Her recent citation with an MBE for “services to the Fashion Industry” only confirmed to the wider public what the British fashion industry has known for years: few have done as much to ensure the rude health of London’s fashion designers than Sarah Mower. With 20 years of experience in the field, Mower brings a wealth of forthrightness and authority to her work as contributing editor for US Vogue (and vogue.com) and columnist for the Daily Telegraph. And it was her decade-long tenure as fashion critic for the pioneering website, style.com where her reviews attained a must-read status among fashion fanatics and designers alike. In her dual roles as chair of the NEWGEN committee and Ambassador for Emerging Talent for the British Fashion Council, Mower (aided by a crack support network of London’s finest) has been instrumental to the stratospheric rise of emerging designers such as Meadham Kirchhoff, Mary Katrantzou, Michael Van Der Ham among many others.
Growing up, what status did fashion have in your family? What was your start in the business?
I was brought up in Bath, and my parents were teachers – my mother art; my father engineering. Fashion had no overt status except that my mother and grandmother made clothes. Around the age of 10, I started doing fashion drawings of my own, with swatches of fabric snipped off my mother's remnants – I still have them! For my 13th birthday, I got a subscription to Vogue – an unbelievable luxury which changed my life. There was still no thought of a career in fashion, but when I went to Leeds University to study English and History of Art, I entered the Vogue Talent Contest, and was a winner that year. I always tell young journalists to go in for that – it gave me the confidence to think I could actually do something.
What was it in your character that drew you to fashion and does it still hold the same interest for you?
I think I see fashion in multiple dimensions – as a medium reflecting the ways we live and think. I love researching the history of it and watching new patterns emerge. I also really enjoy talking to designers and trying to get them to talk about how they design and why. I love the instinctive, mysterious aspects of fashion creativity and trying to analyse them. Now I'm old enough to know practically everyone in fashion, I really get a kick out of being able to connect young talent with people who can help build their careers and businesses. Also: I love clothes! You can't do much about how old you are – I am not a botoxer or filler – but I hold onto the idea that dressing well is the best revenge against ageing!
Are you comfortable with your power to make or break a collection?
Make or break? I don't know if I can do that personally. As the chair of the New Gen committee, I've asked an amazing panel of buyers and editors and high-level consultants to select designers for London shows and presentations – so decisions are collective. After that, designers get amazing support, both financial, and in every dimension of business from these experts and the British Fashion Council. So I think I participate in more making than breaking!
"You can't do much about how old you are – I am not a botoxer or filler – but I hold onto the idea that dressing well is the best revenge against ageing!"
A lot of critics have talked about how September 2011 was the best LFW in many years – when did you first notice the shift in people paying close attention to London designers?
The latest wave of attention came to London when Christopher Kane showed his first collection at Holland Park on an amazing late summer day in September 2006. Marios Schwab and Gareth Pugh were coming up at the same time. Then followed by Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic, Richard Nicoll and more recently Peter Pilotto, Louise Gray, Michael Van der Ham, Mark Fast, Mary Katrantzou.
What factors have been important in British designers being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their European or American counterparts?
It took most of a decade to get London to the level it's at today – with young designers exporting British-made clothes to the luxury stores of the world. First, you have to credit Professor Louise Wilson, who spends two years drilling the brains of each cohort of MA graduates to make them distinguish what it is they are supposed to be saying, and prohibiting any hint of the derivative. Then the economy has played its part – in a downturn there have been fewer jobs so young people have been inspired to go it alone – and then the BFC has reorganized to be designer-facing and offer all the help which is needed. There's the unique Topshop sponsorship of international grade runway shows – and the New Gen support which I’ve already described. There's also Fashion East and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise. And a breakthrough has been the London Showrooms, which we take to Paris so buyers and editors have a one-stop shop, and designers are fast-tracked to an opportunity to learn how to sell and deliver to the standards Barneys, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Joyce and Lane Crawford demand. Another part of the picture is that all the designers I mentioned are working with British factories close to home – that way, they can teach them how to make things beautifully and oversee production in a perfectionist way. Nowadays an Erdem dress, made in Battersea, stands up to any comparison on any department store designer floor, for example.
How did your position as Ambassador for Emerging Talent at the BFC come about and how has it evolved since you started?
The "ambassador" title was created for me after I'd been agitating for change at the BFC for such a long time, and mentoring unofficially. Then I volunteered to bring all the editors and buyers to the London Showroom by having a brunch. Since then, the BFC has been incredible, with an amazing team working in all areas full speed ahead. The reward is seeing how the designers all respond so quickly, grow amazingly as business people, work so incredibly hard - and importantly, get on so well. If there was still a vibe-y, stand-offy attitude amongst London designers, I would not be doing this. They are a friendship group too, and that is an advantage I see foreigners looking at in awe. It's one thing which can't be replicated.
How do you think the current stand-off between Milan Fashion Week’s Mario Boselli moving the dates of MFW to overlap with NYFW and LFW will end?
Aah the date debacle: for the first time, I felt a sense of incredulity but no anxiety about the date problem. London is so strong now that it can't be trodden on - I found it almost funny that Italy hadn't yet realised that. London has great support coming from the United States and Conde Nast, and it will be sorted out.