There’s something up at the Liberty department store. It is a Saturday morning in early February, and the fourth floor is swarming with anxious-looking designer types clutching portfolios and cardboard tubes and dragging wheelie cases. According to organisers, some 569 are in attendance today. It looks like a casting call for Project Runway: Department Store. And, in a way, it is.
To be specific, it is the Liberty Best of British Open Call, an initiative launched last April by the store’s buying director, Ed Burstell, which involves designers showing their wares to Liberty’s textile, furniture and fashion buyers, including Yasmin Sewell and Eleanor Robinson, and Sarah Mower, the British Fashion Council’s ambassador for emerging talent.
Dressed in a chalk striped suit and steely grey cashmere scarf, a can of Diet Coke clasped firmly in his hand, Burstell weaves among the crowd. “The quality we have seen today, across all areas of design, has been exceptional,” he says. Burstell, a native New Yorker, joined Liberty from the US department store Bergdorf Goodman in 2008, and conceived of the open call as an opportunity to champion home-grown talent.
A case in point: newcomer Alexandra Fagan, whose luxury belts were discovered at the 2009 event and within weeks were selling on the shop floor. Demand was so high she has had to expand her business, Beauchamps (prices from £50, www.beauchamps-online.com), to include a bespoke bag and belt-making facility. Fagan is among 20 designers who were chosen by Liberty last year; in store their work can be identified by special tags indicating they were discovered at the open call.
Many of the next round of Fagan wannabes have been queuing since 7am. If the initial show-and-tell goes well, they meet Burstell himself, the final word on whether the designs are good enough to sell on the shop floor.
“You know, I’m sure there are hundreds of designers who stand outside gazing up at the Tudor front wondering how on earth they will ever get a foot in the door,” he says. “Thanks to events like this, things just got a whole lot easier.”
Something has caught Burstell’s eye. Over at one of the fashion desks a film crew is circling a male model who disrobes to reveal a diamond-encrusted G-string. “Oh it’s that guy again,” sighs Burstell. “He was rejected at the first Open Call we did in April 2009, but it looks like he won’t give up!”
So what are the buyers looking for? “I am looking for something interesting, which will sell,” says Yasmin Sewell. “We all go to the usual trade fairs and fashion shows, but when something is plucked out and put in an environment like this, it makes you see it in a different way.” Sitting beside her, Eleanor Robinson adds: “We are also seeing a lot of people leaving their old professions through redundancy or choice and turning to design.”
Once such applicant, former City marketing manager turned fashion designer Aba Sasaako, didn’t make the final cut this year, but felt encouraged nonetheless. “Within minutes I was given the names of four other retailers I could approach,” says Sasaako. “Yasmin and Eleanor actually handled my dresses, advising me that some pieces were too heavy and that I should remove some linings. It was really constructive advice.”
London-based designers Polly Wilkinson and Harriet Barford, however, have made it through to a meeting with Burstell, and nervously await his verdict. They are here because their label – Draw in Light – impressed Sarah Mower earlier on, especially a pair of hand-dyed “jeggings”, a cross between a skinny jean and a legging. “If we don’t get this, we will have to resort to knocking on doors and dragging our clothes rail around with us,” says Barford gloomily. At which point Burstell arrives, and the nervous designers are summoned. As luck would have it he agrees with Mower and they are in. As to how many others will be chosen from the 35 names on his shortlist – you’ll have to visit the shop to find out.