McArthur of Anya Hindmarch (formerly Balenciaga and Harrods); fashion journalist and BFC ambassador Sarah Mower and Meribeth Parker, group publishing director of luxury at Hearst; Google's director of retail Peter Fitzgerald; and Jonathan Goodwin of Lepe Partners, who worked with Tamara Mellon at Jimmy Choo and runs the Founders Forum.

Each will work directly (and voluntarily) with the BFC staff to engineer success for British fashion designers, by way of tool kits, seminars, the match-making of students from London business schools with fashion colleges, scholarship programmes and dialogue with the most experienced, successful group of industry professionals in the country."Fashion is bigger here than the car industry. It needs to be celebrated as such so we'll see more jobs, more exports and more stores opening on our streets, as designers develop into self-sustaining, independent businesses. The BFC is here to improve their chances of success by adapting and advising them properly in the context of a new global economy."

"In 13 years of doing my day job I've learned a few things about motivating people. It's about setting a vision and, as long as everyone knows why they're doing what they're doing, you achieve that vision."All the presidents, invited to an off-site meeting chez Massenet at the beginning of the summer, have been given Team GB-style personalised sweatshirts and tote bags (featured left). "The focus is incredible. From the mayor's office to number 10, we're getting everyone on board with this," says Massenet.

But is London fashion, traditionally so flamboyant and creative but lacking in business flare, ready for this? "Of course!" says Massenet "We have a generation of young designers who have grown-up in the digital age, but they're in the business of making clothes so they don't necessarily have access to this world. My day job gives me access to these people - it's a killer advantage.""We've cracked the hard part -we have the talent," she continues. "Now it's simply a process of letting designers know their options - whether they are a three-man operation in Hoxton or a business with multiple flagships on the way to being the next Burberry: how to do it, how much to leverage and then, when you get to the stage when everyone wants you, how, why, when do you sell and who to? We're going to ensure 'business' isn't a dirty word in fashion. We want to make people dream of working in an industry that isn't fluffy - it's an amazing way to earn a living and create jobs based on creativity."

Short-term results will mean a bigger, better London Fashion Week - maybe even a longer one because "London is always the most packed schedule - you can't miss anything because our designers are unpredictable". In the medium term, says Massenet, it's about questioning the state of the industry, "whether that's thinking about bringing consumers into the shows, or taking our Fashion Week on a tour of other cities every season". Most radical, she muses, would be a one-season, one-city show concept that could see Olympics-style bids for cities to host all the international collections in one place each season. Long term it suggests a legacy that will leave future British fashion graduates in a more confident position to let their creativity come to the global forefront.

It's a revolution that brings support from all the designers on the British schedule, for whom Natalie is constantly on call. "She's a visionary and I'm thrilled that she represents our voice," says Erdem. "Not only does she have this incredible global credibility, but she is also available in person when you want to ask advice," adds Christopher Kane. "She truly understands what it takes to grow a business in the UK with relevance around the world."

"My personal ambition remains the same - to be creative, to be modern, to stay one step ahead, to enjoy life. I've learned to take nothing for granted because the rules are changing all the time."The designers also value Massenet's political skills, but she shrugs off the suggestion of any ambition for an official place on the global stage. "I just have my fingers crossed that the shows start on time, that people have an amazing experience here and that we send them to Milan just a little bit tired."

Lastly, the inevitable question: how does a woman like this get dressed every morning? "I just wear what I like and lots of it is British," she says, before reeling off a list of designer labels - including "some cute Stella", Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Williamson - that make up one serious wardrobe, and adding wickedly: "I buy it all on this great website I know.

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