London Fashion Week’s move from the grandiose 18th century architecture of Somerset House to the grittier in-comparison Brewer Street car park has seemingly given the event a reality check. The collections presented are more grounded and less flamboyant than seen in seasons past. However, grounded does not mean dull.
Fashion week is still a feast for the eyes but it is now offering more substantial, highly relevant, food for thought also. Yes, it also means another stylised protest on the catwalk. This season Vivienne Westwood Red Label brought the protest to us - in a similar way to how the Dame brought an anti-fracking demonstration to the doorstep of David Cameron’s constituency home in a tank. Ahead of her SS’16 show on Sunday evening, Westwood held an anti-establishment protest titled ‘Fash Mob’. Models paraded the streets carrying placards reading “Fracking is a Crime”, “Austerity is a Crime” and “Politicians Are Criminals.”
Vivienne Westwood Red Label Spring / Summer 2016, photo by Vogue Runway
The collection she presented on the runway was titled ‘Mirror The World’ because, as she explained to The Guardian last week, “you have to understand the world you live in, and you should be a little splinter that mirrors the world.” Westwood’s grievance with austerity wasn’t limited to just a picket board though, and this particular slogan foreshadowed what was to be mirrored in the collection to come. There was less style, more substance. Minimal embellishment, structured tailoring and an overall tameness - a similar approach to this was also seen at Topshop Unique.
Austerity is a serious problem that became most prominent after the financial crisis of 2007-08. It proved to be especially worrying for luxury fashion brands given that, by definition, austerity is an economic condition that does not allow for luxuries - in this case, ostentatious luxury fashion. In times of cutting back, consumers are less likely to spend on non-essentials. This doesn’t just apply to Europe. In February this year, luxury Paris-based group LVMH recorded its first fall in operating profit in five years, which was said to be due to slowing demand from Chinese shoppers, who themselves are enduring a less-vibrant domestic economy and a growing anti-wealth sentiment. This drop in spending on luxury fashion is likewise being seen with Russian shoppers too as a result of the tensions between their homeland and Europe.
Strategically this is the time for the most overtly zealous of brands to adopt a less ostentatious, more discreet approach to luxury design. Collaborations can be one route, as seen taken by the likes of Sophia Webster with Barbie and Mary Katrantzou with Adidas. This can help gain capital for reinvestment. However, these collaborations can also negatively dilute or weaken the exclusivity of a brand. They’re also regularly trend-led, when buyers are often looking for statement one-off pieces.
The matter of exclusivity is key complexity in navigating the path ahead. Given the digital age that we inhabit in which everything is overtly exposed, luxury brands risk become trivialised and too ‘common’. Over-exposure is the kryptonite of any luxury fashion brand. Remember the over-licensing of Gucci’s double-G monogram and Burberry’s beige nova check in the nineties and early noughties? It was a deep hole that took the talents of Tom Ford and Angela Ahrendts, respectively, for them to get out of. Since, luxury by definition is "an inessential, desirable item, which is expensive and/or difficult to obtain”- exclusivity is vital.
This balancing act between rarity and austerity is a tough one. There will always be an audience, even if it becomes smaller, for the high-price items and to sell one of those has the same impact as selling 2,000 lower-priced pieces. Likewise, luxury fashion houses ultimately don’t want to become too accessible, because in doing so, they would loose their appeal. Part of the allure of these brands is that they endorse a fantasy that entices individuals into wanting to be a part of it.
Yet they still need to make sales and, during a time of austerity, that means coming up with new strategies, tighter collections, and smaller budget runway productions. It means employing celebrities to wear and market their pieces, communicating increasingly with buyers on social media and opening up their world to a wider audience, many of whom would years ago have never even made it through the doors.
We live in the age of accessibility. The goal is to gain such exposure without undermining the ‘luxury’ appeal. I’m interested to see how this continues to pan out throughout the rest of fashion week and across the sales of this season’s wares.
Words: Jamal George-Sharpe
Image source: Vogue Runway / PA