Denise Kingsmill: Our designer genes

Britain's talent for fashion is recognised all over the world, yet we do far too little here to support new generations of creatives.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 11 Jul 2012

I started my working life in Paris, sitting on little gold chairs at Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and the like, scribbling away, trying to identify and describe the fashion trends that were going to be the hits of the following season. It was great fun and, under the tutelage of two very stylish French women, I began to understand and recognise good design. I spent six years in the heady world of fashion, working with highly talented designers, whose creativity and innovation contributed to establishing France as a global leader in the fashion industry and to the growth of some of its biggest companies, such as LVMH and PPR. There is, in France, a real sense of national pride in this achievement and a recognition that the fashion industry is as important to France's economy as, say, car manufacturing, as well as being part of the cultural heritage.

Britain also has a flourishing fashion industry, which in 2010 was estimated to have contributed £37bn, directly and indirectly, to our GDP, according to a recent report by the British Fashion Council. However, this is small beer compared with the giant fashion design houses of Italy, France and the United States. British fashion businesses, with some honourable exceptions such as Burberry, tend to be small, family-owned mills and manufacturers that emphasis quality and craftsmanship rather than leading-edge design.

We produce great designers through world-class institutions such as the London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins. These brilliant young British creatives are recognised throughout the industry for their 'edgy', innovative styles and many are head-hunted away to Paris, Milan and New York, where their talents are more appreciated and rewarded than they are here. Designers such as Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo are well-established British names who have found the design environment more supportive in France and Italy than here - as did the late Alexander McQueen - and have been enabled to develop their own hugely successful global brands as a result.

What is less well known is that many of the big international design houses such as Marc Jacobs and Prada are full of the brightest and best British designers, who have been unable to find an outlet for their talents in the UK. The design studios of the American fashion giants Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren are bursting with gifted British designers, as are those of Kenzo and Jil Sander. As one distinguished magazine editor told me: 'British designers are the creative engine of the global fashion industry.'

We seem able to produce great design talent, although our design colleges are woefully underfunded, but it appears we just don't know how to use it, develop it and nurture it. We don't take design seriously and we certainly don't enable our designers to flourish in the way other countries do. In France, for example, the government has said it will help struggling designers by creating a fashion bank and by the state acting as a guarantor for loans. A new role for RBS perhaps? Although, judging by the many pictures of Stephen Hester in 'hunting and shooting' gear, unlikely. What a waste of an opportunity to harness the excellence of our young designers, so appreciated elsewhere in the world!

As we slip down the world's economic rankings, it is vital that we do not neglect the talents of designers. There are many sectors where design can create significant growth. The brilliant Sir Jonathan Ive, whose creative partnership with Steve Jobs made Apple one of the world's biggest companies, provides an example of how a business can be transformed by a great designer. Richard Rogers' superbly designed Terminal 5, which has so enhanced passengers' experience of airports, is another. Manufacturing firm Dyson, too, demonstrates how innovative engineering design can completely change our perception of mundane domestic appliances and create economic growth and success. In these more industrial sectors, as well, British designers are much sought after, by the likes of Ferrari, for example. If only we had a British car industry where their talents could be used.

Design and technology is a popular subject in schools. Young people like the problem-solving it entails and it is always satisfying to have an end product. I remember the garments I designed when I was at school with more pride (even though they were unwearable) than any essay I ever wrote. We need to encourage and improve the teaching in design and ensure its place in the National Curriculum. There is an enormous appetite among children and young people for this.

I was deputy chairman of the Design Museum for about six years and this superb institution, under the consistent sponsorship and guidance of Sir Terence Conran, ran many hugely popular education programmes for young people. Its exhibitions raised awareness of the importance of design in a variety of fields, from street furniture to wallpaper, from shoes to aero engines and many others. But more needs to be done to ensure that the creative and innovative design talent for which we are justly praised in other countries is properly nurtured and recognised at home.

We must stop being dazzled by bankers and the financial sector and develop other areas of excellence if we are to compete effectively in a post-recession economy.

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director on various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com.

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