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In My View by Eric Musgrave: The British Fashion Council hits 40

Eric Musgrave
03 February 2023

I wonder how many people know it is just over 40 years since the British Fashion Council came into existence.

Well I do, as it is just over 43 years since I started writing about the industry as a news reporter on Drapers Record. Monday 28 January 1980 was my start date, in case you were wondering. (Yes, I am as old as I look).

At the recent Just Around The Corner show in Manchester someone said to me: “Oh I wish someone would get all these trade shows together to coordinate their dates better.”

I had to laugh because that, dear reader, was the one of the main purposes of the formation of the BFC. The confirmation of its creation came in a news story in the 7 January 1983 issue of DR (as the then-weekly mag was affectionately known in those far-off days).

Early agreements between the various exhibition organisers on venues and timing is a top priority for the council, readers were told, as the newly formed marketing organisation aimed “to rebuild London as an international fashion centre”.

On the inaugural committee was my boss, Gerry Saunders, the long-serving editor of DR. He had been called upon a year or so earlier to chair a body called the Fashion Industry Action Group or FIAG, out of which the BFC was shaped.

The desire – laudable, but as we all now know, impossible to achieve – was to bring unity to the UK womenswear industry. The plethora of domestic trade fairs, mainly in London in those days, and the UK’s attempts to carve a place for itself in the crowded international show calendar prompted industry bigwigs to turn to Gerry to act as impartial “honest broker”.

In his early 50s by then, Gerry was very well respected and he did as good a job as anyone could have done of negotiating the pact that brought disparate sections of a huge industry together.

The first BFC chairman was Cyril Kern, chief executive of the premium British womenswear brand Reldan, which was one of the most well-respected companies of the day.

As well as Gerry, the FIAG contingent steering the young BFC comprised high-class dressmaker Murray Arbeid (representing the top level of the UK “designer” market), John Olivier, the boss of Styleman, the UK arm of the German manufacturing group Steilmann, which was the largest clothing manufacturer in Europe at the time, and irrepressible PR supremo Lynne Franks, who had fingers in virtually every fashion pie going.

Representing large and classic British manufacturers on the BFC committee – via the mainstream British Clothing Industry Association (BCIA), which some years later became the UK Fashion and Textile Association – were Roger Morris of outwear maker Gloverall and Terence Deekman of the then-vast Courtaulds group.

Looking after the interests of export-minded British manufacturers who belonged to the Clothing Export Council (CEC), whose work these days is also handled by UKFT, were Achillea Constantinou of fashion brand Ariella, Roy Taiano of mainstream wholesaler Shubette and Monty Marks of the well-regarded John Marks womenswear brand.

Admin for the BFC was handled by the CEC, which meant the new trade body was immediately linked to an existing trade body.

BFC chairman Cyril Kern was suitably bullish in his first statement to the press: “The formation of the group is a most welcome first step towards a healthier UK fashion industry. It is now up to all parts of the industry, retailers and manufacturers alike, to co-operate and work together.”

Fine words and fine sentiments indeed but somewhere along the past four decades those aims, if they were ever achievable, were forgotten. Inexorably the BFC became less inclusive and much narrower in its scope.

It had many years as slightly odd part of the disparate BCIA, whose principal task for quite a while was trying to look after the concerns of a fast-disappearing UK manufacturing sector.

Since the BFC gained its independence from BCIA / UKFT nearly a couple of decades ago it has become more exclusive and, to my mind, more detached from the real power of the UK fashion industry.

I have felt for many ears that the BFC has done a good job representing a very small, London-focused elite, once known as the “designer sector”, while actively barring or at least actively discouraging involvement from any companies that did not fit its own self-defined criteria. It long ago let go of any mainstream, even premium mainstream, involvement.

I can think back to plenty of good and successful British womenswear brands that felt they had been unfairly excluded from the London Fashion Week schedule – including the static British Designer Show and its successors, not just the catwalks parade.

I once asked a BFC executive what defined a British “designer” company. “Anyone we accept on our roster” was the not-entirely-illuminating reply.

The BFC has done an excellent job in recent years at presenting itself to successive governments as something like the voice of the UK fashion sector when really it speaks for a tiny minority. It gets the receptions at 10 Downing Street, its staff and participants are regularly awarded goings in the Honours Lists and, to put a crown on its marketing nous, it even got Queen Elizabeth to attend a catwalk show in February 2018.

Could that original BFC committee have ever dreamed of achieving such an accolade?

Realistically, 40 years on, the original BFC’s declared intention of “putting London back alongside the international fashion leaders Milan, Paris and New York” remains wishful thinking. With the possible exception of Burberry, with sales of about £2.8bn, and Kering-owned Alexander McQueen, which might have sales of £0.5bn, the UK lacks brands with the commercial clout of its European and American rivals.

At best, the modern London Fashion Week’s USP is as a showcase for the offbeat and the “creative”, a handy adjective that seems to be opposite of “commercial”. Press, and in recent years influencers, have long outnumbered major foreign buyers at the events.

The BFC’s other aim of bringing some sort of sensible order to even the domestic show schedule, for the benefit of domestic and international buyers, never worked, as anyone trying to plan attendance (as an exhibitor or buyer) at JATC Manchester, Scoop, INDX Woman, Harrogate Fashion Week, JATC London and Pure last month and this month will confirm.

I am afraid the reality of the fashion industry - at once its weakness and its strength - is that it is not, never has been and never will be, a single entity.

After four eventful decades, good intentions are not going to change that.

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