Illustration: Caroline Marine Hebel

Focus on: Caroline Rush, CEO of British Fashion Council

Under the tenure of Caroline Rush, London Fashion Week has roared ahead in social media, sponsorship and mentoring

Now, if there is one person, the Queen of England will certainly not be listening to when it comes to handing out honors, it is surely an Irish fashionista like your humble servant and editor of this magazine. However, if anyone in London fashion deserves recognition it is most definitely Caroline Rush, the CEO of the British Fashion Council, which oversees London Fashion Week. She is a barnstorming tour de force that has helped grow the UK season from a series of small potatoes shows a decade ago to the premier season in the world in terms of discovering new talent.

Under her tenure, London has roared ahead in social media, sponsorship and mentoring. Plus, the UK capital has developed Europe’s largest fashion awards ceremony, overshadowing anything in Milan or Paris. Now, everyone is looking towards Rush, the leading fashion week organizer in the industry today. Rush, however, is refreshingly modest about her achievements – notably the groundbreaking awards.

Now, everyone is looking towards Rush, the leading fashion week organizer in the industry today

“We’ve been gradually building our awards over the last eight years, but in the last three years particularly. We’ve hosted them at the London Coliseum, the residence of the English National Opera, which is absolutely beautiful. We focus on having more international awards because we see a real opportunity to become the international award ceremony for our industry,” says the CEO. Demand for tickets is so high, she is even moving the ceremony to the larger Royal Albert Hall in December.

“Up until now the award was known as the British Fashion Awards but we decided to drop the British. Although we will of course be championing the emerging British brands, we want to be more balanced with additional international awards. We are thinking more inclusively about the industry,” she insisted, when we met, over coffee during LCM, London Collections Men, earlier this summer.

She does not see any rivalry with the Anna Wintour driven CFDA awards in NYC. “Anna has always been really supportive and of course has been part of the last few awards – either receiving awards or giving them. She’s very much involved,” argues Rush.

No fashion week has built as many connections with major sponsors as London.

Next edition, the BFC hopes to link up with Naver in South Korea, the equivalent to Google there, which has unbelievable reach into China also. There, the focus will be more on mobile phones rather than traditionally on TV. In Europe, BFC will be a mix of online and TV. Last December, the BFC linked up with E! channel. That was very much a red carpet focus with some awards contents and behind the scene stories. Ideal, as Rush wants to build an international awards ceremony. By selling tables, boxes and tickets she plans to raise up to ten million Sterling over the next ten years for scholarships and apprenticeships.

Caroline Rush: “Tourism is key to us.”

No fashion week has built as many connections with major sponsors as London. The BFC has a designated sponsorship team, and a relationship with IMG for global deals with the likes of Mercedes and DHL. Where a visitor to Paris is rarely aware of the fashion week taking place all around town, London is festooned with banners, video screens and posters keeping the whole city informed. “Tourism is key to us. We have partnerships with Visit London. We work with Visit Britain and with our government through their great campaigns. They have various different channels into markets through embassies,” she notes.

Most of the sponsorships are highly bespoke, as Rush believes no sponsor just wants their logo on something – they want a true partnership that delivers return. Headquartered in Somerset House, the British Fashion Council has a staff of 50 – the largest of any fashion authority worldwide. Moreover, its budget of 13 million Sterling is twice as large as its nearest rival – and growing. When Rush came on board seven years ago, it was just four million Sterling.

London was the first to live stream the shows to its central venue at Somerset house for fashion week – groundbreaking at the time

It has not all been plain sailing. After a rapid start years ago, London Collections Men more or less stalled this year with far fewer shows and no runway event by Burberry, the country’s one global luxury brand. However, Rush insists that the actual number of buyers and press was up on comparison to a year ago. Rush has also been very busy with mentoring, where London – again – leads other fashion weeks in terms of innovation and investment.

“I think a good example is the GQ menswear fund that Craig Green won. So, we go out to sponsors, in this case it’s Virgin, who very kindly have given us 150,000 pounds, which will go to Craig. It’s a very generous prize. It’s the third year that they’ve done it. Previously Patrick Grant and Christopher Shannon have won that prize. And then what we do is, we sit down with Craig. He has to pitch his business plan as part of winning the cash so we already know the areas that he’s looking to invest that money into, and we work with him on the areas where maybe being a small business you don’t have the expertise within the organi- zation. It’s a bit like a sponsorship where we bring together a bespoke team to work with each designer to develop their skills,” she explains.

And in terms of social media, London has left its rival capitals far behind. London was the first to live stream the shows to its central venue at Somerset house for fashion week – groundbreaking at the time. It marked the first time, the outside world really had the opportunity to come and see what happens in real time inside the show venues. Since then, the explosion in social media means you have everyone from the hair and make-up artists blogging backstage to the models, to editors in the front row to the people arriving outside doing the street styles.

“I think, this has got designers to really think differently about their business models because they are seeing that they have this engaged fan base that is giving them feedback so what they are really doing is figuring out how they can connect that to commerce. Of course, the bigger brands are doing this, too. What this enabled the designers to do is to think really early about getting into e-commerce because they have a channel to market and know that they have a fan base that’s interested,” she says.

Prince Charles even hosted a cocktail party for the debut of LCM.

Rush sees London far more embedded with technology with a whole community that is permanently on their phones, on Instagram, Snapchat or whatever else there will be. Throughout the city, one can spy runway shows, look backstage and see designers talking about their ideas on atscreens. LFW even has access to a giant screen in London’s noisiest capital, Piccadilly Circus.

Our UK cousins also invite far more foreign editors and buyers, and provide up to 50 chauffeurs driving Mercedeses to ferry them all to shows and presentations. Plus, the British roll out a far bigger red carpet to influential visitors. This author has been invited to Number 10 Downing Street on three separate occasions, when Samantha Cameron has hosted soirees mingling major editors, buyers, designers, CEOs and even some weird Asian gentlemanly bloggers – two of them wearing dresses. Prince Charles even hosted a cocktail party for the debut of LCM.

“I think the creative community, particularly the fashion eld, is very much connected to Europe.”

Glasgow-raised, this Scots lady moved to London when she was 22, and has never looked back. Rush began her career in financial PR, running her own little agency with a friend and working for clients that they liked and one of those was the British Fashion Council. We met just two weeks before Brexit and like most fashionistas she was adamantly against leaving Europe.

“I think the creative community, particularly the fashion eld, is very much connected to Europe. All of the talent in terms of seamstresses comes from Europe: CEOs, merchandisers and not just designers. There’s a lot of free movement of people and business talent that goes between the European countries where you don’t need to worry about working borders. We also see when you send deliveries to China or the US, they often get stuck in customs and you don’t have control over that. In Europe, they are there the next day and you don’t have a problem. I think it’s just so easy to trade with Europe, so I think there’s a big concern that if we are out, we will become isolated and that becomes a challenge,” she opined.

Unfortunately, we all know only too well what happened. And with Sam Cam now out of Number 10, who knows whether we shall see the inside again.

This article first appeared in Achtung issue 32, September 2016