Exclusive Interview: Tania Fares & Sian Westerman, BFC Fashion Trust

Fashion is big business in the UK. London has a reputation for producing some of the fashion world’s brightest new talent, and the industry contributed an estimated £28 billion to the economy in 2015 according to Oxford Economics, up from an already significant £26 billion in 2013. Yet the success of British fashion requires constant support in terms of the development of new talent and the promotion of the industry to global markets. This support is concentrated through the work of the British Fashion Council (BFC), a not-for-profit organization set up in 1983 to foster the growth of Britain’s largest creative industry. But who decides who merits the most support? Enter the BFC Fashion Trust, which provides support to British-based designers through a program that offers financial grants, mentoring and graduate traineeships, funded by private donors, including Carmen.

  Recipients of the 2017 BFC Fashion Trust award pictured with the Trust's co-chairs and founder patrons.

Recipients of the 2017 BFC Fashion Trust award pictured with the Trust's co-chairs and founder patrons.

The creative flair of the young designers who choose to study here is what sets London apart from the other fashion capitals, where established brands and tradition tend to be the focus. Since its inception in 2011, the BFC Fashion Trust has awarded over £1.5m to 33 designers, past recipients including Christopher Kane, Emilia Wickstead and Mary Katrantzou.

Ahead of the 2017 Grants Announcement this evening, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the BFC Fashion Trust’s Co-chairs, Tania Fares and Sian Westerman, to learn more about the charity, why they feel London has earned the status as the home of emerging talent, and who they tip as the capital’s next big things.

  Sian Westerman / Photo: Darren Gerrish

Sian Westerman / Photo: Darren Gerrish

How did you get involved with the BFC? And how does your individual work overlap?

Tania:

I approached Caroline Rush, the CEO of the BFC, back in 2011 to discuss the opportunity of creating a trust made up of a group of very dynamic people to support British fashion designers. Sian joined last June and we work very closely. She’s been a great support, and we speak, email and meet regularly to discuss what the designers are looking for, as well as what we can do for the extremely generous patrons who support the initiative. A while ago we had to give a presentation to a bank asking them to support us and it was such a pleasure to work with Sian!

Sian:

And for me with you! We are quite different and our backgrounds are very different. I was working in the City for most of my career, and I still do for part of my job. I did some large luxury deals pre-financial crisis. And I helped Anya Hindmarch get her first outside investment and sat on her board from 2005 for six years.

Post-financial crisis I did some work pro-bono for the BFC, which I was introduced to by Anya Hindmarch.  I started speaking to some of the young designers, a lot of whom were supported by the BFC Fashion Trust, about what it meant to get investment and what they needed to think about, and it’s been an evolution over six years. But at some point in that I was living out in Hong Kong, coming back to the UK, and was invited to speak at a BFC Fashion Trust event. And I think it was meeting the people and hearing what the BFC Fashion Trust was doing that was so special, because I don’t think in any other industry there’s such a good business initiative that’s very focused on creating an amazing community of interesting people who are doing so much good, and when I moved back from Hong Kong last year, Tania asked me if I could join her as a the new Co-chair, and it’s worked extremely well.

Tania:

I tend to work closely with the designers on creative issues. I had my own label in the past and understand what it takes and how it works.

  Tania Fares

Tania Fares

What do you think is unique about London as a platform for emerging designers? 

Tania:

I think London is a very tolerant city. We embrace creativity. The history of London is unbelievable - from the Royal family to the punk era and Vivienne Westwood. Designers have access to a wealth of free museums and exhibitions here that are not available in most other cities, it’s very inspiring! The schools also have a big impact on London. Students are so lucky to have such great people supporting them.

Sian:

I think we’ve been able to create some really good international brands here. Jimmy Choo was one of them, Anya Hindmarch another.  The success that businesses like that had, coming out of London, the support that they got in terms of investment and the very active private equity and venture capital communities have really helped these businesses grow. It is so good that businesses can establish themselves here and find capital, and interested people and expertise.

I think it’s changing now in Milan and Paris, but they were historically dominated by the big maisons, the big houses, and there wasn’t that ‘skin of your teeth’ creativity, that have-a-go, set-up-a-little-business mentality that existed here, and so I think they stagnated a bit. And the talent that was being developed in Europe was coming here, because of the openness and flexibility.

What do you think are its unique challenges?

Sian:

The challenges are around manufacturing. 

Tania: 

Especially surrounding leather goods.

Sian: 

Although, the BFC launched a website this week with a directory of access to high-end manufacturing and hopefully that will start to change things. Because it’s just much harder to get your margins.

Who are your top three designers to watch right now?  

Tania:

Michael Halpern, Teatum Jones and I love Palmer Harding. Michael Halpern is a very fresh talent, he has a very strong identity and a great point of view in his designs.

What is the Fashion Trust application process like?

Tania:

It is a little like a business plan, we ask applicants to outline their top 3 business priorities for the next 12 months providing a detailed explanation of why they need the financial support and where it would be going.

Sian:

Yes, exactly. They also need to nominate a mentor, to help them spend the money wisely. So they can’t just have cash. They need to have a purpose, and they need to have someone who is going to help guide them as to how it’s allocated and I think that’s really, really key. We have a number of other criteria as well. They need to have been in business for at least four years.

Tania: 

Their business needs to be based in the UK. 

Sian: 

And then there is the Advisory Committee, which includes Caroline Rush, Tania, myself and the Patrons of the BFC Fashion Trust, which selects the designers.

  José Neves of Farfetch, former BFC Fashion Trust corporate partner, with the Fashion Trust's Sian Westerman and Megha Mittal / Photo: Darren Gerrish

José Neves of Farfetch, former BFC Fashion Trust corporate partner, with the Fashion Trust's Sian Westerman and Megha Mittal / Photo: Darren Gerrish

What are some of the difficulties in deciding where to allocate funds?

Sian: 

It’s an interesting debate because sometimes people will say ‘I think that business is amazing, they’re so creative’ and then you look at the finances and you think well actually it’s not solid enough. They don’t necessarily have to be hugely profitable, but what you’re looking at is if they get the money, where will it take their business?

Tania: 

It needs to make sense for us to award a designer and we need to feel they will take a lot out of it. The BFC Fashion Trust is not just about giving money, we purposely provide mentoring support and we meet with the designers to understand their needs.

Sian: 

Michelle De Conto, from the Business Development team at the BFC, spends time working with each designer and is aware of their financials. She attends the Advisory Committee meeting as well, because it’s important that you’re not just taking someone’s word for it.

Tania: 

Michelle works very closely with each one of them, and helps us make an informed decision.

Who are some of the mentors?

Tania: 

We have a few... Livia Firth, Founder of Eco Age, is going to be one of the new mentors who will be working with the BFC Fashion Trust designers and it will be a great thing for them to have access to her.

Sian: 

We’re building up a body of mentors trying to focus on areas that are really important to the designers so that we can really help them move forward. Carmen Busquets has brought an amazing dynamic and gave an inspiring talk about business opportunities earlier in the year. We also have people who bring merchandising, financial and digital expertise too.

Tell me about your apprenticeship program.

Tania:

The graduate trainee programme offers a 12 month paid placement to BA and MA graduates. At the moment we are working with Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, Westminster University, the Royal College of Art and Kingston University, and moving forward we’d love to work with many more universities! Once we have found the talented graduates we approach the larger designers who can provide the right kind of environment for graduates where they can learn, flourish and understand the business. So far we have placed graduates with Roksanda, Erdem, House of Holland, E.Tautz, J.W. Anderson and Mary Katrantzou. 

Sian: 

When graduates come out of fashion school, they need to be paid a certain amount a year if they’re not an EU citizen, so we’re enabling students who want a job and designers who can’t afford to pay a newly qualified person. The graduate gets a job, and they don’t leave the country, the designer gets a fabulous trainee apprentice for a year, and what you hope is that at the end of the year they’ll be offered a job! 

In fact, the apprentice who went to Roksanda the last time went elsewhere, but I bumped into her at a cocktail party and I was wearing a Roksanda dress, very black, very severe, but it has a yellow silk insert, and she said “you’re wearing my dress, I designed that when I was the apprentice at Roksanda".  She wouldn’t have had that job if it wasn’t for the Fashion Trust, and she was saying how amazing it had been for her and her career.

What do you think are some of the personal qualities or strategies that you’ve noticed successful emerging designers have or apply?

Sian: 

This is a very pertinent question!  Gone are the days when you could be purely creative, and I think if you’re going to be successful you need to be conscious of the business, financial and commercial context in which you work, plus if you look at the designers who are successful, they also have a real point of view, a real point of view of design...

Tania: 

Exactly, a real point of view is essential! And that they are true to themselves, with a clear focus and voice to show what they believe in. It is also down to the people around them. Some designers have strong teams that can help them and put them on the right track.

Sian: 

They team up with somebody to provide what they don’t have, and have a willingness to sort of pull everyone together - because it’s really tough.  

Stay tuned for our follow-up piece tomorrow on the 2017 Grants recipients, and visit the BFC's website to learn more about British fashion and funding.