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THE RUNWAYS: LONDON FASHION WEEK

Launched by London

The birthplace of the miniskirt is still a hotbed of talent and ideas, thanks to its top design schools and an enterprising culture.

September 27, 2009|Booth Moore FASHION CRITIC REPORTING FROM LONDON

Where would fashion be without provocateurs Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan, or model moguls Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell?

They're all international stars now, but they might never have gotten their starts if not for London Fashion Week. The world has looked to London for style since the swinging '60s, when Twiggy and Mary Quant put miniskirts on the map. And yet London Fashion Week, like its Los Angeles counterpart, has suffered a perennial identity crisis, playing second fiddle to New York, Milan and Paris, where the best and brightest in the fashion world inevitably go after they've earned their chops, because those cities are home to the luxury brands with pockets deep enough to consistently attract the most press and buyers.

This season, London Fashion Week pulled out all the stops, celebrating its 25th anniversary with six days of runway shows that ended Wednesday. They included the prodigal returns of several big British brands (Burberry and Pringle of Scotland, which had been showing in Milan, and Matthew Williamson and Jonathan Saunders, who had been showing in New York, among them).

London, once dismissed for producing cartoonish one-offs of no interest to anyone but club kids, has grown up, with designers presenting and delivering commercial, wearable clothes.

In the last 25 years, London Fashion Week has increased from 15 designers to 50 showing on the runway. It now generates orders for designers in the neighborhood of $160 million. More international media and buyers attended this time than ever before. And while no one knows if the momentum will continue next season, London Fashion Week has proved it is more relevant than ever -- as a laboratory for new talent and trends that's far more influential than Paris' haute couture, as a showcase for fashion's modern mix of high-end and street, and as a connoisseur's alternative at retail to overexposed luxury brands.

"It's a point of difference," says Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York, who buys several collections shown in London, including Marios Schwab, Christopher Kane, Richard Nicoll and Erdem. "Now, it's not so much about trends. The customer wants something no one else has, something that hasn't been editorialized, marketed and branded all over." (It's worth noting, however, that London designers do influence trends: Kane helped usher in the current craze for sequins with his autumn '08 collection covered in coin-sized sequins; meanwhile, Giles Deacon's outsized chunky knit sweaters and mufflers from autumn '07 set the stage for the knitwear renaissance we're still seeing.)

London is a hotbed of emerging talent because of its top design schools, such as Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, and its diverse population.

"When you look at post-punk, the first surge of talent in London was all British," says Sarah Mower, a veteran of the London fashion press, and the newly appointed ambassador for emerging talent for the British Fashion Council, which organizes London Fashion Week. "But now that we've been educating the world, it's very polyglot. We've got Greeks, Canadians, Serbs, Austrians, Indians and Scottish designers. That feels really new and refreshing and typical of London as a capital."

There is also an enterprise culture in London that can be traced to the early 1980s, when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hosted the first London Fashion Week reception at 10 Downing Street (Last week, Sarah Brown, the wife of the current prime minister, hosted a party there too). During her administration, Thatcher put into place legislation that encouraged entrepreneurship with subsidies and incentives, according to Robert O'Byrne, author of the new book "Style City: How London Became a Fashion Capital." "That created a culture where young designers assume they will graduate college and start their own companies," he said. "Whereas in other countries, the model is to apprentice for someone else. The risk-taking factor in Britain is much higher."

Of course, in fashion, the chances of failure are high. So, in the last decade, the Fashion Council, which was originally formed in 1983 to organize the London show scene, has set up programs and sponsorships to improve the odds of success. The council functions as a nonprofit supported by industry and government funding, most recently a 4.2-million pound grant (roughly $6.7 million) from the Mayor of London's office.

Also funded by the mayor's office, the Centre for Fashion Enterprise functions as a business incubator for nascent designers who have already shown at London Fashion Week. It offers free studio space to designers accepted into the program, as well as public relations subsidies, the use of cutting-edge equipment and mentoring from industry experts.

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