London Designer Showrooms: Brand focus
London Fashion Week’s Designer Showrooms exhibition wrapped up this week and while much of the attention around LFW was on the big runway names, the Showrooms continued to do what it always does - shining a spotlight on young and promising labels from the UK and further afield.
It felt more compact than usual, which could be a reflection of the challenging times the fashion industry faces due to Brexit, as well as the inescapable fact that the main business of placing orders tends to happen in Paris with many of the labels at the Designer Showrooms also due to show in fashion’s capital city.
But one of the attractions of the event is the chance to link-up with brands and designers at a very early stage in their story. Rose Danford-Phillips was one of those designers and was showing her first main collection as a brand, under the aegis of the Peroni-sponsored section of the Showrooms.
Given the impact UK-based print specialists have made on the industry of late, especially Richard Quinn in recent seasons, it will be interesting to see Danford-Phillips’ exuberant and colourful approach to print plays out in the years ahead. Both impressive and commercial, she was inspired by her upbringing in a house of art-loving gardeners.
“I’m from London and my brand is inspired by myself and my life,” she told us. “Both my parents are gardeners and our house is incredibly colourful. White is banned. I’ve grown up in a really maximalist space surrounded by plants so I’ve inhaled that and expelled it as fashion.”
What that translates into in practice is a series of prints that start life as paintings and then go through a number of tech processes before being interpreted in multiple colourways.
“The colour is inspired by nature, by eco systems, the layering and richness of gardens,” Danford-Phillips said. “I’m obsessive about colour. I lived in Amsterdam for a while and while I was there I was obsessed with Dutch old masters and especially the flower paintings. I collaged them together and recoloured the result.”
The designer, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2017, said she had a strong reception at the Showrooms and although most of the visitors to her space were press, she also linked up with some promising buyer prospects.
Her pieces are all made in the UK, except for the knitwear that’s made in China where they have the specialist equipment needed for complex jacquards. But with her retail prices out of the reach of many shoppers (£1,500 for a coat, £900 for a dress), does she feel worried about the future given the proximity of Brexit? “It’s a crazy time to try and start a business,” she told us. “I have no idea what’s going to happen but then nobody does. I should be worried, but I can’t be as I can’t do anything about it.”
We found a complete style contrast on the Jobo stand where designer Joel Boyd was determined to create a brand that “wouldn’t price anybody out.” The South Londoner’s label is two years old but was making its LFW debut and despite Boyd having already been selling online, he said the event was a real “learning curve”.
“It’s always been a dream to show here,” he said. "Everyone has the idea that they want to do catwalk or a presentation, but if nobody knows you they’re not going to show up. You need to do the Showrooms for a few seasons first.”
His collection is solidly grounded in the streetwear that’s a driving force of the menswear sector at the moment. With its roomy cuts and motifs/logos, plus entry prices at around £50 (rising to a maximum of £600), it was much more accessible than many labels showing at the event.
He’s designing for an 18-35 year-old man who “still wants to wear what’s cool.” And he has to create for a customer who’s going to dip in and out of the brand. “If they want to buy the whole rail, that’s cool, but the reality is that nobody’s going to wear the whole thing. I focus on pieces that can slot into their everyday wardrobe,” he said.
He may offer lower prices than the average at the event, but Boyd avoids fast fashion as well as being too trend-obsessed. “Fast fashion is a destructive enterprise in my opinion,” he told us. “I’m making fashion that can last as long as it can, which is important at a time when the climate is at a tipping point.’
And he sees the industry being at another tipping point with Brexit just around the corner. “I still don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said optimistically, although he looked rather more worried when he added: “The reality is that if I want to export it makes it much harder.”
RELAXED TAILORING AND RECYCLING
Given that the AW19 season so far has seen something of a tailoring revival as well as a heavy focus on sustainability, Daniel Crabtree’s collection also looked interesting. It’s part of a new wave of tailoring that’s all about lightness, comfort and fluidity with painstakingly added hand-stitched detail helping to elevate and personalise the look.
And the sustainability element comes in with Crabtree’s use of repurposed pieces such as knitwear that features re-used jerseys and hosiery.
Again, Crabtree was a first timer at the event and also there courtesy of sponsorship from Peroni. “I was really lucky, I had support through them giving us studio space, financial support, and mentoring from some great people,” he said.
“My approach is to make classic menswear pieces but for every piece to come out quite weirdly - oddly fitting, with cropped trousers, overcoats and tailoring that’s quite wide in the back. It creates a silhouette that’s quite relaxed.”
He was keen to source in the UK as much as possible so he used waxed cottons from Northern Ireland, woollens from Leeds, and most of it was made in London.
With the time-consuming hand-stitching taken into account, prices are high with wholesale starting at around £200 and rising much, much higher.
So is this an example of a recent graduate with his head not in the real world? Perhaps not. One of the jobs he had to support himself while while studying was working in Selfridges, which taught him a lot about how much the international shopper is prepared to pay for niche pieces. “It allowed me to see the customer, the luxury menswear shopper up close,” who will pay eye-watering prices, he said, “and he does exist.”
A more established brand at the event was Drag and Drop, a Paris-based label founded by Ukrainian Yuliya Grazhdan. The new collection was inspired by Joan of Arc, described by Grazhdan as “the first feminist.”
In fact, the label’s collections are always inspired by “strong icons from history and the movies” and the current medieval influence focuses on “strong women” such as Saint Joan, while mixing in elements of “New York’s art scene of the 80s, like Robert Maplethorpe’s photos of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon.” Chain mail is a big feature.
The brand, which was launched in 2016, is on its sixth collection and usually only shows in Paris but was invited to show by the British fashion Council “to discover London Fashion Week”. And did Grazhdan like what she discovered?
It seems so. “We’ve had a great response. It’s really interesting for press and we’re very happy. But we’ve had several sales requests too, although everyone is coming to Paris as that’s where we actually sign orders.”
She’d like to show again, but thinks she’d be more likely to “to do more than just the Showrooms.” And that would make sense if raising awareness in the UK market is the goal. The label currently has stockists in Asia and the US but none in Britain so far.
The designer doesn’t seem to think that the threat of Brexit makes it an especially bad time to seek to do business in the UK, although she said the country could struggle if it sees a talent exodus. “I have friends who are thinking of leaving London,” she said, adding that the added complications of visas could deter talent.
All of the designers we spoke to at the Showrooms stressed how important the event is to them from a marketing viewpoint as it’s a magnet for press, both from the UK and abroad. Jewellery brand Pascale James has shown there several times and found the publicity boost that resulted invaluable.
The brand was founded by Antonia Pascale, a former BBC producer/researcher, and Christopher James, a zoologist. They wanted to do something more creative that was also sculptural and had a strong ethical angle. Jewellery seemed like a good idea.
The resulting pieces use recycled and fair-trade precious metals (silver and gold with tiny ethical diamonds added this season too) and is strongly reflective of nature and the environment. The new Re-Imagine collection is a good example of this.
“It started with discarded orange peel,” Pascale said. “It’s hand-carved fruit or actual fruit such as lemon slices. We were trying to design with an environmental message. It was a play on the idea of waste. I was peeling an orange and decided we could do something playful with that. We wanted to be playful but very commercial too.”
Not that the whole offer is cute and quirky. The Orogenesis, Water Ripple, Glacial, Molten Coral and Moon Phase collections have an ancient-meets-modern feel with their textured cuffs and discs that conjure up images of warrior women or someone wearing Jil Sander in a minimalist contemporary interior. Meanwhile the addition of diamonds to ultra-fine gold and silver add a delicate edge to some of the new pieces that should help widen the brand’s appeal.
Pascale and James design and make everything in London from their small Battersea studio and already sell online or create bespoke pieces. They’ve been showing at the Designer Showrooms for a few seasons, and have also shown in Paris, generating plenty of press interest that's helped the business gain commercial traction.
Their prices start at around £70 for a silver ring rising to £1,000 for a large cuff and while the jewellery is pure indulgence, Pascale seems cool about its prospects post-Brexit. Given that they operate in a sector in which the cost of their materials is hugely volatile at the best of times, that’s perhaps no surprise. “Brexit? We’ll just go with it,” she said. “We’re aware of it, but we’ll deal with whatever happens.”
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