Nine years ago, Alexa Chung was at London fashion week as a Mulberry muse, watching from the front row as the £750 Alexa satchel named after her starred on the catwalk. This weekend she is back in a different guise, taking her first bow as a designer, when her Alexachung label takes to the catwalk in Bloomsbury on Saturday morning.
It is all change on all fronts at London fashion week. A shake-up has resulted in the most radically different schedule in years. Chung’s debut is followed by the first London catwalk show by Victoria Beckham, a trophy transfer from New York fashion week. Monday will be dominated by the debut at Burberry for Riccardo Tisci. The multiaward-winning fashion designer, with a cult following and an appetite for controversy, has promised to reinvent London’s biggest luxury brand – a reboot with the potential power to change what British fashion stands for.
There is a new mood of bankability in British fashion. “The latest statistics are unequivocal. The industry is now worth £32.3bn, and growing three times faster than the rest of our economy,” said Justine Simons, the deputy mayor of London on Friday, before taking her seat for J JS Lee, whose show took place alongside those of fellow designers Bora Aksu, Matty Boven and Ashley Williams on the first full day of fashion week.
Last week’s announcement that Chanel is to move its centre of global operations to London has further bolstered commercial confidence, and a Downing Street reception for fashion week on Tuesday is expected reflect a newly businesslike mood. What is more usually a cocktail-hour celebration of design talent and creative excellence will this time be an afternoon reception “focusing on the fashion business and the importance of international trade”.
Talking about her transition from muse to founder and creative designer of a label, with a team of 30 employees, Chung said: “It might look like a weird trajectory from the outside, but it’s no surprise to me that I’m in this position now.
“What it signifies is that people are more openminded about what being a fashion designer means. We are less hung up on provenance. If a person wasn’t trained to make a dress, does that put you off the dress? Does it matter, if it’s a beautiful dress and it makes you feel great when you put it on?”
Prepping for the show from her office in Dalston, east London, Chung namechecked Beckham and Kanye West as designers from non-traditional backgrounds who have made an impact on fashion week.
Holed up in her Hammersmith headquarters in west London with two days to go before her show, Beckham pronounced herself “delirious” with nerves at being in the London fashion week spotlight. Some of her most loyal customers are flying in from Australia and Mexico for the occasion. “I’m always under scrutiny. And yes, I always feel it, but I try to ignore it and to focus and do the best job I can. And I try to keep my sense of humour, because that helps,” she said.
Marking her 10th year as a designer, Beckham is ready to put her “foot on the gas” and expand her brand, with a beauty range in the planning stages. “I have learnt a lot being at New York fashion week, where we were surrounded by very business-minded brands,” she added.
Chung’s latest collection is based on what people wear in transit. “Airports are such emotionally charged places. I travel a lot, and I people-watch. And I love that British thing of wearing your holiday outfit home but with a sensible jacket because if you are British you are never not thinking about the weather,” she said.
Of her own icons, the 34-year-old said: “I’m of an age now where I’m thinking, what happens when you’re not the famed beauty any more? When reality sets in? I’m interested in people navigating that next decade. In other words I’m still Googling pictures of Jane Birkin but now I’m looking at what she wore in the 1980s.”
Having previously staged off-season, guerrilla-style events, Chung and her label’s managing director, Edwin Bodson, came round to the view that “fashion has a heartbeat, and if you want to have a real business you have to hitch your wagon to the catwalk system”.
Last season, fashion week attendees consumed 20,000 cups of espresso and 5,000 glasses of prosecco – but this season the industry is hoping for an even more impressive set of statistics. There are early signs that this London fashion week may be the most diverse yet in terms of models. Analysis of February’s catwalk shows across New York, London, Milan and Paris found that models from Bame backgrounds made up 32.5% of those featured on the runway. Early reports from castings for the London shows suggest the figure for this London fashion week may be closer to 35%.