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Backstage at Ashish SS16
Backstage at Ashish SS16Photography Daisy Walker

Are fashion’s changes putting young designers at risk?

Burberry, Tom Ford, Vetements and now Paul Smith are disrupting the fashion system – but what does this mean for emerging brands?

The fashion system is changing – not just in who’s heading it up, but in terms of the very way it’s operating. Last week, Burberry and Tom Ford announced that they would be merging their respective men’s and womenswear shows and be making them available to buy immediately, instead of after a six-month wait. Similarly, VetementsDemna Gvasalia revealed that they would be merging their shows – titling them ‘February’ and ‘September’ instead of AW/SS – and staging them outside of the fashion week schedule.

Yesterday, Paul Smith followed suit, announcing that he too would be disrupting fashion’s status quo by merging his design teams and diffusion lines into two collections for men’s and womenswear. Instead of proposing a ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problems with the current system, these brands are going their own ways. While such bold moves are all very well for the industry’s established brands – or in the case of Burberry, Tom Ford and Paul Smith, its giants – what does all this mean for its fledglings?

“While such bold moves are all very well for the industry’s established brands, what does all this mean for its fledglings?”

Stavros Karelis, buying director of Soho’s MACHINE-A (which stocks many small brands such as Richard Malone, Caitlin Price, Sibling and Ryan Lo), said that his response to these changes was one of concern. “When I first read the news about Burberry and Tom Ford, I thought of the emerging brands,” he said. “This is going to be extremely tough on them – they are already struggling right now.” His concern was largely grounded in smaller brands’ inability to compete – speed-wise – with their larger counterparts. “If big brands release collections immediately, emerging designers won’t be able to keep up – and when they do release a collection, it will be too late because buyers will have already spent their budgets on different collections.” The only way they would be able to keep up, he says, is if someone else is able to take over their production.

Production is a long and arduous process. Once designers’ shows are over, they prepare sale sheets and try and drum up interest with buyers. Once they’ve got confirmation and, with it, a deposit, they’ll order in fabrics and then find the best place to produce it, which is likely to be a factory abroad. It’s hard to predict which pieces from the collection they buyers will want to order. Creating an entire collection in advance of orders would therefore be a big financial risk – one that could have serious repercussions if it didn’t pay off.

Speaking off the record, one London-based designer said that they worried about how this retail-first model would affect their sales. They questioned whether customers would be able to understand why their collection would be dropping in stores six months after some of their competitors. “We’re all trying to compete for similar customers,” they said, “And they want stuff instantly. So if bigger brands are doing catwalk shows and then they go into a store when it’s fresh in their minds, they are going to be more drawn to that.”

But Karelis didn’t seem to think that all these changes were negative; in fact, he suggested that combining the men’s and womenswear collections like Burberry, Tom Ford, Vetements and Paul Smith would be a beneficial move for emerging designers. As it stands, many can’t afford to do both and some, like Nasir Mazhar, show both collections together already. Increasingly, we’ve seen fashion weeks become less gender specific – nowadays it’s almost seen as archaic to divide the world into two such definitive binaries. Claire Barrow, one of London’s most exciting new gen designers, echoed this sentiment. “I've always shown ‘men’ in the collection because I don't see myself as just a womenswear or unisex designer – it's just for whoever wants it can wear it,” she said. “Like, what's point of me doing a menswear season as well?”

Lulu Kennedy, founder and director of Fashion East & MAN (two non-profit initiatives which support emerging designers), also didn’t seem to think that the changes were wholly negative. “I think it’s interesting,” she said. “It’s going be an opportunity to rethink. It’s always good to have a reevaluation, isn’t it? Kennedy also suggested that the current system was one that worked for younger designers and that it most disadvantaged designers who are further along in their careers, straddling jobs at multiple brands, for which they have to create multiple collections.

Fashion is experiencing some tectonic shifts, the reverberations of which are going to be felt throughout the industry. While Burberry and Tom Ford’s retail-first model may work for them, it’s unlikely to be a viable option for small brands – it could even pose a challenge to them.