In London, most designers slave their way through Central Saint Martins, set up a minuscule studio in Dalston and start churning out extravagant, mind-boggling and trend-setting designs ASAP. Meanwhile, on the Continent, there’s barely no young talent showing in Milan, and Paris is still obsessed with reinvigorating age-old design dynasties. Why? The answer, as often is the case, is multiple and complicated; and it was the spark for Fashion East.
Kicked off in 1996 by Lulu Kennedy, a long-term champion of British fashion, Fashion East has since supported, advised, aided and promoted many of the London-based designers that today define the local fashion scene. Taking over a disused warehouse space in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery, where Kennedy ran club nights, designers were not only given a space to show their collections, but also help with the mundane, though crucial, jobs such as seating plans, light rigging, invites and show PR. When I last spoke to Kennedy, she explained the Fashion East role, likening it to a creative kindergarten: “The designers can make mistakes with us – it’s like a little safe environment where they can fall over and bang their heads and get up. I think we pull more of a supportive audience than a highly critical one, which is nice because, for God’s sake, most of them are straight out of college, or not even that.”
London’s fashion scene might not have the money spinning icons of Milan, or the couture-dripping houses of Paris, but it’s got raw creativity, and lots of it. That attitude is, arguably, more valuable than money and, dare I say it, traditions. It’s that creativity that has led big fashion conglomerates, such as Kering and LVMH, to recently snap up London designers J.W. Anderson, Nicholas Kirkwood and Christopher Kane. But that financial kick-back, as it should be, was never the starting point nor the ultimate goal for London’s underground designers.
One of the key differences between the four fashion capitals is the support system London offers its fledgling designers. Though launchpad initiatives exist elsewhere in different shapes and forms, London – with the help of Topshop and Topman – financially supports many creative careers. But schemes such as NEWGEN [the British Fashion Council’s talent identification program, sponsored by Topshop], requires a certain degree of experience, retail presence and business plans. Fashion East helps new designers put those important pieces into the puzzle. “When I started doing Fashion East, the only scheme was NEWGEN, and it was much harder to win, much more aspirational,” Lulu says. “It was only the bigger names that got NEWGEN. So I thought of Fashion East as the stepping stone for London’s younger but talented designers, to help them reach NEWGEN.”
In the early days, when Fashion East was less established and organised, Lulu ran it like one of her Brick Lane raves. Today, Fashion East is a force to be reckoned with, a renowned and fully recognised cog in London’s remarkable and successful fashion wheel. But, more importantly, none of the initial fun has gone away.