i-D chats to Caroline Rush, Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, Kate Phelan, Creative Director of Topshop, and Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent about amazing moments from London Fashion Week, and how talented students turn into world-famous designers, Christopher Kane’s fluorescent first show after college, Mary Katrantzou’s bewilderingly beautiful ornate objets d’art and the future of fashion.
What are your early memories of NEWGEN?
Sarah Mower: There wasn’t even a place to show, there was only an exhibition in rooms at the Ritz. I remember we shared a room with maybe two other people, and it was just clothes on a rack. Izzy Blow, squawking and running around, dragging people in from the corridors.
Kate Phelan: That’s the first one I remember, but I don’t know when that would’ve been.
Caroline Rush: I remember when there was a tiny little area in the exhibition space at the Natural History Museum, in the back corner, where there was a small square, and then there were a couple of shows and that was it. I think there was always a feeling that there was a nucleus of excitement around these young designers, but nothing in terms of the profile it has now and the support that goes behind those designers.
KP: I wonder whether Alexander McQueen and the success of his collection paved the way for the platform to become more established, in the sense that he was the first one to start from there and grow all the way through.
CR: There’s great expectations in there, really.
KP: Exactly. Through the structure of NEWGEN, in a way, he was the first one to become a big star from it.
SM: Yes, and there wasn’t really any structure, at all. It was a pot of money that was just gifted to designers. There wasn’t any contact between the BFC, as it stood then, and designers at all. Meetings used to be - when I first started going to them - just a panel, a huge panel, of 40 people sitting in a room. Retailers and journalists and I don’t know who… official people… and designers were never present at all, just people wafting money in front of them, saying ‘yes, no, yes, no’ without having any contact. And that was it. Since then it’s grown into something that embraces every aspect of what designers do.
KP: It’s done with so much more caution now, and experience. It’s really taking care of designers, nurturing them from college, and using NEWGEN to grow them slowly, without throwing them out there to the lion’s den. There’s a very caring protectiveness, I think.
SM: We’ve always been underdogs and we just decided that we would try, really try, to do something about it. I remember being on the committee and it was decided that we would be the international showcase for young designers, and perhaps we would go to Paris, and maybe someone would take notice of us there. Our aspirations have - actually we’ve outstripped ourselves, we’ve surprised ourselves, haven’t we?
"Christopher was the wunderkind who, when we saw him... when he presented himself to us we knew that he had it in him to go a long way without any experience. And that made for the most incredible show."
So how are you involved with London’s art colleges?
SM: I was visiting professor at the Royal College for a while. And as a journalist I always wanted to know what’s happening, and who’s new and what they’re thinking. I would always go into Saint Martins and see students.
CR: I think as an industry a real interest is taken in the art colleges, and you’ll find that quite a few people who sit on the panel will spend time going into the colleges, and before even their graduate shows or MA shows appear there’s a good sense of the exciting talents that are coming through there… having said that, when you go to the shows there’s always a few surprises.
KP: I do think that student designers are all very savvy. They have learned that there’s an industry that they have got to grasp and understand now, and they realise that with designers who have made a success of their collections very early on from college, that’s come from having an interest in the business side of things… Students will go straight to the magazines themselves, they’ll show their clothes, they’ll get their clothes worn by people. That’s really interesting, they’re working very hard at making their names and establishing their product, whether they’re doing that through Facebook or Twitter, through social media, which is another way of telling a story.
SM: Another thing which is really, really important is that the Central Saint Martins MA is part of London Fashion Week. It’s a really important part of the schedule, and because of Professor Louise Wilson’s teaching it’s become somewhere that you go to look for the next trend, the next wave of what’s happening. Digital print came out of Central Saint Martins, with Mary Katrantzou and that generation who were doing incredible print and colour; and then there was the minimalist year, with Thomas Tait and Jackie Lee and Simone Rocha; and of course bodycon happened because of what Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab did - it’s really hard to remember how radical that was, because fashion had got all slumpy and timid. Christopher was the wunderkind who, when we saw him - well I met him before he graduated, because I’d been in to do a piece on the new 80s revival style that was coming up - when he presented himself to us we knew that he had it in him to go a long way without any experience. And that made for the most incredible show.
KP: Christoper was so advanced in every way, the way that he knew how to present his collection, the level at which he pitched it at immediately was really high-end, and he had such clarity in how he wanted to be seen and understood.
SM: The photographs from that show still are incredible.
CR: It was the most beautiful, beautiful late afternoon sunshine in Holland Park, open air runway…
SM: I remember Sir Philip Green and Kate Moss arrived and there was this big kerfuffle, and a big buzz around it, because Kate had just been signed to do her collection at Topshop. And by that stage, you know, Topshop’s hospitality had developed so that there was a place to have tea and drink outside, and it was just this amazing, amazing experience.
Yup, Topshop’s catering is excellent, I must say. What’s coming next from the colleges?
KP: It does feel like print’s taken a real stronghold over London, and I do think that there’ll be a wind of change against that this season.
CR: I think that’s moving into texture as well now, isn’t it? So it’s not just print it’s texture as well.
SM: There are other minimalists coming up as well, like Thomas Tait and Simone Rocha.
CR: It’s great seeing that contrast, when you do exhibitions or even when you’re doing vetting for NEWGEN, and you see the contrast between these fantastic and vibrant prints and then the minimalists, it’s great to see that you’ve got both of those coming through London.
"Alexander McQueen and the success of his collection paved the way for the platform to become more established, in the sense that he was the first one to start from there and grow all the way through."
How do you choose the NEWGEN designers?
KP: It’s really important for people to understand the process… to look through 150 applications, to whittle it down, the process is so thorough.
CR: We call everything in, and take over the whole floor with rails and racks and tables of accessories, and everyone’s given their tick list to go around and see who they’d like to see come through. Then in this room we sit round tables and each collection is brought in and debated.
SM: Then the next step is we interview designers on the shortlist. At that point it’s really intense. Sometimes even if we like the clothes, if you don’t get that sort of goose pimply feel about them, we don’t let them be part of the group, yet…
What’s your favourite moment from ten years of NEWGEN?
KP: The Christopher Kane show is one of those highlight moments for me; and the first McQueen show I ever saw, which I think was the rape and pillage collection, ‘Highland Rape’; and I think Mary Katrantzou’s objets d’art collection was pretty amazing.
SM: They were all completely game-changing collections, which you kind of live for - well that’s what I live for, and what I want to be in this industry for.
KP: And J.W. Anderson, last season, you can see the huge potential of someone like that. It’s always thrilling, London Fashion Week.
SM: In London everybody knows who they are, and you can see that they’ve reached into themselves, into their own creativity, and they’ve gone into it so deeply, and they express that and they absolutely shine, and astonish you! With Mary, the intensity of what she did, the objets d’art… And what about Peter Pilotto’s collections? Peter - he wasn’t somebody out of a British art college, he was from Antwerp - when he first came to us he had a very small collection and not even a lookbook, just a photograph of his pieces, and you could see that he was quite a good tailor and the print was interesting. So we started him very, very slowly, we just gave him a stand, and from that point to where he is now, it’s unbelievable… And Meadham Kirchhoff, they’re proper designers who think about politics and the way the world is, in the way that most designers don’t anymore, and I think they’re successors to McQueen really, in that way.
"In London everybody knows who they are, and you can see that they’ve reached into themselves, into their own creativity, and they’ve gone into it so deeply, and they express that and they absolutely shine, and astonish you!"
Which new designer are you most excited about this year?
SM: As chairman of the committee I can’t possibly comment…
KP: I have to say J.W. Anderson is really exciting me this season, as a new name.
CR: There’s a definite expectation for Jonathan now, in terms of where he’s going and what he’s going to achieve, and that’s where the support of NEWGEN comes, in making sure that he has the business support to deliver that.
KP: I think he’s definitely the one to watch. His shows are very polished in make, finish and detail. There’s no room for error as far as he’s concerned, he’s very rigorous.
CR: I’m really looking forward to the back-to-back show of Simone Rocha and Jackie Lee, Louise Gray’s show’s always incredibly exciting as well, the styling that comes round that. It has a very London feel to it.