February 6, 2008 9:59 pm

Low dollar tears strip off UK designers

London perches precariously in the fashion world like a model in high heels.

Every year there are instances of young British designers upping sticks to Paris and New York while fickle US fashion editors stay in Manhattan rather than travelling to UK shows. The French capital may have lost out to London for international finance but not for international fashion.

It does not take much, therefore, for buyers from the biggest US retailers to omit London from their diaries. And the weakness of the dollar against sterling in the past 12 months coupled with a deterioration in retail confidence on both sides of the Atlantic seems to have been enough to deter many of the biggest stores from attending London Fashion Week, which starts on Sunday.

Ann Stordahl, executive vice-president of Neiman Marcus, said that for the first time her fashion director Ken Downing would not be coming to London. “Some designers have been able to absorb some of the currency conversion rate of the retailers to keep the relationship, but it’s generally the big brands who can do that,” she said.

Niche UK labels and struggling young designers do not have the luxury of placing voluminous orders with low-cost manufacturers in east Asia. The small number of units mean the London area is the only choice for production, and it comes at a price.

It does not mean that deals between US retailers and British designers will not be done – but they are likely to be on tighter terms than previous years with US retailers unwilling to pay premium prices. The business is also likely to take place later this month in Paris.

Just the cost of visiting the UK can be enough to deter US visitors. Ikram Goldman, the owner of a famous high fashion boutique in Chicago, said that while she strongly supported London designers, she would not be visiting the city this year. Even though the event’s organisers had offered to pay her air fare and put her up in a hotel, the price was just too high.

Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, acknowledges that there has been an impact from the stock market slide, dollar weakness and poorer economic outlook.

“Looking at the people who have pre-registered to come to London Fashion Week we have had some fallout from the US which coincided absolutely with the market crash.”

Although big names such as Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom will not be represented “they will still send a full complement, including their buyers, to Paris”.

This is cold comfort for the event in London but considerable solace to designers, many of whom habitually do most of their business in France.

And the hope for Ms Riva and her team is that emerging economies can take up some of the slack. “It’s not just about the US at the moment. I do think that if this had happened a few years ago with the squeeze on the US it would have been far more serious.”

One sign of a rising fashion interest in the east is that Vogue China will be covering the event for the first time. “We’ve even got someone from Vogue France and, frankly, the French press are the hardest to get across the Channel,” said Ms Riva. The missing stable-mate? US Vogue.

“We’re not the biggest, we’re certainly not the strongest, we don’t have the big brands to financially bail it out,” she says. “What we are is the most interesting, the most creative, the most dynamic.”

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