The appeal of true Brit

Image of Vanessa Friedman

The news last week that Alexander Wang would be Balenciaga’s new creative director had the fashion world all a-twitter (literally – they were tweeting up a storm).

Despite all the hoo-ha surrounding the choice of the very young New York-based designer, in some ways I was just as struck by the rumoured candidates that didn’t get picked. Because they were, largely, British (or honorary Brits): Thomas Tait, JW Anderson, Mary Katrantzou and Christopher Kane, who had been the rumoured frontrunner. And Balenciaga is not the only recent fashion job opening where the headhunting focus has been on the UK. Stylist Katie Grand just did a niche collection for Diego Della Valle’s Hogan line, while media chief Jefferson Hack did the same for Tod’s. Erdem Moralioglu’s name had been on the shortlist for everything from Dior to Schiaparelli (OK, he was born in Canada but he went to the Royal College of Art and works out of London, is on the schedule at London Fashion Week, is favoured by both the Duchess of Cambridge and Samantha Cameron, and, to most intents and purposes, is considered a British designer). Finally, Italian designer Alberta Ferretti announced that Natalie Ratabesi, a Central St Martins graduate, would be the new (and first) creative director of her Philosophy line.

In other words, though British institutions are not getting the greatest rap these days, between the Leveson report into the press, and the BBC scandals, there is one area at least worth celebrating: fashion. It’s been years since I’ve heard as much buzz about British designers as I have in the past few weeks. And, as uncomfortable economic times make it less likely that any luxury conglomerate is going to commit the capital necessary to launch a major new brand, young London Fashion Week-ers have become the go-to names on everybody’s list of potential creative directors. Odds are one of them is going to end up at the helm of a big house in the next year or so. I’d put money on it.

The British government has clearly figured this out, with Samantha Cameron acting as an “ambassador” for the British Fashion Council and showing up to present a gong at the recent British Fashion Awards to none other than Moralioglu (he won the “New Establishment” award); meanwhile, JW Anderson also got a nod (for Emerging Talent, ready-to-wear) just before it was announced that he would become the “first collaborator” in Donatella Versace’s new strategy for her younger Versus line. This involves showcasing one-off niche collections by new names (notably, prior to said “new strategy”, the Versus designer for the past few years was none other than ... Christopher Kane).

After all, if the rest of the world is ogling this new crop of UK designers and acknowledging their talents, the UK better make them feel valued before, like previous generations of designers, they take off for bigger fashion week shores.

UK designers have not been this in demand since that time in the mid-1990s when every French brand worth its heritage wanted a new St Martins/Royal College grad at its helm, and John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Hussein Chalayan were creating shows worthy of myth. That was the faddish period that gave rise to Matthew Williamson’s brief stint at Pucci, Julien Macdonald’s equally short stay at Givenchy, and Antonio Berardi’s migration to Milan fashion week.

In the noughties, British women Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, Hannah MacGibbon and Clare Waight Keller were in the spotlight. But they shied away from the whole “Cool Britannia” thing – the talk about them focused more on their gender, and whatever qualities of understanding that involved, and less on nationality.

It was only two years ago that the death of Alexander McQueen seemed to mark an official end to Cool Britannia, with pop culture having moved on, in fashion as in film and music. But now I am thinking I may have to reconsider that position. Except the new crop of fashion talent doesn’t represent Cool Britannia exactly. Creative Britannia, yes. Post-Christopher Bailey’s-Burberry Britannia, where niceness has proven to be a winning trait, maybe. Conceptually balanced Britannia? It’s not catchy but it might be accurate.

Indeed, if there is a trait that marks the new Brit gang, it would seem to be humility. Which is not to say Kane and co don’t have quite healthy egos – any youngster who thinks they can start their own brand almost right out of school and withstand the slings and barbs of twice-yearly reviews has to have a pretty high and resilient opinion of their own skills. But they recognise that it’s less about them than about their work; less about putting on a show (or at least a personal show) than putting on clothes. Less about dressing themselves up for their runway bow than dressing their customer. And so the industry has recognised them, in turn, as the fashion flavour of – what?

Not the moment, and not the month. Maybe not even the season. But quite possibly, the 21st century’s teenage years.

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