Story from the Wall Street Journal
London fashion week went out with a bang Tuesday night, with a celebrity-packed Burberry Prorsum show and after-party at the brand's plaid-infused headquarters.
It was a homecoming for this most British of British brands, which has shown at Milan fashion week since 2001. It was also a coup for London fashion week, which was expanded and hyped up this year in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Other highlights included the presence of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, a Brit, in the front row after a two-year absence, as well as the return of designers Pringle of Scotland and Matthew Williamson from the New York and Milan runways to showcase their latest wares.
Still, it was hard to say whether the shows will fulfill organizers' hopes of putting London back on the fashion industry's map. In recent years, promising designers like Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh have departed and buyer attendance has slumped, leaving the event a mere sideshow—complete with often outlandish designs—to the big fashion circuses of New York, Milan and Paris.
The main shows this week, however, served as a reminder of the reach of U.K. fashion. At Burberry, creative director Christopher Bailey took the label's classic trench coats, as well as a collection of dresses, skirts and tops, and pulled, knotted and looped the fabric into swirling layers that oozed luxury.
Pringle, like Burberry, has remained true to its British roots despite its Italian home away from home. And designer Clare Waight Keller's spring collection was no exception. She updated the luxury brand's iconic knitwear by shrinking it into delicate lace-like layers and enlarging it into chunky, 3-D cable knits. Skirts, with cascading tiers of fabric, replicated kilts.
Matthew Williamson, known for his brightly colored prints, showed a more structured collection that moved his aesthetic and brand forward. The designer drew on Glaswegian artist Jim Lambie's synthetic colors and graphic lines to create unique, eye-catching pieces that Mr. Williamson hopes will entice recession-wary shoppers to take out their pocketbooks. "I want customers to feel they've got something that's timeless," he said.
Smaller brands, the bread and butter—or, rather, the beans on toast—of London fashion, benefited from the hype brought by the return of the bigger labels, with Ms. Wintour showing up at the shows of emerging designers Meadham Kirchhoff and Marios Schwab. The British Fashion Council, which organizes the event, says far more buyers attended the shows than in years past, though data weren't available. But the question on most people's minds was whether the heavy hitters would remain past this jubilee season.
"Showing in London has been incredibly exciting," said Pringle Chief Executive Mary-Adair Macaire. "We will take a decision on our main runway show later this year, but have no immediate plans to move away from London." In coming weeks, Pringle will have showroom presentations in both Paris and Milan, where key buyers will get a chance to see the full collection.
Matthew Williamson said he hadn't made a decision yet and was waiting to see reaction from the show. "You take each season as it comes," said Joseph Velosa, the label's chief executive as well as a member of the British Fashion Council's board. He added that the label would also be doing presentations in Paris and Milan, because "that's still where most of the buyers are."
Burberry is also awaiting reactions. "We haven't made any firm decisions concerning next year's venue yet," Burberry said. But a person familiar with the matter said the company would likely move its show back to Milan next season. This fall, buyers will be able to look at the collection in the company's Milan showroom.
London fashion week, even after its expansion to five days this year, is shorter than sister shows in New York, Milan and Paris. It also lacks a strong buyer presence, leaving the city with some distance to go to build up the support network that would make it a viable alternative for big labels. Many decamped in the late 1990s and early 2000s in search of the higher profile that comes with showing alongside established brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton in other fashion capitals.
A three-year, $6.9 million funding package from the London Development Agency has helped fund the British Fashion Council's efforts to raise the city's profile, which include a showroom in Paris and programs to support emerging designers. But the package runs out next year, and while the agency plans to put forward another proposal, some doubt that the funding will be as generous. The country, like most, is in a recession, and the city is gearing up to host the 2012 Olympics.
Colin McDowell, who founded the talent-search program Fashion Fringe at Covent Garden, said he didn't think funding would be renewed at the previous level anytime soon—"not necessarily because they don't think the British Fashion Council is doing a good job," he said, "but because they don't have the money. We've got the Olympics. And that's a thing that can't be done badly."
Mr. Velosa, however, disagreed, saying that fashion has become increasingly important for the city and, more broadly, for the country. "I think fashion is being seen quite rightly by U.K. politicians as a way to promote the U.K.," he said.
He added that the reception for British designers hosted by Sarah Brown, the prime minister's wife, at No. 10 Downing Street last Friday was a "clear signal" of support. When asked how a possible shift in power to a Conservative-led government in the next year would affect that support, Mr. Velosa simply replied: "Samantha Cameron [wife of Conservative leader David Cameron] works in fashion." (She is the creative director of luxury stationer Smythson of Bond Street.)
Even as it seeks to compete on par with New York, Milan and Paris, London still holds a unique position in the world of fashion. The city, with its melting pot of nationalities and strong street culture, has always been seen as a place of possibility and ideas. Precisely because of the dearth of strong commercial interests at the shows, freedom of design has flourished, producing often outrageous looks that eventually trickle down in altered forms to mainstream fashion. This year saw American designer Jeremy Scott, in his London debut, present a collection inspired by "The Flintstones," with jagged hems, one-shoulder dresses and cartoonish cave prints. And Mr. Schwab turned out thoughtful and thought-provoking designs that mixed and matched pieces from different eras to produce an endless assortment of combinations.
London will have to find a balance between its commercial ambitions and its creative freedom—something the fashion industry has struggled with for years—if it is to move forward. But this week, the city was able to show off both strengths to an attentive fashion audience.