Fashion PR: London still leads the fashion pack

This year marks the 25th anniversary of London Fashion Week but, as Cathy Wallace finds out, the biannual festival of style still has the power to make or break a brand's reputation.

London Fashion Week venue: Somerset House
London Fashion Week venue: Somerset House

Even if this year did not mark the 25th anniversary of the British Fashion Council, there would still be a buzz around London Fashion Week (18-23 September).

It helps that this year British label Burberry has taken the decision to return to the capital's catwalks. British designer Matthew Williamson, who has shown in New York for the past seven years, has also chosen to come back to London. Finally, proving good things come in threes, iconic knitwear brand Pringle of Scotland, which has been showing at Milan in recent years, has announced it will come home to London Fashion Week.

In terms of international recognition, it seems London has cemented its place as one of the 'big four' fashion weeks alongside New York, Paris and Milan.

Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey says the decision to show at London was made because the UK capital is now 'the place to be', citing the Olympics and the 25th anniversary of the British Fashion Council: 'We are incredibly proud of our Britishness and this is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that in our home city.'

Mary-Adair Macaire, CEO of Pringle of Scotland, adds: 'This is a renewal of what our brand represented before the message got lost on the golf course.'

London can truly transform a brand's reputation and is universally recognised as showcasing hot new talent. 'London is very much known as a hotbed of new designers, which means the number of press and buyers that come here has really increased,' says Rachel Brandrick, head of communications at Matthew Williamson.

'I have seen the list of international press who are accredited to come this year and it is fantastic.'

But is this just a result of the British Fashion Council pulling out all the stops for its anniversary? 'I think it can keep it up,' responds Brandrick. 'All of the designers that were once young hopefuls are still showing in London. That is why people are going to come back again and again.'

Caroline Rush, joint CEO of the British Fashion Council, agrees: 'London's reputation has developed both through the diversity of designer business showing here, and through international PR and marketing campaigns that have delivered growth for our designers and our reputation.'

These strategies include established talent-spotting schemes such as Newgen, sponsored by Topshop, and Fashion Forward, which this year is being supported by the London Development Agency. Sponsorship of Fashion Week has always been the holy grail for many big brands, but the inclusion of the down-to-earth London Development Agency as a sponsor is a huge coup, says Jane Boardman, MD of Talk PR, which has worked with the British Fashion Council for many years. 'This shows Fashion Week has proper government support.'

The issue of government support has been a thorny one. Fashion Week used to be marked with a Downing Street reception, where the designer Katharine Hamnett once greeted then prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a T-shirt proclaiming '58 per cent Don't Want Pershing' (referring to the controversial American guided missile being deployed in West Germany), which went down in history as an iconic fashion moment. But there has not been a Downing Street reception for Fashion Week in decades - until this year when Sarah Brown invited the British Fashion Council to Downing Street for a party. Boardman cites this as a particular highlight of her time working on London Fashion Week. 'The Downing Street receptions added credibility and stopped the image of the powers that be looking down on fashion. The receptions showed it was taken seriously. To be invited back this year was such a big deal.'

This season there will also be a menswear showcase and a Newgen Men scheme, sponsored by Topman. This will be the first time there has been a menswear day at London Fashion Week. Kelly Reed, head of comms at Topman, says: 'In the past there has not been much point in showing menswear at London Fashion Week as buyers have closed their books, but this year some are keeping them open.'

But the biggest change of all this season will be the location. The British Fashion Council has packed its bags and moved to Somerset House. Over the years London Fashion Week has had several homes, including the Natural History Museum, Olympia and Battersea. Now for the first time, Fashion Week will take place in the heart of the capital, signalling the beginning of a new era for British fashion.

£50m - The value of media coverage generated during London Fashion Week

1.87m - The number of photographs taken by accredited photographers at London Fashion Week in February 2009

79 - The number of countries represented at London Fashion Week

POLL - BEST FASHION AGENCIES

We polled ten fashion editors from publications including Vogue, Love, InStyle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Red and Elle to identify the top five most influential fashion PR agencies.

1. The Communications Store Representing brands from Aquascutum to Versace, this London-based agency was universally nominated by our panel.

2. Karla Otto Ex-model Otto set up her agency in Milan in 1982. Her London office opened in 2001 and clients include Pucci, Dior Couture, Viktor & Rolf and Nike.

3. Relative MO Relative MO represents brands including Christopher Kane, Julien Macdonald and Mulberry.

4. KCD New York-based fashion PR and events firm, described by the late Gianni Versace as a 'professional relations' company.

5. Modus PR and Purple PR Modus represents Calvin Klein and Bally, while Purple has Donna Karan, Jade Jagger and Elle MacPherson's lingerie range on its books.

Research by Laura Davies

CONTROVERSY - THE SIZE ZERO DEBATE

The glittering showcase that is London Fashion Week has not always proceeded smoothly.

Most notably in recent years the event has acted as a focus for the debate around the physical size of the models. This was triggered by the death of two anorexic models, who starved themselves to death in 2006. Within months two more models had also tragically died.

Models weighing less than 8st 11lb were banned from Madrid Fashion Week and the Council of Fashion Designers of America recommended catwalk models be aged 16 and over. In the run up to London Fashion Week, the spotlight fell on this.

A PRWeek poll in 2007 found nearly 80 per cent of men and 90 per cent of women felt London Fashion Week had a duty to ban models that were a US size zero (UK size four).

But the British Fashion Council left it to designers to decide what size models they used. This was supported by just 13.5 per cent of the 1,380 people who were polled.

'At the time, it felt like the media were just bringing down everything that was good about Fashion Week,' says Raoul Shah, CEO of Exposure.

Although the media frenzy has died down somewhat, the topic still lurks in the background.

'Who knows if this debate is over?' says Jane Boardman, CEO of Talk PR. 'It is a very serious issue.'

Shah says the debate has moved on largely because fashion titles no longer rely on skinny cover girls.

'The first issue of Love had Beth Ditto on the cover,' Shah points out. 'Socialites seem to be the new faces of fashion.'

'Coverage does seem to have slightly shifted into other areas,' agrees Boardman. 'There is now a big debate around airbrushing.'

210 - The number of cans of hairspray Toni & Guy used backstage at London Fashion Week in February 2009

£20m - The amount of money London Fashion Week contributes to the city's economy

£100m - The value of orders generated through London Fashion Week.

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