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London designers get a helping hand in a tough industry



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With its frayed denim outfits, Marques Almeida is making a name for itself on the London fashion scene thanks to a sponsorship scheme that has helped half the designers showing here this season.

Portuguese designers Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida have been winning rave reviews for their Nineties grunge-inspired collections since they started the label four years ago.

This season they expanded their repertoire further with a show at the Tate Britain museum on the last day of London Fashion Week on Tuesday filled with brightly coloured, ribbed knits, and layered tops, skirts and trousers in floral prints.

Such shows are a sure-fire way to attract buyers and press, and hopefully increase sales, but production costs -- notably hiring a venue and models -- can be crippling. "It's absolutely impossible without support unless you do it in a low-key way, and that's not going to get you the same result," Marques told AFP.

Since 2012 her label has benefited from support under the New Generation (NewGen) scheme, run by the British Fashion Council and high-street brand Topshop. They paid for the venue and production this season, which Marques estimates was worth up to 20,000 pounds (27,200 euros, 30,900 dollars), but she and Almeida still had to cover other costs worth as much again.

The costs of a more theatrical show with A-list models can spiral into the hundreds of thousands. NewGen supports young designers who graduate from London's fashion colleges, and previous recipients include the late Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and J.W. Anderson -- all of whom later secured investment from major fashion houses.

In fact, more than half of the designers showing on schedule this season benefited from either NewGen or Fashion Fringe, a similar sponsorship scheme, including Gareth Pugh, Simone Rocha and Matthew Williamson.

But for every McQueen there are countless others who fail to make it in a brutal business, and Marques is understandably wary of what the future holds when the money runs out. "We're very worried," the 28-year-old said. "We're taking every measure so our business is ready by then."

'Childish stupidity'

Warren Noronha won NewGen sponsorship in 2003 and at the time was tipped as the hottest ticket in London, lauded for his sensual designs and sense of theatre. These days, he lives in Los Angeles and works in digital marketing, having wound up his label in 2005. "I had no real production. When Barneys (department store) came knocking I couldn't fill those orders," the 39-year-old told AFP.

He notes that back then, sponsorship meant a cheque in the post. Now it comes with business advice, mentoring, industry contacts and the chance to meet buyers in Paris as part of the British-government supported London showrooms.

Marques said this side of things has been invaluable, admitting that she did not even know how to register her business at the beginning, and Noronha said he would have swapped the cash for more support. But he had no regrets, saying: "There's a certain amount of childish stupidity that you need to set up a label, at least in the way that I did it. That's gone."

Commercial pressures

Meadham Kirchhoff, whose punk-style clothes evoke the early days of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, had NewGen sponsorship for seven seasons up until 2010. The label divided critics but was stocked by Harvey Nichols and Browns and last year had a collaboration with Topshop.

But despite this apparent success, it pulled out of showing on the catwalk this season, citing problems keeping with the relentless demands of the fashion calendar. "What we made, we sold. Our problem has always been delivering what stores have ordered," Edward Meadham told Style.com in December, echoing Noronha's problems.

A spokeswoman for the label told AFP that it had not closed down, and was just "taking a break" from catwalk shows. But fashion blogger Susie Bubble warned its problems revealed flaws in an industry that remains scared of the unconventional. "Everything needs to be instantly sellable, commercial, and anything remotely madcap won't go the distance or even make it to the rails," she wrote.

"And yet we still dance under the masquerade of an industry that promotes the new, the exciting and the innovative." (Alice Ritchie, AFP)

Photos: British Vogue

JW Anderson
London Fashion Week
Marques Almeida
Meadham Kirchhoff
Vivienne Westwood