Behind the glitz and glamour of London Fashion Week

London Fashion Week is glamour, glitz and the beautful people seeing and being seen. Right? ALICE WYLLIE goes behind the scenes to discover appearances can be deceptive and that it’s really all about big business

‘WHO’S that tall woman in the front row, the one with the bad nose job who thinks everyone should know who she is?” Overheard at Sunday’s Nicole Farhi show, these are the kind of soundbites heard routinely at London Fashion Week, a biannual event that lives up to its reputation for flamboyance, whimsy and air kissing at every opportunity.

However, it’s also an event that’s frequently misunderstood, interpreted as a week of beautiful people seeing and being seen. It’s now in its 28th year, and many outside the industry aren’t quite sure what the point of it is. But today, as the six-day festival of fashion draws to a close for another season, buyers from around the world will have placed orders worth over £100 million. Despite the champagne and the air kisses, the chauffeurs and stilettos, this is a very serious business.

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It is a trade show of mammoth proportions. After all, the fashion industry contributes a massive £21 billion to the UK economy each year. For buyers it’s a chance to place orders for the pieces they want to stock next season, for the fashion press it’s an opportunity to see what shape their editorial coverage will take six months from now, and for the rest of the fashion-conscious world it’s a glimpse into what we’ll be wearing at the end of the year, whether our wardrobes are made up of designer pieces or high-street designs inspired by catwalk looks.

As for celebrities, they benefit from rubbing up against cool brands, while those labels are more than happy to sit them front row in return for acres of extra press coverage.

It’s not all glamour, however. Gallons of champagne are consumed, glittering parties are thrown, but the realities of keeping the wheels oiled, getting models from show to show and trying to stay on schedule in an industry that’s always fashionably late is a grubby business.

After the Pringle of Scotland show on Monday, the public toilets were packed with models having the product washed out of their hair before being rushed to their next show. At yesterday’s David Koma show, after some last-minute departures from the front row, a staff member brandishing a walkie talkie urged us to move forward just before the lights went down, causing a stampede for the coveted front-row spots where one person fell to the floor.

And backstage at Holly Fulton yesterday, each model had multiple hairdressers and make-up artists crowding them while dressers rushed around with rails of clothes and a cloud of hairspray hung in the air. Despite organisers’ best efforts, it kicked off 20 minutes late (it’s rare for a show to start on time), with the lights dropping as the photographers at the end of the catwalk screamed at the people in the front row to uncross their legs to stop feet obscuring the photographs.

As with most shows, students and overdressed club kids who have blagged their way in stand at the back; influential buyers and editors, including US Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour sit up front; The rest of us are squeezed onto benches somewhere in the middle.

There’s a frisson of excitement as the protective covering is whipped off the catwalk, the music kicks in, the catwalk lights up, Wintour puts on her trademark sunglasses in order to maintain her poker face and the first model emerges.

Everyone immediately takes to Twitter to share photos and observations. Each designer trends in the UK on the social networking site as soon as the show opens and some even trend worldwide. Many shows are also streamed online so that fashion fans can watch at home.

A matter of minutes later, however, it’s all over and a rush to the next show ensues. Around half of the shows take place in a specially erected tent at Somerset House, just off The Strand, while the rest are dotted across the city.

Audiences dash between them, running the gauntlet of people who hang around the courtyard at Somerset House snapping shots to put on their blogs. Indeed plenty of bystanders dress up just to hang around this particular catwalk, whether or not they’ve snared any tickets for shows.

London is known as the edgiest, most creative of the four big fashion weeks, with Paris, Milan and New York taking the commercial crowns. The shows in London are the place to go to see cutting-edge creativity and to be reminded that fashion really can be an exquisite art form. Last season editors shed tears in the front row at the debut of Christopher Kane’s accomplished SS12 collection.

In recent years, however, in addition to the edgy young designers it is known for, London Fashion Week has played host to labels with considerable commercial weight behind them. The Burberry show, for example, is such a big event that the fashion world starts talking about it online from the moment it kicks off.

As I rushed along the cream carpet at Monday’s show brandishing my ticket, a crowd seven deep screamed at the numerous celebrities who had turned up to sit front row. It had the air of a film premiere, with the specially constructed tent at Hyde Park full to the brim with famous faces, and there was security everywhere. As for the show itself, as always, it was pure theatre.

Burberry tweeted clips of each look just before they hit the runway so the rest of the world could be in on it too, but there was a special treat for those of us in the tent. As the last model exited the catwalk, there was a rumble of thunder over the sound system, and staged rain poured down the transparent canvas above our heads. Models re-emerged carrying umbrellas as glitter rained down on them. Even Wintour smiled at the whimsy of it all.

At Mulberry, held in Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair first thing on Sunday, guests were sent huge gold keys as invitations and walked through rooms filled with giant gold padlocks to get to the runway. A-listers including Michelle Williams, Lana Del Rey and Bill Nighy filled the front row (singer Pixie Lott was seen storming out when she was asked to sit second row) and as we exited past a scrum of paparazzi after the show, we were given bacon rolls and bloody Marys to sustain us. Like Burberry, this was a show designed to grab headlines. And it did.

London Fashion Week is an event of epic proportions. The UK fashion industry is the largest employer in the creative industries, supporting 1.3 million jobs, about 4.5 per cent of the employed population.

The industry generates nearly 2 per cent of Britain’s GDP and London Fashion Week is its starry showcase, one of the best places to see a harmonious marriage between cutting-edge creativity and the nuts and bolts of commerce. I’ll raise a glass of champers to that.