London Gives “Garage Fashion” the Spotlight

by Rachel Yeomans | September 18th, 2009   

Reported by Paul Sonne and Beth Schepens for the Wall Street Journal.

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Little more than a year ago, 27-year-old Hannah Marshall spent most days at a garage in rural Essex, two hours outside London, working in a makeshift studio to create tight, sexy-sinister dresses that looked a bit like Audrey Hepburn meets “The Matrix.” Outside the garage door was a vegetable patch—and some chickens.

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Hannah Marshall Autumn/Winter 2009 Collection

Today, Ms. Marshall has her own fashion-design studio in London thanks to funding from the Centre for Fashion Enterprise. She will stage her first catwalk show for London Fashion Week on Saturday with support from the beverage company Red Bull. Her garage-born dress collection—pieced together with a low-interest loan from the Prince’s Trust and funding from NewGen, a British Fashion Councilprogram sponsored by Topshop—has her flagged as a rising star.

London, known for funky street styles and trendsetting designers like Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, boasts an array of programs aimed at helping up-and-comers like Ms. Marshall. After a mass exodus of high-profile design talent starting in the late 1990s, London is reaffirming its profile as the capital of young fashion creativity with a fresh crop of designers, who are taking advantage of the new support platforms.

Ms. Marshall’s goth-glam collections of v-shaped, shoulder-padded designs are simultaneously dark and delicate. She has thrived thanks to money available over the past five years from a range of funders. IMG, the entertainment company, and writer Colin McDowell launched Fashion Fringe at Covent Garden, a talent search and awards program. The car company Vauxhall joined fashion industry veterans to kickstart the Vauxhall Fashion Scout, an event showcasing new talent. Consultants to the London College of Fashion founded the Centre for Fashion Enterprise, an investment and business-support center for young designers.

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One of these designers is Erdem Moralioglu, dubbed “the latest It Brit” by W Magazine last year. Mr. Moralioglu has sustained his brand, Erdem, since 2005 with the help of Fashion Fringe, which he won in 2005, as well as the Swarovski Fashion Enterprise Award, the CFE and the British Fashion Council. His spring collection was inspired by silent film’s femme fatale Pola Negri and Japanese kimonos, and his vibrant prints have drawn comparisons to Christian Lacroix. His brand of femininity, exported from London’s East End for retailers including Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, is both delicate and strong. His designs, says Colleen Sherin, fashion market director at Saks, “are pretty, they’re feminine, they’re whimsical, but there’s an elegance to them—it’s almost like semi-couture.”

Bruno Basso and Chris Brooke, a design duo who won the first Fashion Fringe award in 2004, use digital printing on fabric to create kaleidoscopic patterns. Mr. Basso, a native of Brazil, worked as a graphic designer at a magazine before he met Mr. Brooke, a Briton and trained fashion designer. They decided to collaborate on a label, Basso & Brooke, and it has taken off especially in the months since Michelle Obama wore one of their blouses to a White House event in May.

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Basso & Brooke Spring 2009 RTW

The two have expanded into wallpaper and home furnishings, and they are looking to develop a menswear line. Having established their label in London, they are now thinking of relocating to Paris or Milan. Mr. Brooke says the sophisticated prints, which recall Emilio Pucci gone high-tech, sell predominantly outside the U.K., and during the summer and spring seasons. He believes that London lacks the infrastructure and international clout to sustain the label’s global ambitions. “You can become a bit tracked into being cool and not thinking about your business on a global scale,” Mr. Brooke says. “London is a great platform to start with, and then you go and play with the big boys.”

William Tempest is a 23-year-old who worked at Giles Deacon and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in Paris and then rose quickly in the fashion world after graduating from the London College of Fashion in 2007. His tailored, expertly cut dresses won raves when they were first shown at Fashion Fringe last year and have found their way onto the red carpet: Emma Watson wore a William Tempest dress to the Los Angeles premiere of “The Tale of Despereaux” last year. With his third collection of minidresses and eveningwear for spring, Mr. Tempest takes cues from influences including the cabaret Le Crazy Horse de Paris, 1940s underwear advertising and James Bond. He created some of the prints for spring using black-and-white photos taken in Las Vegas.

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William Tempest Autumn/Winter 09/10 Collection

London’s reputation as a lesser fashion city has in some ways fed the city’s creative lifeblood. The London industry is more willing to give young designers access—and a chance. “In New York, you can’t just be a graduate with a great collection, you have to have gone to work for a big design company,” says Jodie Ball, a fashion expert at trend analysis company WGSN. Most young designers in New York cut their teeth at a place like Louis Vuittonbefore launching a label, she says. “London is much more ready to pounce on a new designer just because they see this spark of something interesting.”

Each year, London’s Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, the London College of Fashion and the Royal College of Art churn out highly creative and qualified young designers aspiring to follow the global trajectories of London-bred successes like Mr. McQueen and Ms. McCartney. The intensely commercial nature of fashion in Milan and New York makes it very hard for young designers to break in there, says Ed Burstell, buying director at Liberty, a London department store, and a former senior vice president at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. “This is a city that takes risks,” Mr. Burstell says of London. “They will follow a designer’s career from season to season and see how it develops.” Milan, on the other hand, is for large commercial houses, he says, and in New York, “it’s a business—and it’s not a very forgiving one.”

Despite the advantages, most young London designers still see it as a fight for success. Ms. Marshall has concentrated on the sustainability of her label from the start. She has taken business courses, and she says she has looked for ways to appeal to customers globally, rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I’m from London, so I produce really unwearable fashion.’

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