From sneaking into Alexander McQueen’s catwalk shows in the 1990s, to introducing the Queen at London Fashion Week, it has been quite a journey for the British Fashion Council’s CEO, Caroline Rush. Drapers asks whether British fashion’s loudest cheerleader believes there is a future for fashion weeks.
When the Queen made her surprise appearance at the autumn 18 edition of London Fashion Week (LFW) last month to present the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, she sat front row at winning designer Richard Quinn’s catwalk. She was flanked by influential US Vogue editor Anna Wintour and chief executive of the British Fashion Council (BFC) Caroline Rush.
The next day in a coffee shop near her new home in Battersea, Rush, though “physically exhausted” from a hectic five days of fashion week, is glowing.
“I’m still reeling,” she says of the Queen’s attendance, which hit headlines around the world.
I was speechless for the first time. It was an incredibly proud moment
The BFC is the not-for-profit organisation most commonly recognised as the co-ordinator of LFW, London Fashion Week Men’s (LFWM) and the glitzy Fashion Awards, funded by industry patrons, commercial sponsors and the government. It promotes and supports the British fashion industry and its designer-led businesses, particularly emerging talent, and champions diversity and sustainability. However, business strategy is shifting to digital and, amid a challenging climate, some are questioning the point of fashion week and its focus on up-and-coming, directional designers.
Rush is as much the face of the BFC’s 48-strong team – glossy haired and stylishly dressed in Burberry – as the sharp business brain leading it. It was Rush who initiated the Queen’s award and the surprise royal visit.
“I thought people might think it’s a doppelgänger,” she laughs with characteristic candidness. Behind her sleek professionalism, she is funny, friendly and down to earth. “I was speechless for the first time. It was an incredibly proud moment.”
The Queen Elizabeth II Award is intended to recognise the role fashion plays in society and diplomacy, as well as the £29.7bn in GDP the industry contributes to the British economy. Rush believes the award not only gives the royal seal of approval to London’s fashion weeks, but also solidifies its reputation as a hotbed for talent – a status the BFC has fostered since its early days showcasing John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan, and later Alexander McQueen.
“Caroline has been instrumental in positioning the British fashion industry as a hub for emerging talent, as well as a key player internationally,” says José Neves, founder and CEO of Farfetch and member of the BFC’s executive board. “Under her leadership, the BFC continues to go from strength to strength, championing talent and innovation.”
For a PR professional-turned-CEO tasked with promoting British fashion, the Queen’s stamp of approval might be the biggest coup of Rush’s career so far, but as Neves notes, it is the latest initiative that encapsulates the role the BFC has played in putting London and its designer-led businesses on the international map.
Central to this are the BFC’s initiatives for emerging designers, from New Gen to the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which provide both mentoring and financial support, the latter awarding a career-changing £200,000.
Amy Powney, creative director of womenswear brand Mother of Pearl, won the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund prize in 2017 and joined past winners including Sophia Webster and Mary Katrantzou.
People are surprised when we, as organisers of catwalk shows, say, ‘You don’t need to do a catwalk show’
“Caroline and the BFC have had a huge impact on me as a designer and my business,” says Powney. “Winning has allowed me to expand my business and focus on projects that are important to me, including sustainability and social responsibility.”
Rush highlights New Gen as “the original design talent support scheme”. Launched in 1993, it is the entry point that helps designers, often recent graduates, with a fashion week platform, funding and mentoring. Headliners of February’s autumn 18 LFW included Christopher Kane, Roksanda, Erdem, JW Anderson and Simone Rocha – just some New Gen prize recipients that are now globally successful businesses.
Dame Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter and chair of the BFC from 2013 to 2017, says: “Caroline’s drive and commitment to helping the fashion industry flourish has helped steer the industry into a new chapter. There is no question today around the role of the British fashion industry within the UK economy, or its place on the global stage. This owes a lot to the efforts of Caroline and her team. The British fashion industry is lucky to have her as their cheerleader.”
Fresh from his autumn 18 catwalk show designer Erdem Moralioglu, who first received New Gen support in 2006 and opened his first store on London’s South Audley Street in 2015, echoes Massenet’s feelings: “Caroline is totally devoted to the fashion industry through her work with the BFC, she has been so supportive to me.”
“I couldn’t do what I do without the BFC,” says award-winning designer Richard Quinn. “They help with everything: what’s good for the Asian market, how to get copyrights, pricing, legal issues,” he says. “London continues to be at the forefront of fashion, and that’s really because of the work of the BFC.”
Rush was born in Bishopbriggs just outside of Glasgow, but grew up in Chorley, Lancashire. After several marketing and PR roles she joined Grace Collection, then part of the Jacques Vert Group stable of brands.
By 1998, after giving birth to her daughter (now a 21-year-old junior tennis pro currently at university in Texas), Rush worked for Annette Worsley Taylor, the founder of London Fashion Week who lay the foundations for today’s BFC. Sneaking into shows like McQueen’s famous catwalks, Rush witnessed the blossoming of British fashion. “That’s probably when I got hooked,” she says.
When her daughter started school, Rush and her footballer-turned-PE-teacher husband moved to Heaton Moor, where she launched lifestyle PR company Crush Communications. She came back to LFW as a PR consultant and eventually closed her company to move in-house at the BFC as CEO in 2009.
“She had the presence of a great PR, she really stood out,” says Harold Tillman, who was BFC chairman when Rush was appointed. “She understands the changes needed, like the advent of ‘see now, buy now’, and how to steer the industry. I have great respect for her.”
These changes include what Rush calls the “seismic shift” of 2009, when big international brands such as Burberry came back to LFW, giving it the legitimacy it had been lacking compared with the fashion weeks in Paris and Milan. The dedicated menswear event, LFWM, launched successfully in 2012.
The digital revolution has also impacted the catwalk shows, opening the once closed doors to everyone at click of a button – a shift Rush helped drive by livestreaming catwalks on the LFW website. Changes in business strategy, like the Burberry-led “see now, buy now” direct-to-consumer approach, as well as the march of digital influencers onto the front rows of the formerly industry-focused trade event, have left some questioning the relevance and future of catwalk shows.
Rush believes fashion weeks remain a valid platform but admits changes in formats are needed: “People are surprised when we, as organisers of catwalk shows, say, ‘You don’t need to do a catwalk show. Designers need to think about who they are trying to speak to and what is the best way to communicate their product to their audience. They should do what is right for their businesses.”
Designers need to think about who they are trying to speak to and what is the best way to communicate their product to their audience
In particular, doubts have been raised over the future of LFWM, as big brands like Burberry have combined their menswear and womenswear shows into one during the women’s schedule, leaving a somewhat lacklustre mood at the recent autumn 18 edition.
Rush stands by it: “As long as LFWM remains relevant for businesses and they need a platform [to show], it will continue,” she says firmly. “Buyers come to fashion weeks because they want to see the product in person,” Rush says. ”I am sure in future we’ll have headsets to digitally experience a fashion show and touch the fabrics, but you still have to have the event for that to happen. And why wouldn’t you want human interaction?”
While London lacks the influence of big global fashion businesses like Paris and Milan, with the exception of Burberry, Rush argues that London is still relevant: “You’re not going to see creativity in any other city with the breadth of businesses you can see in London. There’s nowhere better, so we will continue to showcase that.”
Independent retailers give variety and make the high street interesting. Business rates need a big rethink
When talk turns to Brexit, however, Rush sighs. “It’s just that we have no answers, we don’t know what’s going to happen. The BFC have given submissions to government about the challenges facing the industry and I’m at the House of Lords tomorrow giving further evidence. And we will continue to do that, but until we have a better understanding of what [Brexit] is actually going to look like, we really can’t plan.”
Looking at other challenges, Rush points to business rates and the “overexposure of bricks-and-mortar stores”, particularly for the high street. She highlights retailers, particularly in smaller cities and towns, stuck in a cycle of falling footfall that makes them reluctant to reinvest, therefore failing to engage customers and, worse, closing down.
“With the business rates increases, what we don’t want is for it all to be big businesses, because independent retailers give that variety and make the high street interesting. Business rates need a big rethink.”
She believes businesses also need to think outside of the box in the current climate, and sees direct-to-consumer retail growing, particularly for budding brands. “Young labels need to really think about their distribution channels. Direct to consumer does need investment, but it does make sense. Having a really strong balance of wholesale with the right partners and your own retail – in whatever form – is absolutely the right strategy.”
Rush has already lined up her next BFC feat, bringing the 10th anniversary catwalk of Victoria Beckham from New York to London for the spring 19 edition. Starry fashion weeks might push Rush into the limelight, but it is clear where her passion lies.
“We do put a lot of energy into how we can better support new and growing designer businesses, but that’s because we see the opportunity for them to grow into our future global fashion businesses,” she says. “When people ask, ‘why are you in this industry?’, it’s all about the idea that you’re making a difference. That’s what I really feel.”