An Interview with Sarah Mower
Who's saying what
“What on earth is happening to the Maison Martin Margiela?” is how she opened her Style.com review of Margiela’s Spring 2010 collection. “What was sent out for spring was such a stuttering, ill-sequenced pastiche of the rigorous, witty, avant-garde thinking that used to stream out here that it is almost unkind to enumerate the ways in which it disappointed."
Her flair for criticism aside, she’s no Liz Jones either, offering praise when it's deserved with a level of excitement that’s infectious. In fact, she loves to support young designers, which is precisely the reason she was appointed the British Fashion Council's first Ambassador for Emerging Talent in 2009.
During the last few years, Mower’s helped to lift the profile of London Fashion Week and the bevy of budding designers who show there each year by utilising her considerable network of friends in the industry, which includes The Devil in Prada herself, Anna Wintour.
I was hoping to meet up with Sarah in Notting Hill last weekend, but, unfortunately, we were forced to conduct our interview via email due to our conflicting schedules. During our three weeks of correspondence, she traveled half the world and received an MBE from H.M. The Queen. You know, the usual.
Zac: In what ways do you think the fashion journalism industry is changing?
SM: Fashion journalism has broadened and added dimensions in the past half decade. I count street photography as a branch of fashion reporting — it has swiftly developed its own set of rules and triggered a dressing-up and posing phenomenon of its own, which is worth a whole study in itself. It's great that fashion shows are so visible and accessible instantaneously these days, and that anyone can comment on them. Why not? But as with everything in life, I think we still only want to listen to the opinions of people who have something intelligent to say and are really good at saying it. What happens now is that there's so much in-the-moment reaction that few brains have the mental capacity or time to analyse and think further. So when you come across someone who goes deeper, speaks to designers, makes references and writes it all well, that's a huge pleasure — even more so for the fact that it's so rare. Magazine journalism can still give you that, and so can some blogs. I love seeing how talented bloggers bring together visuals and videos to support their themes and interests. The rest is just static.
Do you think there’s generally a lack of the critical in fashion journalism today?
I am cursed with the inability to be anything other than quite frank. So my lack of enthusiasm, as well as my enthusiasm, always shows, I think.
What makes London’s designers so unique?
London is uniquely vibrant now because over the past decade we've built a network of really effective support for the talent, which comes out of our excellent fashion schools. In the past, young designers blazed and burned, or got exasperated and left in desperation for Paris or New York, because no one came to London fashion week and it was chaotic. In 2011, no one even mentioned leaving (in fact, too many want to get in for us to accommodate); we have a multiple-nationality community (Greeks, Canadians, Austrians, Australians, Belgians, Russians, Serbians, Koreans, Chinese, etc.) who studied here and who actively want to stay because London is now the place where young designers are on a fast track to business mentorship, being introduced to high-level international retailers and receiving sponsorship from schemes like New Gen. Plus, there's a really nice culture of friendship and mutual support amongst designers, which also includes a sharp sense of wanting to push yourself to do really well in front of your peers. That healthy competitiveness pulls everyone up, and the reason nobody gets bitter or jealous about it is that everyone is doing something different. They know their peers would laugh them at if their work were derivative, so they have to work out who they are and what's special about their clothes. That's where originality comes from. The trouble with too many young designers I see is that they don't know who they are or why they're in fashion, and if they don't, why should anyone else care?
Is there an up-and-coming designer who you think will be a bit of a game changer?
I don't know about one individual, but collectively, the change in the game is that I see how this generation of young designers generally don't want to go to houses. There's too long a history of designers being chewed up and spat out, and having their careers thrown off course or ruined for that to seem such a golden opportunity any more. They've also seen too many designers eventually cheated of their names by financial backers. So, actually, this generation wants to be independent and built their own brands — and they're doing it.
So, what do you enjoy about your role at the BFC?
What I like is that I've made it up on my own, out of knowing something about how fashion works, and being able to ask the help of high-level people, who've all been astonishingly enthusiastic and generous in offering specialist knowledge to young designers. Mostly though, I just love the buzz of discovering exceptional people and then being able to be in a position of trust with them over time. It doesn't mean I won't criticise them in my reviews if I don't think their work's up to scratch, though! My main job is working for Anna Wintour, and she has not only encouraged me to do this, but wants to meet the talent I’ve recommended personally. And she has then thrown parties for the London Showrooms in New York for us, and consistently comes to London, held an American Buyers reception at Downing Street with Samantha Cameron, and so on. The first designer I introduced to her was Christopher Kane, who I brought to her in her suite at The Connaught with two models on the day he graduated in 2005. Which was funny; it was all those dresses made of fogal tights and neon elastic — really vulgar-seeming in a way that almost made you sick. But I immediately thought this boy could go all the way, especially when he introduced me to his sister Tammy, his model-muse and business backbone. What also suits me about this role is that I don't have to go into an office. I range around, visit people, go out with them, email them at odd times of the day or night. If someone gets a call from me at eight in the morning, they know it's because I've just thought of something while running my dogs in the park. They put up with it, surprisingly.
During your time there, what changes have you implemented, and how has your role evolved?
Before the BFC reorganised and became incredibly efficient and pro-active, NewGen designers were selected merely by sending in a few samples, which were waved in front of a panel of 40, who had no way of knowing who they were. I thought that was wrong and agitated for out-reach, realising that the last thing designers are good at is sitting in front of a firing-squad in an airless grey office. So someone should get off their ass and to visit them and get to understand them, their potential, their problems and needs. So I did. And from that eventually came an official title, and I became the chair of NewGen. We made the panel much smaller and full of people who are fully engaged with the industry, from Net-a-Porter, Harvey Nichols, Elle, Vogue, Dazed, and ShowStudio, as well as consultants from 19 Management, Stella McCartney and Moda Operandi.
Could you tell us about a couple of people in the industry without whom your work would not be possible?
At the BFC, Caroline Rush, who is the CEO, never says something can't be done, and has raised London's profile incredibly. Louise Carter, Head of Development, is probably the best events organiser in fashion, and runs London Fashion Week on time for the first time in history (I would not invite anyone to London shows if I was ashamed of how they run). And generally, the whole sisterhood of amazing women who have come together to re-build British fashion over the last decade: Professor Louise Wilson, Jane Shepherdson (ex-Topshop), Lulu Kennedy, Mandi Lennard, Tania Hughes, Justine Fairgreave, Suzanne Tide-Frater, Mary Homer (Topshop's Managing Director)… The list goes on.
What factors do you take into consideration when selecting new designers to work with?
Is this original enough? Is it well made? Has the designer got a stockist? Can they produce the items and deliver them without letting stores down? Does it potentially come up to the level of the designers? Can the person talk compellingly about what they do? And finally, does everyone on the panel feel emotionally captivated by it?
Is there something that young designers can do to make their work more accessible to organizations like the BFC that may wish to assist them?
Banding together is the best thing young designers can do to help themselves. Be a group; be a movement. Then people will want to hear and see what you're saying. There's strength in numbers and collectivity. That's our London story in a nutshell.
PS Congratulations on the MBE!
It's a massive honour, but I don't really feel I deserved it as an individual. I think it's just a symbol of the recognition of how far we've all come together in London.
What do you think about the way the Queen dresses? If she is reading this interview, is there a young designer you might like to point out, whose designs might make for perfect additions to the royal wardrobe?
The Queen shouldn't wear fashion! She dresses as herself and is uniquely royal. At my investiture, she wore a silver brocade dress with ivy embroidery on one shoulder. Had it been a little more fitted, it could've been an Erdem piece, which the Duchess of Cambridge could wear. So, if anything, I think it's a case of how H.M. can influence the young generation, not the other way around!
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