London Fashion Week will be a success but designers hit by loss of VAT-free shopping

A model wearing a L Saha dress (l saha)
A model wearing a L Saha dress (l saha)

Summer 2023 has been far from ideal for the High Street, with a washout July knocking sales and most recently a September heatwave arriving just as jackets and knitwear hit store floors. So retailers in the capital will relish the prospect of scores of well-heeled, and often high-spending, fans of designer goods being in town for London Fashion Week (LFW).

The clothing extravaganza starting on Friday boasts a line-up of 137 brands, and there are plenty of catwalks, presentations and parties to excite label lovers, influencers, retail buyers and fashion editors.

Attendees are likely to boost West End footfall during the five-day global showcase of talent, and some firms will be looking closely at the shopping areas that prove popular as they eye potential new store openings.

In encouraging signs for the capital’s fashion business sector, latest research from property consultancy Colliers suggests there will be plenty of retail activity beyond LFW. The firm estimates there were requirements by 71 fashion and accessories brands for debut or additional London stores in the first half.

While that is 17% lower than a year earlier, it still means there is plenty of investment appetite, and there have been a string of openings already in 2023 such as Gucci’s boutique on New Bond Street.

Paul Souber, head of London retail at Colliers, says: “We continue to experience extremely strong levels of demand from luxury fashion houses and brands who are opening bigger, better flagship stores with full product range and memorable instore experiences.”

But he cautions: “What is becoming increasingly clear is that we have lost competitive advantage to other European cities by the removal of tax-free shopping for overseas visitors.”

Souber is not alone in voicing concerns over the 2021 axing of VAT-free shopping. The move has made purchases in the UK 20% more costly for international visitors. Independent designer Edeline Lee, who produces all of her clothing in the UK and launched her eponymous company in 2013, believes the loss of duty-free shopping makes it more difficult for small, British firms to compete with their European counterparts.

The designer is among LFW participants that would rather several economic headwind trends were out of fashion, from soaring bills to supply chain headaches.

The model wears a dress designed by Edeline Lee (Eva K Salvi)
The model wears a dress designed by Edeline Lee (Eva K Salvi)

Laboni Saha, the founder of womenswear brand L Saha, says: “The biggest hurdle in the UK is the increasing cost of running the business. There are Brexit-related costs (our supply chain is spread across EU) and inflation. As a young business we are finding it increasingly challenging to remain profitable from sales in the UK.”

Saha adds: “Despite the challenges, London has an allure and appeal as a fashion capital that few other cities can match.”

Meanwhile George Graham, chief executive of retailer Wolf & Badger which has a store in King’s Cross and is hosting a LFW party, says other issues businesses are grappling with include “ extraordinarily” high utility costs.

He also warns that any future significant jump in business rates “could be very harmful, particularly given prime retail rents remain high”.

In spite of the difficulties, LFW participants look committed to London and say the capital remains a top fashion destination. But luxury goods trade body Walpole thinks the Government should do more to ensure this city stays in vogue with businesses and their customers.

Walpole’s chief executive Helen Brocklebank says: “London Fashion Week’s success is a testament to the excellence and creativity of the brands that show here.”

However, Brocklebank adds: “We need the Government to work with business to create legislation that supports future growth including a return of tax-free shopping and a reformed business rates system. We should not take for granted that shoppers will always spend here when the UK is now effectively the most expensive place to shop in Europe.”