“Three’s a trend!” somebody trilled on Twitter, when the news was announced that H&M would be doing a show at the forthcoming Paris Fashion Week. The Swedish behemoth is the latest in joining the fashion week gang, following similar announcements from two UK British high street chains to stage events at London Fashion Week, with Whistles doing a small presentation of a special collection and River Island debuting its collaboration with Rihanna, also in London. Three chains doing their fashion week debuts in one season makes it a story but nobody can really be surprised by how far the high street (or for the purpose of international speak, mass produced fashion) has come in the last decade. From the early ground-breaking designer collaborations to sponsoring fashion designers, graduate schemes and fashion week events to the present day, when it is completely feasible and appropriate for these brands to launch more “premium” collections that they deem proud enough to show, nestled in amongst high end designers on the schedule.
For all the downers and evils laid at the doors of mass produced fashion over the years, the fact is they have also ploughed a fair amount of money into supporting emerging designers (Topshop’s New Gen scheme, ASOS collaborations, River Island sponsoring Graduate Fashion Week) and established brands (H&M’s collaborations with starry designers as well as their recent student Design Award). These are moves that are part-philanthropic and part-strategic. To ally with the creative hub of fashion, shines a positive light on the high street's own product and injects an aspirational quality that has over the years, blurred the lines of distinction between what’s high street and what’s designer - you could argue that at present what is the difference between lusting after a killer statement Topshop Unique jacket designed by a savvy and creative design team and “dying” for an Isabel Marant jacket, also designed by a savvy and creative design team. When you look at product like/share sites like Pinterest boards, Polyvore and The Fancy, the level of “love” reads the same.
At this pivotal moment, when three high street heavies are about to enter into a high end sphere of fashion, I thought I’d get their thoughts on this upward shift as well as pick out some of the SS13 looks that are looking decidedly tempting. I also thought it was “high” time I did a bit of flag waving for a mostly British set of stores, without which, the dynamics of the way we consume fashion would be completely imbalanced. It’s also interesting that most of the brands I spoke to here talked of an element of pride when making the move to show at fashion week. People who get a bit sniffy about the high street might even read that as arrogance. I’m inclined to be open-minded about what is evidently an ever-changing fashion week structure, that does allow for more diversity in price points, so long as what we’re celebrating is still ultimately creative. Whether the brands make their credibility stamp or not remains to be seen but it will certainly be exciting to see how the high street pushes themselves to a new high.
River Island - It wasn't exactly a curveball of a surprise when it was announced that Rihanna had collaborated with River Island. Perhaps for those not familiar with this British high street brand (it has stores in Europe and the Middle East but not yet in USA or Asia), it seemed an unlikely pairing. "Rihanna approached us last spring looking for a fashion partner to help realise her designer ambitions," explains Josie Roscop, director of press and marketing at River Island. "She was attracted to RI because of our customer base which she felt was very similar to her fan base, the accessibility of our brand, British fashion heritage and London location – she loves London style and feels very at home here. Also the fact that RI is a family run and owned business means she could deal directly with a small team to work on the project." The collection will apparently consist of clothes aimed at "sassy young personalities" and has been co-designed with her longtime costume designer Adam Selman.
The collaboration is of course a starry one, and will attract global eyeballs on the brand. Opening Ceremony in the States and Japan will be stocking the collection. They effectively could have chosen any city to showcase the collection, given the star power of Rihanna but London felt like a natural show base for River Island and it's an opportunity for the brand to put their own aesthetic stamp out there as well as Rihanna's design ambitions, something which Roscop emphasises. "Showing at LFW gives the Rihanna for River Island a great platform to demonstrate to the fashion press and consumers the ambition both Rihanna and River Island have. In an industry full of celebrity collaborations we wanted to show the strength and fashionability of the collection and shine a light on Rihanna’s design talent. The British fashion industry and high street continue to lead and inspire fashion and River Island has been a key player within the British high street since 1948."
River Island may not have waded too deep into designer collaborations or been that involved with fashion week activity but with this megawatt star power collaboration, they will definitely make up a lot of lost ground. As someone who is admittedly cynical aobut celebrity collaborations, as far as I can tell, there does seem to be something quite intriguing about the pairing and no one can doubt Rihanna's passion about style and wanting to inject her own ideas in this collection. We'll see how the show plays out of course but this definitely marks a shift in River Island's positioning.
H&M - Swedish H&M group is something of an unstoppable juggernaut. With brands like COS, Monki, Cheap Monday, Weekday and now the newly conceived & Other Stories under their belt, their consistently high profile designer collaborations and the H&M Design Award (awarding EUR50,000 to a young student is mighty generous), the announcement that H&M would be showing in Paris didn't feel all that surprising. It's a culminating cherry that makes sense in the trajectory of extravaganza events that H&M have staged in New York in the last few years to promote their designer collaborations
Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s Head of Design spoke about the pending show, held in the grounds of Musee Rodin in Paris. "Paris is the eternal fashion city and we are proud to present our Autumn 2013 collection designed by our own in-house designers under supervision from myself. We show our seasonal collection each season in our showrooms all over the world, but now we are ready to present it in a different way. We are very proud of our own designers and our own fashion, as well as our designer collaborations. We felt that the time was right now to show and celebrate our own fashion through a fashion show."
It isn't exactly a separate or more premium collection but will be part of H&M's autumn collection for 2013 and will be widely available in over 200 stores in early September, within H&M's price range. It will however be presented and sold in a separate area as a point of differentiation.
Johannsson was also quick to emphasise that the point of showing in Paris was not necessarily to get clout points from the industry but to satisfy their customers. No doubt, there'll be much marketing hub hub around the show in Paris as well as the launch of the collection in store. It could well be a move to tap into the more fashion-savvy customer base, who follows seasons and collections and will perceive that there's something special or different about this key piece collection. Johansson heads up a 150 person design team, which does of course make you wonder how a unified and strong aesthetic will emerge from this "show" collection but the wonders of styling will of no doubt tie that all together. Again, we wait with baited breath.
Whistles - Whistles is perhaps the anomaly of the group, in that it is a little more premium and middle market in its price points compared to the other high street brands and that its decision to show at London Fashion Week is down to the fact that they are presenting a separate collection, which will be pitched to retailers as a wholesale and concession brand. It's long been my own personal go-to high street fave since Jane Shepherdson, the wonder woman responsible for turning around the fortunes of Topshop, joined the then-ailing Whistles as CEO of the company. What Shepherdson has done over the past five years is really to work on the design identity of the brand, giving its collections a desirability and longevity that is markedly different from other fast fashion offerings. It feels like you're buying an affordable contemporary designer brand, which has its own flavour compared to the likes of Maje, Sandro etc. Therefore the step up to show at London Fashion Week with a small presentation is very much in line with what the company's ambitions of expanding into new territories and hopefully attracting prospective buyers from the US, Japan, China, Russia and Europe.
Shepherdson really believes in London's ability to be a key fashion city, attracting those all important buyers and so their decision to show in London, as oppposed to Paris. "We're very much a British brand," says Shepherdson. "To do a first show outside of London wouldn't have made sense. It pisses me off that we'd have to to show in Paris. London should be a fashion centre."
The modest presentation isn't about marketing razz but about showcasing the design of a 25 look collection. The fabrics will be of a higher quality and the design will be in Shepherdson's words "edgier". "It leads the rest of the collection. It's the essence of what the brand is all about without the more commercial pieces."
Incidentally, much of the design team working with Shepherdson at Whistles, were also responsible for taking Topshop Unique on to London Fashion Week, one of many Shepherdson's ground breaking moves. "The main reason we started Unique was because we getting a lot of flack for copying designers. So we thought to hell with it, we're just going to go ahead and do it. We were hugely sponsoring NewGen at the time and it felt like a right thing to do. There's definitely room at fashion week for all different levels of fashion, celebrating the success of British fashion."
Shepherdson brings up a good point about this idea of celebrating British fashion at all levels. You could argue that a store like Topshop does as much for projecting facets about British fashion as the likes of Alexander McQueen or Stella McCartney, to a mainstream audience. For Whistles, Shepherdson just wants to spread the "effortless British cool" brand message further afield. What felt a little like a national treasured secret that I always bang on about to friends from abroad, will now make its first exicting steps towards international establishment.
ASOS - ASOS aren't hosting any events this forthcoming season at London Fashion Week but this web fashion giant has stepped up its design chops so much in the last five years as well as engaging with designers in so many different ways, that I had to get them to weigh in on what's happening in the high street sector. Last season, ASOS did dip their toes into London Fashion Week with a super one-off and highly bespoke event, celebrating Marios Schwab's collaboration with ASOS on their Kallisti lingerie range, at the Crazy Horse. "The Kallisti collection for Marios Schwab we felt was appropriate to be shown within the context of LFW," said Annette Burke, head of press at ASOS. "It's quite different from what we do at ASOS as this was positioned in a price point that was a little bit higher and the fact that Marios is a bit of a stalwart at LFW, it was very fitting to showcase what he'd done with ASOS in a similar light, on the day of his show." Perhaps it's the nature of ASOS being a web destination, but they are definitely canny with where they spend their resources in terms of physical events, and only stage them where they feel it's necessary or appropriate. I asked Burke whether ASOS would ever consider staging events centred around their many differentiated lines (ASOS Black, White, Africa, Salon, Revive etc...): "There aren't any immediate plans for now. It's not to say we never would. The Marios thing came off the back of it being so relevant. If it felt right, we'd definitely consider it."
ASOS underwent a few key personnel changes late last year, such as the departure of its buying director Caren Downey and womenswear design director Sarah Wilkinson so there will undoubtedly be a period of transition but what is clear is that ASOS are making strides towards expansion abroad, having already establishing strong markets in the US, Europe and Australia. On a selfish note, we can look forward to the upcoming ASOS Salon collection designed by CSM BA graduate Molly Goddard, one of my favourites to emerge from the 2012 class.
Topshop - I couldn't really round up the high street without mentioning Toppers. In a way, Topshop has set so many precedents in allying with grassroots London fashion and shouting out its London Fashion Week credentials that it's almost impossible for another brand to do something similar. They dominate London Fashion Week in that they have sponsored the British Fashion Council's NewGen scheme consistently for the past ten years. Their collaborations with London-based designers have been numerous, varied and highly attuned to the designer's aesthetic. J.W. Anderson's collection for Topshop last year was successful, not just in the UK but also in the USA and shifted an unprecedented amount of units and there'll be another collection from Anderson on the way imminently. Kate Phelan's arrival at Topshop as creative director has also heralded a very subtle aesthetic shift, most notably in the Topshop Unique collection. Gone are the heavily themed and slightly kitsch collections and instead we have a more grown-up Topshop Unique - aptly described by Phelan as the "big sister of Topshop". There's no longer any question about whether Topshop Unique deserves to be shown at London Fashion Week and arguably, they're the ones that have sparked off this new influx of high street brands' presence at fashion week. In the last two years or so, we've seen the store take charge in "owning" their physical spaces - secret gardens and coronation windows staged by Meadham Kirchhoff, styling take overs by key editors and style personalities and an awareness for visual merchandising and spacial design that most recently, sees Topshop working with an RCA interior design student to re-design the Topshop Boutique area in the Oxford Circus store. Of course, Asia is now the new playground for Topshop to expand into with a new flagship in Hong Kong set to open in May. I was a little bit weirded out by the Chinese New Year video that they recently put out but I suppose as with all brands doing their thing in China, marketing to Chinese customers will always be a learning curve. Asia marketing strategy aside, to doubt the mega powers of Arcadia Group and the creative prowess of the Topshop team would be a mistake. Topshop was and still is a high street game change and sustaining that will be a challenge they relish.