Bianca Saunders, Thebe Magugu, Chopova Lowena, Ahluwalia and Ludovic de Saint Sernin – who are part of Matches Fashion’s Innovators Programme – discuss this past year, how it’s changed the way they create and what is making them feel hopeful
2020 has been a year of unimaginable challenge – not least for fashion’s emerging designers, who have been left particularly vulnerable by the social and economic turmoil that has erupted since the beginning of the pandemic. In April, the British Fashion Council released a frightening report which suggested that up to 35 per cent of young designers in the UK might not make it past the next three months, and that over half of the industry might be wiped out by the end of the year without urgent and drastic intervention.
Thankfully, this intervention has come – through the BFC, for example, which launched the BFC Foundation Fashion Fund in May, allocating grants to a number of British designer businesses. Matches Fashion has also stepped in with The Innovators Programme – a project that aims to support 12 designers spanning mens- and womenswear over the coming year with mentorship, preferential business terms and marketing. These designers represent a diverse group and include some of fashion’s brightest talents: Art School, Ahluwalia, Chopova Lowena, Stefan Cooke, Germanier, Halpern, Harris Reed, Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY, Thebe Magugu, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner.
Here, speaking in their own words, five of these designers discuss this past year, how it’s changed the way they create and what – in these dark and uncertain times – is making them feel hopeful.
“This year has been as challenging as it has been exciting. The profile of my brand has grown exponentially since my presentation back in January and I’m so thankful for that, I’m getting such amazing recognition from magazines and brands that I was a fan of growing up. But then Covid-19 came along and changed the rules for everybody. Us independent designers had to completely rethink the way we work, and it was sink or swim, but I feel like I’ve come through it stronger than ever.
“[The challenge has been] taking a step back, slowing down, being mindful. [It’s] the first time I’ve had a chance to do that since before I started at the RCA. But in the end, it was a positive thing, it helped me get back into a more creative space and really dig into what I want my brand to be, now and in the future.
“I am one of 12 designers that Matches Fashion are supporting for the year. They will be supported by giving each of us industry professional mentors to give advice on optimising the business plus special terms for sales and marketing strategies such as editorials.
“I think this pandemic has made us all think about what matters most, and hopefully it will change people’s perspective for the better, when it comes to fashion and buying clothes. Hopefully now more people have had the chance to become more considerate of their impact, and they will stop buying disposable products that you throw after one season and will now invest in quality pieces that mean something to them.”
“This year has been chock full of extremes – on the one end, I have had continued enjoyment of the brand I am building, being exposed to immense growth and expanding my community. On the other hand, I have seen the devastation that the very community that nourishes me has suffered at the hands of Covid-19 – South Africa is the fifth most affected country globally, and already we had been experiencing a 30 per cent unemployment rate before all this. So it’s been a year completely in emotional and physical flux.
“We have been thrown into a world where our industry has been turned on its head – people’s priorities have shifted, and while bigger brands may have a buffer, young designers have been devastated and some totally eviscerated by the time we are in. At the start of the pandemic, some planned buys were either postponed or cancelled – and delivered orders had postponed payments. These are just two of the many challenges designers need to face today.
“Responding to this crisis, Matches Fashion has created a programme – The Innovators Programme – to help mitigate the effects on emerging brands. It is a year-long commitment to the 12 selected designers with not only seasonal buys, but mentorship opportunities and amplification across marketing and various channels. This helps tremendously in curtailing the severe effects of Covid-19 on business.
“I think because fashion as an industry is solutions-based, it will always find a way to troubleshoot itself when something no longer becomes viable – and I think this is especially true for the youth in the industry, who are asking questions and interrogating what’s relevant, what’s sustainable and what’s right.”
“The past year for us has been full of amazing opportunities, growing pains, and lots of learning and developing. Throughout the past year (our second year of having a brand) we have really focused on how to better design for our customer and understanding the balance between design and holding true to our vision while also thinking about the practicality. We have been focused on scaling and managing our deadstock and upcycled vintage fabric practice and retaining our ethos across expanding into new categories. We have also learned how to grow our business in a sustainable way, scaling our deadstock and vintage fabric range and being really, really busy!
“The Innovators is a wonderful platform to be a part of with so many talented designers. Matches Fashion has been a support system to young designers beyond what you would imagine from a retail partner. Matches Fashion has always dealt with things in a personal and caring way and that’s what has always set the team apart, it feels like family. This programme provides us with mentorship, help of all kinds, and a commitment to buy for one year which during these challenging times is an incredibly important security for us.
“But also due to lockdown we have had to slow down and that has been a really positive change! We are focusing more on educating our customers on how special and skilled the practices which all come together to make clothing are and that is something we want to put our energy behind. More emotional connections to clothing is the right kind of incentive to gear people more towards investing in pieces rather than turning to fast fashion.
“[What makes me feel hopeful is] that there has been a strong sense of community between all parts of the industry, retailers, designers, magazines – are all helping each other!”
“The past year has been a roller coaster. There have been so many amazing highlights such as being selected as an LVMH Prize finalist and being named as a Matches Fashion Innovator. But there has also been a global pandemic and heightened coverage and discussions around racism, so it has been a lot to contend with both professionally and personally. Covid and the subsequent lockdown was a huge challenge, as a business we lost some retail accounts, had production stuck in customs for months and there was just so much uncertainty.
“At the beginning of the lockdown I felt quite hopeless but I am generally a resourceful person so I was able to use the time to try and get through the situation and also spend time considering new things I want to achieve with my business.
“I was told by Paul and Damian from Matches Fashion that I was a part of the project and it was so, so nice to hear. Matches Fashion has always been a great retail partner that has offered me opportunities. Last year, they took me to New York for a press day which enabled me to meet such a huge network of people and make some great connections that benefit the business to this day. This new project has already really increased visibility for the brand and I’m looking forward to the mentoring.
“This year I have learnt that I am resilient. [What makes me feel hopeful is] my amazing team who work with me every day and all the brilliantly talented people coming up the ranks who aren’t afraid to show the world their ideas and teach it a thing or two.”
Ludovic de Saint Sernin
“I think we all went through an incredibly challenging period. I am a very optimistic person though and the most important thing for me is to always try to take out something positive from each and every experience. There’s been many challenges for me this year, and the most important thing was to just keep going and believing in yourself to be able to overcome these challenges.
“The Innovators Programme is such a great initiative and I think every single designer in the programme will tell you that it means everything to have the support of Matches Fashion. It gives us security, stability and strength to keep creating and be the best version of ourselves.
“I have learnt to be more selective with the people that I work with and focus essentially on the people who love the brand and understand the meaning of what we are doing. And Matches Fashion completely understands us and what we’re about and they are here to help us and provide us with the best guidance.
“I think there’s been so much growth this year, and fashion can reflect change and evolution. Like everything else for things to change it takes time and it’s about time there’s change and I am hopeful that the fashion industry is accepting to take actions to make a change for a better future.”