When London’s famously fast-paced fashion scene hurtled to an abrupt halt during the UK’s first stay-at-home order last March, questions about its future gripped the increasingly quiet capital. Now, as the city inches its way through a third debilitating lockdown following a year of shuttered retail behemoths (RIP Topshop and Debenhams), post-Brexit immigration restrictions and exclusively digital event programming, London’s spotlight seems dimmer this season as another online-only Fashion Week begins. The urban canvas upon which stylists, designers, models and photographers from across the world would usually present their brightest and boldest ideas has been confined to cyberspace and so, too, its shoppers and acolytes.
But out of this darkness sprout new opportunities suggesting a more considered, connected and inclusive future as independent labels emerge from London’s sartorial shadow.
The city has always been at the centre of the global style landscape — a vibrant destination which funnels burgeoning talent and extraordinary design into the industry at large, pumping inspiration and innovation through the veins of its international body. This is where, in recent years, names like Molly Goddard, Grace Wales Bonner and Martine Rose were uttered with bated breath long before they appeared in the pages of top glossies; where a once-bustling high street culture dictated how and where people spent their time and money. Now, with consumers transported from the streets to their screens, the potential for design discovery has expanded, resulting in a strong desire to shop and support smaller businesses as the pandemic rages on.
Enter: a covetable roster of indie brands from Leeds to Manchester to Exeter and beyond — all of which can be accessed any time, anywhere, in a matter of clicks. As the British style scene becomes decentralised, it’s also slowing down, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. An increase in sustainable shopping habits points to a post-pandemic retail model driven not by product but by purpose and small brands, whose nimble business models are environmentally conscious by nature, are well positioned to adapt.
For Emma Brewin, whose signature faux fur hat was most recently spotted on the head of one Gigi Hadid in Vogue, the goal isn’t just to start small, it’s to stay small. "I always want to keep the business small enough to operate in a way that is sustainable and kinder to the planet," she says. This vision is what unites so many of the regional brands attracting nationwide customers like digital magnets. Plus, the lower rents and cost of living supported by the ability to reach larger audiences online allows for more physical and mental space to create.
"Finding a studio with low rent has been a major blessing to my business, allowing me to start small and not rack up any debt. It's given me the space and time to be creative, and not to take such huge leaps right from the outset," says Deva O’Neill, founder of the made-to-order clothing brand Phaedra. "Selling online has also been a major factor in my freedom – I can sew from anywhere and still be part of the slow fashion community. I have a lot to thank Instagram for!"
London will always be synonymous with boundary-breaking style but the industry’s pandemic-induced change of pace offers a glimpse of what fashion could be: a world in which creativity and community thrive beyond city limits without putting the planet at risk. Ahead, discover seven independent brands which are a gateway to this new and friendly frontier.