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February 27, 2009 7:21 PM

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London Changes Gears

The Champagne flowed a little more slowly, shows actually started on time and there weren't the usual scrums -- and nasty bouncers -- at the entrance to events. Few were in the mood to play during London Fashion Week,...

The Champagne flowed a little more slowly, shows actually started on time and there weren't the usual scrums -- and nasty bouncers -- at the entrance to events. Few were in the mood to play during London Fashion Week, which this season was a strictly business affair.

Everyone seems to have commerce on the brain: One designer told me that U.S. buyers' budgets are down 30 percent for the big luxury brands -- and "far more" for the smaller, independent labels, so it's time to explore new ways of doing business.

For the first time, Graeme Black invited personal shoppers from stores such as Browns to his show, so they could see the collection firsthand. "The only way we're going to move forward is to connect directly with the customer," said Jonathan Reed, Black's business partner.

Most of the time, Reed said, the people who are doing the buying are not the ones who are interfacing with the customer. "That's why personal shoppers need to have a seat at the show," he said. Reed and Black also plan to organize small, private lunches, where Black can sell the clothes to clients directly.

For fall, Giles Deacon has introduced more daywear pieces, has started to price in dollars for U.S. clients and has updated his best-selling skinny, strapless calf-length dress — a bestseller at Barneys New York — for fall. "We're giving the stores what they want," he said.

Julien Macdonald, who is relaunching his company under a new backer, has also ramped up the amount of daywear in his collection, is pushing into new markets like Switzerland, Austria and Germany and will unveil a separate knitwear collection for fall 2010. "I think there's a huge gap in the market for sexy, fashionable knits at affordable prices," he said.

In theory, then, it's a golden moment for buyers — if they actually had the budgets. U.S. stores were thin on the ground during the London shows.

Barneys had one representative, while Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel all had local scouts do the viewing.

"It's a shame there were no American retailers, because there was a lot to see," said Ed Burstell, Liberty's buying director, who recently joined the store from Bergdorf Goodman, where he was senior vice president and general merchandise manager for nonapparel. "London is the only place left that's driven by creativity — and it still has its own exuberance," he added.

The American department stores may have stayed put, but other buyers were out in force. According to the British Fashion Council, Japan had the strongest attendance in years, as did independent stores from around the globe. Buoyed by the strong euro against the pound, Italian and French buyers came flooding into The Exhibition in the tents, and jeans brand Made in Heaven said it picked up 12 new accounts in four days.

"We actually found the mood upbeat. It was one of the strongest London Fashion Weeks we've attended in years, with lots of energy and strong collections," said Erin Mullaney, buying director at Browns, who named Marios Schwab, Richard Nicoll, Meadham Kirchhoff and Erdem among the standouts.
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