TWICE a year, in spring and autumn, London’s fashionistas go crazy at the second of the world’s “big four” fashion weeks. From September 16th to the 21st, 68 catwalk shows displayed the wares of mainly British-based designers, with celebrities as oddly assorted as Samantha Cameron (designer wife of the prime minister), Pippa Middleton (sister-about-town of Britain’s future queen) and Andy Murray, a tennis ace not known for his clothes sense, in attendance. The talk was of colours (hot), prints (prominent), and how the dastardly Gucci had stolen London’s best models by summoning them early for Milan’s week, which followed.The fashion industry is much more important than the frothing over foxy frocks made of recycled metal scraps and PVC suggests. A study by Oxford Economics for the British Fashion Council (BFC), published last year, found that the business added about £21 billion ($33 billion) to GDP directly, twice as much as carmaking. High fashion accounted for only a fraction of that, but top-end, trend-setting design sits at the heart of the broader retail market. The BFC, which stages London Fashion Week, estimates that its six days will have yielded perhaps £100m in orders.
More than that, fashion is just the sort of thing Britain is supposed to be good at in this post-industrial age: creative, high-value-added, cluster-based. And the country does excel. Its offerings run the gamut from the edgy outpourings of Central St Martins, a well-known fashion college, to the classical style anglais. Much of its brightest talent comes from elsewhere—Greek-born Mary Katrantzou, for example, or the half-Austrian, half-Italian Peter Pilotto. And the now-infamous John Galliano, once of Christian Dior, is only one of many British designers snapped up by foreign houses.
But there are characteristically British downsides, too. Many talented designers (like some British inventors) have trouble converting their ideas into cash. This is only partly because capital is hard to come by. “Here, it’s all about art. In other places it’s much more of a business,” says a Central St Martins student who has worked in France. The agent for a number of new designers agrees: “Young designers here just make what inspires them without thinking enough about how much they’ll have to charge for it, or who will buy it.” A great many fold after a few years.
A big challenge now is to conquer developing markets before developing-world fashion houses conquer Britain. The BFC is taking designers to Hong Kong next month, and to Beijing and Shanghai next year, says Harold Tillman, its chairman (pointing to Paul Smith and Stella McCartney as examples of global British names who started small). One ace up his sleeve? The appeal of the Duchess of Cambridge, a photogenic pin-up with a well-judged penchant for British designers.