What would London look like without Fashion East? The talent incubator, launched at the turn of the millennium by Lulu Kennedy MBE and the Old Truman Brewery, has propelled the careers of some of the finest design talents to operate within UK shores. Leafing through its alumni list feels akin to a tracklist for a greatest hits album, packed not with pop bangers but stellar Brit fashion, whether that’s luxury behemoths (Kim Jones, Jonathan Anderson) or culture-leading namesakes (Martine Rose, Simone Rocha, Wales Bonner). Fashion East has fostered an endless conveyor belt of fresh-blooded designers that continue to redefine London style each season.
The non-profit – which has supported more than 150 designers in the 23 years since it was founded – is still headed up by Kennedy. For the last seven she’s been joined at the hip with Raphaelle Moore. There are plenty of easier jobs out there than playing fashion’s fairy godmother, especially as young designers flounder during the cost-of-living crisis and continue to feel the aftermath of Brexit and the pandemic. Yet the pair do so with a sense of joy and unshakable determination that makes them one of our industry’s most vital units. “We’re just thankful that we get to have this much fun while being purposeful,” says Kennedy. Together they’re infectious, often breaking out in fits of giggles throughout our Zoom call like two best mates cracking jokes at the back of the classroom.
The stories come thick and fast. From backstage glue-gun dramas, as designers piece together the finishing touches to their collections before hitting the catwalk, to the one time a designer rocked up two hours after call time “carrying their whole collection in bin bags with a tinny in hand,” says Kennedy, chuckling.
Kennedy admires Moore most for her empathy and attention to detail (“your skills complement my madness”), while it’s Kennedy’s strong intuition, caring qualities and wicked sense of humour that make working at Fashion East HQ the dream job, says Moore. Fashion East works with emerging brands over a three-season period, with support including a showcase during London Fashion Week as well as mentoring and helping designers secure financial bursaries and grants. So when they open applications for brands at the beginning of their careers, their tastes in talent usually match up. What are they looking for? “Visuals first,” says Moore, “and strong storytelling.” Has there been one application that’s stuck out over the years? “Maximilian [Davis], for sure. His aesthetics just stood out completely,” says Moore. “It already felt like a fully-formed brand,” adds Kennedy.
The Manchester-born designer joined Fashion East in the thick of the pandemic and upon graduating from the incubator was snapped up by Salvatore Ferragamo to join the house as its new creative director. Davis is part of a lineage of bright success stories born out of Fashion East. Watching his debut for the house in September 2022 was a tearjerker for them both. “We were in such a pickle weren’t we? Literally shaking, trying to keep the screams in,” says Kennedy.
East London’s pubs and clubs have offered prime opportunities for Kennedy to meet budding talent. She connected with the likes of Davis, Mowalola and ASAI on the dance floor of seminal queer POC club night PDA and first got chatting to current Fashion East designer Olly Shinder in the smoking area of Chapter 10.
“Craig [Green] used to work behind the bar of [now-closed gay pub/club] The Joiners Arms, so when I first saw his static presentation at Central Saint Martins I thought, I know your face!” says Kennedy. “He knew how to articulate his work and there were hardly any clothes, just a lot on paper and his process – I thought, that boy’s a genius.” That instant spark could be said for Kim Jones, too. “Kim’s first show [in September 2003] looked like it could’ve been a Paris show but it was just in the 291 Gallery on Hackney Road. Sometimes people in fashion have such an ease about them, there’s no pain. They just know what they’re doing and they’re really happy doing it.”
At the time, Jones – traditionally trained in menswear, he now designs for both Dior and Fendi – couldn’t show at London Fashion Week unless he designed womenswear, too. “There were all these weird rules and I was just so baffled by it all,” says Kennedy, who sprang into action and called upon Topman to help launch MAN, a dedicated scheme that tapped into city’s menswear talent. They gave the likes of JW Anderson, Martine Rose, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy and Stefan Cooke their first major catwalk breaks.
Lulu Kennedy and Raphaelle Moore in the Fashion East office at the Old Truman Brewery, where the non-profit talent incubator has been based for 23 years
Kennedy never aspired to work in fashion, always imagining she’d end up in music instead. In the early ’90s she was throwing mega raves in Naples, “chasing the fun and not really worrying about much”. Moving back to London in 1995, she met the owner of Old Truman Brewery at an art gallery, who offered her a job of hiring out the building’s warehouse spaces for parties, art shows and fashion events. A few years in, her pals Hazel Robinson and Pablo Flack, who ran the label House of Jazz, were looking to showcase their collection but didn’t have enough funds for a venue. Kennedy convinced Trumans to let the brand show in one of its warehouses for free, which lit a spark in her to set something up where she could help platform emerging talents. Luckily, they were into the idea and have financially supported Fashion East ever since.
“I always thought fashion was quite up itself; I’d look through magazines and couldn’t really relate to this glamorous, luxury world,” says Kennedy. “I just knew the local kids who were working in their bedrooms and I happened to have warehouses that were great for shows and parties.” A cocktail of naivety and fearlessness got Fashion East through its “early days of chaos,”she says.“I remember a time we were sponsored by Smirnoff and for one show me and David Waddington [founder of Hackney restaurant Bistroteque] thought we could run a bar, just the two of us, without bar staff, as though we were having a few mates come round. We ran out of booze in about 10 minutes.”
Fashion East has always been built from a DIY attitude, as Kennedy had to learn most things on the job. Like managing audience capacities and dealing with sponsors pulling out at the last minute, or securing locations on “shoestring budgets”. Some of the pair’s favourite shows over the years have been held inside the ICA, Tate Modern, Camden’s Electric Ballroom, (where Gareth Pugh electrified audiences with his light-up SS06 finale gown) and the tunnels beneath Somerset House (where they had to clear out a load of cobwebs before the guests arrived).
What’s continuously got Fashion East over the line all these years is the imperative support of its extended family. Like PR supremos Mandi Lennard and Sophie Jewes, the team at Nike, producer Claire Burman and the writer Charlie Porter, who has been a “sounding board” for Kennedy since the early days and remains a member of the panel that decides who gets Fashion East backing each season. “We call in so many favours and discounts and without any of those we just couldn’t do it,” says Moore. “We’re so thankful for anyone who has ever done us a solid.”
Being catalysts to a wealth of flourishing design careers means the pair’s own wardrobes are littered with some of the most revered designer labels around. Moore’s is packed to the brim with KNWLS (“I just want to wear their stuff every time I step out the front door”), while Kennedy cherishes particular pieces for their emotional currency, “like my wedding dress designed by Jonathan Saunders. I actually wore it out before my wedding, I couldn’t resist. He was also at the party and was like, ‘Lulu, what are you going to wear to your wedding?!’ And so with a week to spare I went to the gorgeous Sophia Kokosalaki and she made me one really quick.”
The duo have sought innovative ways to support their alumni after graduating from Fashion East. Its XLNC Programme with Ugg, for instance, offers one designer each year a £20,000 grant to stage a show during London Fashion Week, alongside significant investment towards producing their collection (its first recipients were KNWLS and Ashley Williams).
They’ve also brought Fashion East to an international stage, working with the Swedish Fashion Council to stage a one- off show with alumni at the British Embassy in Stockholm in 2022 and uniting with the body again to open a showroom in Paris, so emerging talent can meet with buyers and press during Fashion Week. Outside Fashion East, Moore has also been busy working with Flannels as a member of its creative council, where as part of a talented pool of beloved industry names she helps steer the retailer’s exhibitions, pop-ups and special projects at its Oxford Street hub.
While there are increasingly more fashion prizes and support schemes available to designers today than when Fashion East began, with brands being able to materialise straight from an Instagram profile, emerging labels are still faced with the “same old shit”, says Kennedy. Being ripped off by big brands, for example, or not having enough money to stage collections and produce clothes at a price that’s affordable. What keeps them both going? “We never stop and think about it. Seeing any form of success or anyone doing well or listening to advice, it is just so rewarding,” says Moore. “I think part of me is just bloody-minded and I enjoy the fight for people,” adds Kennedy. “I should’ve given up long ago, but I won’t. I should’ve just gone and got a job and been rich, but I won’t. We find joy and appreciation in the little things.”
Photography by Elliot Morgan.
Moore and Kennedy look for visuals first and then strong storytelling from potential Fashion East designers