Caroline Rush on the British fashion industry

It seems that whether you’re Fashion Editor of the Cherwell, or Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, you are plagued by people who are doggedly dismissive of the fashion industry, often to the point of denial. Annoyingis the word Anna Wintour used to describe this phenomena, speaking at the Union last term.

Other words come to my mind, but if I wanted to convert one of these deniers I’d call upon Caroline Rush, who spoke this term to the Oxford Guild. Rush is Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC), which, in its own words, “is committed to developing excellence and growth in a sector that is a significant contributor to the British economy.” According to the 2014 report from none other than the Oxford Economics department, that’s a £46 billion contributor, to be precise.

But in spite of the figures, Rush and the BFC are no strangers to the industry’s deniers. In her talk Rush recounts how
the BFC, throughout its history, has had to prove to politicians that the industry is “much more beyond a few clothes on a shelf”.

Politicians prove to be less of a problem today thanks to the BFC’s “voice within Number Ten”: Samantha Cameron. “There is no other country that has that engagement [between their government and fashion council],” Rush informs me.

If all the world’s a catwalk, Samantha Cameron
isn’t the only mem
ber of the establishment that is promoting British fashion globally. Having just got back from America when we spoke, just before the birth of the royal baby, Rush can attest to the pulling power of the Princess across the pond.

Kate Middleton’s dress always attracts attention, whether it’s a see-through student-made dress, a Sarah Burton designed wedding dress or a maternity dress from ASOS. “We hear all these anecdotal stories,” Rush tells me. “She wore the dress, it sold out online within an hour and immediately they were asking for additional orders. Imagine the impact that can have on a small designer business, even a big designer business.”

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As much as the BFC’s work is taking British fashion abroad, Rush emphasises the importance of attracting young international talent to Britain, to be trained at “the very best colleges in the world”. Unfortunately, due to visa challenges, once these designers have been trained in Britain, some of them cannot stay here. This is something that “is constantly on the agenda” when the BFC are talking to the government.
Young international designers are a vital part of Britain’s notoriously different fashion DNA, which is part off-the-wall innovation, part history and heritage.
Rush has successfully brought big brands like Burberry back to London Fashion Week, making London a stop and not just a stop-over between New York and Paris during fashion month.

But I wonder whether with new fashion weeks popping up all over the map – as Rush says, “It’s always fashion week somewhere,” – the BFC feels added pressure with each season of London Fashion Week to keep up the cool factor. “I wouldn’t say we’re complacent,” Rush replies. Neither would I; this season they are moving from historical Somerset House to a car park in Soho.

It is still in London, though, where the industry’s buyers and press are. When I ask whether this British style we’ve been talking about would be more aptly described as London style, Rush is quick to assure me that despite its location, the BFC is not completely London- centric. Was it the style Rush saw growing up in Manchester? It certainly wasn’t the one I saw growing up in Coventry – a city with a wonderful array of deserted car parks I should note. Car parks and style aside, it is something the BFC are working on.

“We just did a pilot program in February with Marks and Spencer, to think about how they could support us and take content out to the regions. At the moment the physical presence of some of our retail partners is actually one of the best ways for us to communicate about the BFC.”

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Perhaps the more the British public learn about the BFC and its work, the fewer deniers we will have to face. And abroad? Well, they have “a brilliant network of Brits in the industry around the world” for that, like Anna Wintour for a start.