Climbing the stairs of London’s National Gallery to open the city’s third annual design festival in September, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, turned to festival director Ben Evans and said: “We need more showcases like this.”
Given the way other London-based festivals and trade fairs for the creative industries are steadily raising their profiles, expanding and spawning other events, the chancellor’s wish could soon come true. As well as the design festival, the capital has played host to a slew of other high-profile events during the last two months, including London Fashion Week and the London Film Festival. In the more staid world of book publishing the London Book Fair, well-established on the international business calender, launched a consumer-facing website to build awareness of the sector as a significant contributor to the UK’s creative economy. The events are important not only as a means of stimulating creative businesses, but also as a way of making the strength of London’s creative economy more tangible for those who dismiss it as a lot of hot air.
Mr Evans says the UK capital is an appropriate host for high profile creative business festivals. “London is unique in world cities. It has a breadth and depth of talent and activities that other global cities do not have,” he enthuses.
“London can claim to have over 20 sectors of design that are world class. Other cities, such as Milan with its cars, product and fashion design, can only claim to be leaders in a handful of areas.”
Jane Sheperdson, brand director of the fashion retailer Topshop, which sponsors London Fashion Week, agrees. “There is an attitude in London that you don’t get anywhere else. There is real freedom, not just creatively, to do whatever you want.”
That buzz inspired Topshop to sponsor the fresh talent strand of LFW, New Generation. “We are trying to place ourselves in between the high street and luxury designers so it is a perfect marriage for us,” she explains. In terms of international profile and street cred, it has worked. She adds: “There is no question that we have got value for money. It is the best investment that we made over the past four years.”
But one issue for London Fashion Week is how to add a commercial edge, says Jacqueline Collins, editor of the fashion industry bible, Drapers. “It is incredibly creative and supports new designers really well, but what happens is that once they are established, if they have aspirations to be international brands, they leave.”
The design brain drain is a focus both for Creative London, part of the London Development Agency, and for the British Fashion Council, which runs London Fashion Week. Graham Hitchen, head of Creative London, and John Wilson, the council’s chief executive, are working to restore the event’s status among international buyers. As part of their strategy the autumn/winter 2006/07 show has moved to February 15-19 2006 so high-profile fashionistas can squeeze it in on their way to Milan.
Mr Hitchen is also keen for The Times London Film Festival, 50 next year, to raise its commercial profile. Though the event is very consciously audience focused, it is slowly gaining ground on the international trade circuit with the 145 buyers in attendance picking up more films for theatrical distribution and broadcast in the UK and Europe, says festival artistic director Sandra Hebron.
“Typically two-thirds of the films screened at the festival don’t have UK distribution when they are screened,” she says. “In any given year there will be up to 12 titles bought for theatrical distribution during the festival and discussions started for other films bought after the event, and that number is growing.”
“London is a great place in which to sell your film because the audience reactions are really great,” explains LA-based producer and director Dan Ireland, a founder of the Seattle Film Festival whose latest film Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont premiered in New York last week.
The LFF’s increased business profile reflects a broadening of the festival programme say film industry insiders. Nick Martson, managing director of literary agency Curtis Brown’s media division, observes: “The quality of films fielded this year was much better, whereas Cannes seemed to struggle to get the quality.”
Though London festival goers are united about the creative quality on offer, they are less impressed by the cost of living and its transport system.
Emma House, exhibitions manager of the London Book Fair, which takes place in March and is second only to the Frankfurt Book Fair in global importance, acknowledges the problem. “There are issues about the cost of coming to London, but we are working at reducing costs for visitors through deals with the restaurant booking service Encore and travel discounts.”
Next year’s move from the Olympia exhibition centre in west London to the ExCel centre in London’s Docklands and close to City Airport should also ease transport difficulties for overseas visitors, believes Ms House.
Judging by visitor numbers to this year’s event, London’s reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world has not deterred overseas delegates. Their numbers rose 6.9 per cent, led by Asia, from where numbers were up by almost 50 per cent.
Mr Hitchen is not surprised. “Despite the fact that London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, people want to come here,” he says.