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London Designers Look Beyond the Runway to Drive Business

LONDON — The runway is becoming a less important platform for London’s emerging designers who are using celebrity, community and digital and physical spaces to promote their brands for free, or at a fraction of the cost of a traditional runway show.

This season, London Fashion Week will see the return of some designers and labels, such as Supriya Lele, Ashish, Knwls, Stefan Cooke and Natasha Zinko, who had taken a break from showing for personal, professional or monetary reasons.

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Next season, others may or may not return to the London catwalks because there are so many other ways for brands to promote themselves. They can forge ties with the music industry, or with celebrity stylists, curate exhibitions or stage special events off the seasonal calendar.

Runway at Stefan Cooke RTW Spring 2023 on September 18, 2022 in London
Stefan Cooke RTW spring 2023

In between shows, Zinko does a robust business dressing music industry stars such as Cardi B; Dua Lipa; Stefflon Don; Taeyong and Travis Scott for performances. Zinko said they also wear her clothes privately and post images on social media, which gives the brand a further boost.

“The runway is twice a year but the music industry is all year round — it never ends — and it’s one of our biggest communities,” said the designer, adding that celebrity, and community, posts are precious in terms of brand positioning, marketing and sales.

The designer said that when a performer wears one of her looks on- or off-stage, the image posted on social media resonates with a much wider community. Customers looking at the pictures on social go on the website or into the store “and buy the T-shirt, the socks and the hoodies.”

The celebrity stylist Emily Tighe, who works with Freddie Dennis and Christine Quinn, the reality TV star plucked by Demna for the Balenciaga fall 2022 couture show, believes that a variety of other events that take place year-round will eclipse the runway as the foremost way of promoting fashion.

“Eventually, the red carpets and premieres will take over the runway. Celebrities are wearing a lot more new designers or custom looks that aren’t shown on the runway. Red carpet moments and celebrity endorsements play a more substantial role in shaping fashion trends and public perception than traditional runway presentations,” she said.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Christine Quinn attends The Fashion Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall on December 05, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Christine Quinn attends The Fashion Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall.

Small designers in particular can get a big boost from red carpet dressing, according to research by the influencer data analytics company WeArisma.

Stylist Maeve Reilly, who has 1 million Instagram followers, dressed Megan Fox in the small London-based label Miss Sohee for Vanity Fair’s Oscars after party earlier this year.

WeArisma said in the seven days following the party, Miss Sohee’s social numbers soared compared to the previous week. The engagement rate was 3.7 percent compared with 0.04 percent the week before.

Stylist Carlos Nazario, who counts 209,000 Instagram followers, styled Emily Ratajkowski in the new London label Feben for the same Vanity Fair after party. In the week following the party, Feben’s engagement rate reached 5.5 percent. By comparison, in the week before the Vanity Fair party, Feben’s engagement rate was 0.01 percent.

Bradley Sharpe, one of London’s avant-garde designers who has dressed the likes of Bree Runway, Raye, Stefflon Don and Lady Gaga, has only ever shown once, with the support of fellow designer Charles Jeffrey of Loverboy.

Bradley Sharpe’s Venture Into Ready-to-Wear
Bradley Sharpe’s venture into ready-to-wear.

Although he cannot afford to stage regular runway shows, he’s still able to benefit from celebrity dressing, which he said delivers a huge return in marketing. He’s also noticed that up-and-coming brands are increasingly leaning toward a see now, buynow model as consumers want what their favorite celebrities are wearing.

To capture that demand, he has recently ventured into ready-to-wear with 21 pieces available for order on his website, bradleysharpe.com.

Ashish Gupta, who is returning to the London Fashion Week schedule this season, has also explored alternative ways of promoting his collections and exercising his creativity.

He showed on-schedule for more than a decade, but then took a pause after the pandemic to reconsider his approach. He opted for look books and even curated an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery titled, “Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender.”

While he’s excited about returning to the runway, it is “incredibly expensive, you have to think carefully about the logistics of that,” he said.

“I haven’t done any shows, but it doesn’t mean I’ve disappeared; I’ve kept working and I’ve kept doing stuff. I’ve still got my stockists. People are finding other means of saying things and expressing creativity, so maybe the runway just becomes one of those things,” he added.

The tens of thousands of pounds involved in staging a runway show is also driving designers off the catwalk and into other formats.

“Amid a cost-of-living crisis and what appears to be a crumbling economy, things that cost too much are simply being avoided or replaced. There is only so much support that can go around and seemingly there’s not enough of it,” said Sharpe.

Harris Reed RTW Spring 2024
Harris Reed RTW spring 2024

Harris Reed, who showed his spring 2024 collection on Wednesday night, two days before London Fashion Week kicks off, has turned his runway show into more of an event. His past shows, including the one on Wednesday night, featured live singers performing at Tate Modern.

The designer said he’s aware that he needs to “go big and bold and make it a performance” because many industry members skip London shows.

Showing off-schedule is also a less expensive option for Reed, who finances the shows himself with money from private clients and from his work as creative director of Nina Ricci.

Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at Euromonitor International, said that at a time when the luxury and fashion industries is working toward reducing their overall carbon footprint and overcome sustainability issues, the relevancy of live fashion shows within the four major capitals will be consistently questioned, but there is no risk of the show format disappearing.

Indeed, she believes that in a more eco-conscious environment, runway shows could become increasingly localized, and multiply. She said the pandemic, the quest for sustainability, technology and global wealth expansion has already led to more fashion weeks sprouting up — in Seoul, Melbourne, Canada, South Africa and UAE.

She said that shows are important because they plant a seed that blossoms for months afterward.

“Social media platforms can create huge buzz around new collections, but more importantly they can keep telling the stories they want to tell through multiple posts, news feeds, videos, etc. This means that an event is not just one show, but multiple engagements taking place weeks after the event itself,” said Roberts.

For many designers, new and established, the runway show still holds great meaning.

“In the future, people will not remember me for my social media but they will remember me for my shows,” said Zeid Hijazi, a Central Saint Martins student whose namesake label has earned him a Fashion Trust Arabia 2023 finalist nomination.

Meanwhile, David Koma, a runway veteran who dresses pop stars and red carpets, admits that preparing for a runway show invites “discipline, and forces me to make certain decisions.”

Kay Ganesh, cofounder of talent management agency Hypesight, said the runway is important because it’s more than just about the clothes — it’s about brands voicing their core principles and stance on key topics, “and behind the scenes, these moments are closely eyeballed” to see if they turn into sales and KPIs, or key performance indicators.

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