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The perils of starting a new London fashion brand... by the people doing it right now

 (iMaxTree / Ahluwalia)
(iMaxTree / Ahluwalia)

The laminate floor in a disused back room on the sixth floor of Tate Modern is currently experiencing an unusual amount of foot traffic. The space, under the instruction of the emerging British designer Aaron Esh, is being transformed into a venue for his debut show at London Fashion Week, where he will present a co-ed collection and unveil his womenswear for the very first time on Monday. The space ‘spoke to him’, he says, because ‘it reminded me of a flatshare in my student accommodation… it’s urban, unpretentious and raw.’

Esh, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2022, knows that capturing attention within a schedule of big-name designers — including Erdem, Burberry and Simone Rocha — is key. Shows last just a few minutes, and it’s hard to stand out. ‘Everything is ultimately about content,’ says the London-born designer, who is project managing his own show that is being supported by Newgen — the British Fashion Council’s funding initiative for emerging talent. ‘I wanted to be able to control the lighting, the vibe, the tone of the photography… This is really my chance to communicate visually the brand’s point of view.’

Just two seasons in, Esh has racked up an impressive roster of stockists that includes Browns Fashion, LN-CC and SSense. And Newgen’s backing for AW23 proves that he is one of London’s most promising young designers. The BFC initiative, now in its 30th year, is renowned for its support of designers in the earliest stages of their career and has become a fashion code for predicting star designers in the making. Alumni include Alexander McQueen, Simone Rocha and Erdem alongside Matty Bovan, Ahluwalia and Molly Goddard.

A 2018 turquoise tulle dress by Goddard, which went viral when it was worn by Rihanna, is now displayed among 99 other works of iconic pieces of British fashion history in an exhibition dedicated to Newgen at the Design Museum, alongside major pop culture moments such as Björk’s swan dress by Marjan Pejoski. Opening this week, the exhibit, titled Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, ‘celebrates the energy and vision of London’s young designers’, according to co-curator Rebecca Lewin. ‘London is a globally influential city that [fosters] their talent and creativity.’ Through the city’s reputation and Newgen’s support schemes, London offers a ‘foundation for very young designers to establish brands so soon after graduating’.

The exhibition is guest curated by Sarah Mower, the BFC’s ambassador for emerging talent and a tireless champion of young designers, who wanted to highlight how ‘London produces wave after surprising wave of original fashion talent’. Why does she think that is? ‘The unique, combustible mixture of London’s art school education which draws students from all over the country and the world — and teaches individuality, questioning everything and getting together with friends to do it. It’s the myriad subcultures and creative friendship groups formed in clubs.’

It’s an incredibly challenging time to be a fashion designer, let alone one at the start of their career. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, sky-high city rents and Brexit affecting everything from non-UK trade to material costs, many creatives are treading water. Indeed, more established names that have previously come through Newgen are struggling, too. Take Christopher Kane and Michael Halpern, who both announced the closure of their eponymous labels this year alone. ‘We’re based in Hackney Wick and studio space is becoming unaffordable,’ says Irish designer Robyn Lynch, a Woolmark Prize finalist who established her brand in London in 2018 — her aesthetic is a modern mash-up of Aran knits and techy sportswear. ‘We have cash flow problems and have been trying to focus on direct-to-consumer to help that, but being a small team of two makes it very challenging.’

Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, also notes that ‘the Government’s decision to remove tax-free shopping has had a significant impact on our designers. This, combined with uphill battles against the Instagram algorithm, the trend for celebrity creative directors (see Pharrell at Louis Vuitton; Dua Lipa x Versace and Kardashian-everything) — amid an industry still suffering the financial effects of the pandemic and a shift in consumer buying habits — one wonders why any young designer would even want to bother. Who’d be mad enough to start their own brand, let alone spend cash on a show?’

‘Hosting a show at LFW is a significant [financial] undertaking,’ adds Rush. ‘Our small, independent brands are operating with small cash reserves and a junior workforce on relatively low salaries. Newgen’s financial contribution towards costs has never been more needed.’

Esh and Lynch are both quick to quip that they owe a lot to Newgen. The financial support has enabled Lynch to focus on ‘the collection, the casting and styling’ rather than ‘worrying’ about costs for a production team. She also thinks the Newgen stamp is a seal of approval next to her brand’s name. ‘It comes with additional brand exposure and industry recognition.’ It can help drive attendance, which turns into social media metrics. It also helps with future sponsorship or associated prizes: Saul Nash, another Newgen designer whose work centres on technical garments and fluid fabrics, won the Woolmark Prize in 2022, while Esh is a finalist of the LVMH Prize this year.

Esh says Newgen has helped him elevate his design career to the next level. ‘You have to graduate from being a graduate,’ he says. ‘Saint Martins doesn’t really teach you what VAT is… from legal to production to contracts, what the BFC and Newgen provide is invaluable.’ The support, which also includes business seminars, helps designers to become functioning, financially viable brands. ‘Every designer included in the Rebel exhibition, well, there’s a reason their labels survived.’ Nash agrees: he says the BFC has connected him to sustainable material manufacturers and consulting firms such as Eco-Age to ensure he can stay on top of best-in-practice production. ‘Trusted services are often difficult to access early in business,’ he says.

Nourishing this talent, and shining a spotlight on fashion’s contribution to British culture at large, is paramount to ensuring it continues. ‘Fashion sits at the intersection of arts and culture,’ says Rush. ‘We’re known to have the best arts colleges in the world, and over the years our very best emerging talents have turned into global, high-end fashion brands.’

The late designer Alexander McQueen is one such example: his unique lens, which combined the exquisite tailoring of Savile Row with the macabre grit of a Whitechapel underpass, turned London, and its show schedule, into a world stage. Today, the British fashion scene is an international beacon — one that drives £37 billion of revenue to the UK economy, according to an independent report commissioned by the BFC.

‘This dynamic fashion culture is a precious and unique asset to the UK,’ says Mower. ‘It needs to be underpinned by access to art education, paying art teachers who inspire kids in schools everywhere — and by enlightened government policies which understand that creativity is our national superpower.’

Jewellery maker Alighieri, founded by Rosh Mahtani, is one such brand that has made its name on the world stage. Named after Dante, Alighieri swiftly garnered traction thanks to its distinctive talismanic necklaces, crafted using lost wax casting techniques. Founded in 2014 and now worth more than £2 million, the brand was supported by Newgen in its first few seasons, enabling Mahtani to present her collections at the showrooms in Paris, which opened her business up to buyers around the world. Today, she is stocked at Matchesfashion.com, Liberty and MyTheresa. ‘Newgen is wonderful at highlighting the talent of young designers at the very inception of their creative journeys,’ says Mahtani.

And it’s this creativity that London has become renowned for. The city is vast and the influences sprawling, and whether it’s the uptown, Victorian polish offered by Erdem, the whimsical wonders of Simone Rocha or the punkish energy of Chopova Lowena — the British capital has it all. ‘London has a fearless, unique energy,’ says Nash. ‘There’s an attitude of just making it happen, and the encouragement for people to be themselves that makes it a really exciting space to be in.’ Esh, who grew up in east London, agrees. ‘Growing up, the boys from East dressed very differently to the boys in West, and there’s such a difference in style codes and identities within this city,’ he says. ‘People from different cultures, backgrounds and parts of the city, to parties in different areas — they all have their own micro aesthetic.’ This juxtaposition informs his design eye today.

Lynch grew up in Dublin and tried to establish her brand there initially. ‘I was missing out on a lot of important meetings,’ she says. ‘London is an incubator and a melting pot. For young brands, it’s also a community.’ Less: there’s no place like home. More: there’s no place like London.