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An evening with: Caroline Rush CBE, CEO, British Fashion Council

Tom Bottomley
05 December 2018

Monday evening saw a mix of fashion industry faces gather at the W London – Leicester Square for a live on-stage discussion with Caroline Rush CBE and The Industry’s Editor in Chief, Lauretta Roberts. The event proved a real insight into the workings of the British Fashion Council.

Caroline Rush CBE will be celebrating 10 years at the British Fashion Council (BFC) in 2019, having joined in 2009 as joint CEO with Simon Ward. Her initial task was to reposition London Fashion Week (LFW), or more to point put it firmly on the map as a must-visit fashion extravaganza in the capital.

This was by no means a small task, particularly given the lack of resources at the time and LFW’s reputation simply as a possible starting point for young designers before they spread their wings and took their shows to the bigger stages of Milan, New York and Paris.

“The question was, what was London’s role in this global fashion economy?” says Rush. “The first job was to go out and talk to all those designers and brands that were showing in other cities. Also, London Fashion Week had previously been focused on the event, but it didn’t take in to account the audience that was coming to London, or the audience experience. We needed to change that.

“We also needed to ask what made us different? The answer being, we have the talent, creativity and innovation in abundance. What business doesn’t want to be associated with that?"

Caroline Rush, CBE

“We also needed to ask what made us different? The answer being, we have the talent, creativity and innovation in abundance. What business doesn’t want to be associated with that? We saw it as a real opportunity to go out and talk to those designers, explaining how it could be a brilliant platform for British businesses – both big and small.”

Burberry coming back to show in London proved the lynchpin, and a catalyst for others to follow. It was a real defining moment, especially given the brand’s global advertising power at the time.

As Rush explains, it’s now the power of social media, particularly Instagram, which has given others to the opportunity to reach a wider audience. When NET-A-PORTER founder, Natalie Massenet, joined the BFC as chairman in 2013, that was one of the first things she put a real emphasis on.

"Instagram was a gift because all of a sudden you’re not fighting against the advertisers, you could talk directly to your consumers."

Caroline Rush, CBE

Says Rush: “Embracing and embedding digital was so important and, when Natalie came in, she wanted to take that to the next level and explore how young British businesses could do more. After all, Instagram was a gift because all of a sudden you’re not fighting against the advertisers, you could talk directly to your consumers. With digital channels it also meant thinking globally, not just about what happens in the UK. London is all about fresh ideas and embracing the new, so we told designers to really think about what the most Instagrammable moments would be in their shows.”

It was pre-planning and the designers responded. The result was an immediate spike in the interest generated compared to the other fashion capitals during and after their respective fashion weeks. “I think fashion weeks have changed in that they’ve become this platform to showcase a collection and create a real marketing moment,” offers Rush. There’s also a new generation coming through that is just used to being fed instant information, and they will filter it themselves.”

What has come to the fore more in recent years is London Fashion Week Men’s, which started out as a day tagged on to the end of Fashion Week before becoming its own entity. January will see it move from its regular home on The Strand to The Old Truman Brewery in East London for the weekend, though the Monday shows will be happening back in the West End.

Rush explains the evolution of LFWM: “I have to give full credit to Lulu Kennedy, who is a brilliant talent spotter. While we were busy with womenswear, she saw this young group of creative menswear businesses doing these incredible instillations on the doorstep of London Fashion Week and the Natural History Museum. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot of buzz, particularly from the menswear press and retailers, so it made sense to for menswear to have its own platform. That’s easier said than done, because it requires sponsorship, money and infrastructure. So that’s when we tagged a menswear day on to the end of London Fashion Week. That had some success in terms of media coverage for those designers.”

In 2012, the decision was taken to create a standalone event for menswear, and something that celebrated both the heritage of menswear, with the likes of Savile Row and tailoring, but also the exciting street culture and young creative menswear designers coming through. “The menswear scene in London has exploded,” comments Rush. “It’s got that brilliant culture clash of the heritage and the newness.

“For us, menswear has become all about discovery. We want people to come to London, discover the new and be inspired. We take it on the chin that there aren’t the big international brands showing here, but that idea around discovery is something we hold really dear and are very proud of.”

With 180 The Strand currently undergoing development and renovation, it was agreed that January’s LFWM would be relocated, and Rush sees the move to The Old Truman Brewery as a good fit for menswear. “We’ll be having the weekend there, and then the Monday back the West End.

“We didn’t want to get completely put in that East End stereotype, because we also have brilliant contemporary and tailoring businesses, as well as important retailers, based in the West End. It’s important to still have a footprint there. But I’m really excited for the international audience to come and have two days, over a weekend, at The Old Truman Brewery, with Brick Lane and Spitafields close-by. It will be exciting and a real wake-up call at the beginning of January. Also, that’s where a lot of brands and creative industries are based these days, and the retail scene is blossoming around there.”

Though there’s the uncertainty of Brexit looming and all that it will bring, or not bring as the case may be, Rush is confident young businesses are on the right track. “The businesses we are seeing setting up now are digitally native and, particularly British designers, challenging the norm,” she says. “They are also really conscious about their footprint on the world, and that’s incredible to see. All of sudden they are asking the right questions and setting up their businesses to make sure they are fit for the future. It’s really inspiring.”

Rush flies to Miami on Thursday (6 December) for a meeting with David Beckham, now BFC Ambassadorial President. A big announcement is expected to be made shortly after, so watch this space. Then Monday 10 December will see Rush at the Royal Albert Hall for the Fashion Awards – featuring British and international brands and designers in equal measure, as well as a whole host of A-list celebrities. Rush reveals that the Fashion Awards are actually now the largest source of income for the charities which support hardship grants, scholarships, younger designer awards like NEWGEN and the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund. “It’s important that we continue to support the next generation of talent coming through,” she says.

Saturday clubs have also been set up at schools around the country to connect children from disadvantaged backgrounds with fashion and the arts. It gives some hope to the next potential Alexander McQueen, who was discovered and initially supported through NEWGEN himself.

While a positive outlook cannot be presumed post-Brexit, there are at least people like Rush, and her team at the BFC, who are making the difference and providing the British fashion industry with targets and opportunities for the times ahead. “It must not be forgotten that a lot of the global fashion businesses benefit massively from the talent pool that come from our colleges. If you walk in to most design rooms around the world, it’s full of designers who have been trained here,” she concludes. Long may that continue.

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