Covid, Brexit, environmental Armageddon, charges of systemic racism … The fashion industry is facing blows from all quarters.
The pandemic has been devastating, with its triple-whammy of closed shops, low footfall in city centres and fewer customers interested in buying clothes either for the office or for glamorous events. London Fashion Week, which starts on Thursday, has suffered a dramatic reduction in its live offering, with no big audiences, celebrity front row, nor the vivid street-style scenes that makes the week one of London’s most compelling cultural events.
What a time then to be chairman of the British Fashion Council. But ask Stephanie Phair if she’s secretly wishing that 2020 had seen someone else in the seat, and she’s cheerily sanguine. “I actually think it’s a really exciting time,” says the 42-year-old. “I thrive on challenge and really trying to think through change and if it was all plain-sailing I wouldn’t be that useful.”
Phair goes even further. She believes the pandemic has provided fashion with a wake-up call. “I’m not suggesting we needed a crisis, but the industry needed a reckoning to think about its impact on the planet,” she says. “And it really needed to think about diversity in the industry. That wasn’t not on the agenda but this year’s put it on the top of the agenda now, with action.”
In the sitting room of the house in Kensington she shares with her husband Fred, Chief Investment Officer at a wealth management company, and their three young children, a housekeeper brings in tea on a tray. Phair’s gentle voice, casual jeans-and-a-shirt look and bare feet belie a dynamite career that made her, at just 40, the youngest person to take her current BFC role. After attending the French lycée in South Kensington and studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, she started in PR in New York, went on to work for American Vogue and got into online retail early, launching The Outnet for Net-A-Porter. She’s now chief customer officer at Farfetch.
Over the last six months London’s fashion businesses have been on the brink — with entire collections cancelled by wholesalers, supply lines collapsing, closed retail sites and an overall lack of demand. The economic impact has been devastating, says Phair. “The fashion industry has outpaced the general economy over the last 10 years to reach £35 billion and Covid has threatened to wipe out all of that growth back to £26 billion.”
In April, the BFC created a £1,000,000 Covid Fashion Fund with money repurposed from its talent programmes. LFW stars including Roksanda, Craig Green, Regina Pyo and Charles Jeffrey were among 37 designers who received a maximum of £50,000. This week it will announce the second round of recipients for a further £500,000, raised from sponsors. “The immediate problem was cash flow and we wanted to help with that as quickly as possible,” says Phair.
After a rather flat response to the digital-only London Fashion Week held in June, this coming week will be a “phygital” event, a mix of physical and digital shows in what Phair calls a “robust” schedule. “Burberry is doing digital, Christopher Kane doing both, Emilia Wickstead both, J W Anderson digital, Roksanda physical.” Phair says, listing them on her fingers. “Victoria Beckham is going back to her early days and doing presentations, which she’s actually very excited about.” Does it make a difference to the profile of the week having the Beckhams’ global celebrity back at LFW from New York? “We love having her in London. She’s great and she brings a different profile of customer. Yeah, she’s fantastic,” Phair says.
Does she agree that there was something lacking in London’s digital-only fashion week? “Look, I think there’s an amazing beauty to that show atmosphere. I never think that things will go entirely digital, in the same way that shopping will never be entirely online. People need that human connection,” she says.
With shoppers still not returning to central London (footfall is still down 70 to 80 per cent), the BFC is lobbying the Government to do more to help retail. “I think lots has been done for the hospitality industry. But [for retail] is it around the consumer? Or is it about giving store owners rent relief? Because you can’t necessarily justify those business rates.”
For Phair, who sees the BFC as the “marketing agency” of the fashion industry, there’s always an upside. She’s pleased the pandemic has increased digital conversion. “It’s got grannies on the internet,” she smiles. “And retailers are really focusing on their digital strategies.” But if retail goes entirely digital what happens to central London? “Stores were already on a path to becoming a destination and experiential. Think about what a small brand can do — a customer will be able to have an appointment with the designer themselves. That is a treat! So you might get less footfall but you’ll get higher conversion and possibly more sales.” That’s not going to happen at M&S though, is it? “Um, no. The high street is going to have to think about their USP. Hopefully the city centres become more about experiences. And stores become destinations to visit as you would a museum.”
Phair says she’s proud the BFC has championed sustainability but I wonder why the issue isn’t tackled on its new series of podcasts. “Probably because we’ve done it so many other times,” she says. Is there a risk of sustainability being forgotten in the pandemic? “That’s a good question. I mean, I see it every day, everything’s back to single-use plastic and I want to die,” she says. “I think to the degree that people are going to have to start again, I hope that they build up [their business] on a sustainable basis.”
This week the BFC announced a change to its all-white board, bringing in three executives from diverse backgrounds: former presenter June Sarpong who is now the BBC’s director of diversity, Scott Morrison of consultancy Boom!, and Jamie Gill, chief executive of Roksanda. “Change starts internally,” says Phair. In terms of the wider picture, initiatives like Fashion & Business Saturday Club provide mentorship. “You need to get in at the start. You need to encourage ethnic minority communities to get into fashion. Or even to think about getting into fashion,” she adds.
With her marketing hat on, Phair is positive about the future of the industry. “We are resilient and creative and welcoming the opportunity to reset. And it makes for an interesting tenure.”