Who foots the bill for those absolutely fabulous shows?


Invitations to fashion shows are often as interesting as the shows themselves - studded denim, gilt-edged or shaped like a fan, they operate like flirtatious glances coyly tempting the audience along. However, one invitation sent out this week had a most unusual angle. "Haute Cuisine meets Haute Couture," it promised, inviting us to designer Richard Lewis's spring/summer 2000 collection, created in association with Lakeshore foods. Those who went to Dublin Castle on Tuesday night were offered Mediterranean muffins and baroque silk skirts, devils on horseback and hand painted silk, salmon-coloured dresses and salmon and olive wraps.

This was no stunt to grab the headlines, in the same way John Galliano sent the Dior models down the Paris couture catwalks wearing dresses adorned with cheese graters and empty Jack Daniels bottles. This was an evening of frocks and canapes, disguising a very necessary meeting of big business and fashion. "Put it this way: without Lakeshore we couldn't have afforded Dublin Castle. We wouldn't have had the budget for the food and the drink. We'd still have had the collection but we wouldn't have been able to create that buzz." As part of an on-going competition, Lakeshore will also be buying some 14 Richard Lewis outfits over the coming months - "and that's a hell of a lot" - as competition prizes.

Fashion is usually seen as a glamorous business, full of big egos, big frocks and big bucks, but the truth is often very different. Designer Marc O'Neill points out: "When they're starting out, young designers will only get a few orders, each of which will bring in at most three or four thousand pounds. Any kind of sponsorship to help out with the huge expense of marketing is a great help."

Most designers starting out will look for a sponsor to fund a trip to London Fashion Week or, eventually, to fund some sort of a show. "This is really necessary as it immediately puts you on a different level. The only difficulty is that you then need to do the same the next year and you have to start being very proactive about looking for sponsors."

O'Neill has had a good experience of sponsors - Audi cars and MA International clothing manufacturers were the main sponsors for his last show, held in a city centre car-park. Audi gave funds as well as corporate drivers to collect the British press from their Cityjet-funded flights, while MA International matched those funds but were prepared to maintain a quieter profile. During the recent London Fashion Week, sponsors were very much in evidence, be it Top Shop paying for Tracey Boyd's show as part of the deal by which she designs a diffusion range for them, or the Turkish fabric importer's board supporting Hussein Chalayan.

So what does the sponsor get out of the deal? "It really depends on what they want - Audi wanted a good profile and we were able to offer them an event attended by more than 1,000 25 to 35-year-olds" says O'Neill. "MA International on the other hand were more interested in supporting me and making sure that my manufacturing needs in the long run were kept high."

A designer can offer the company's name on a press release, inclusion on the invite and if you've got a fancy lighting designer, a "goby" or lit-up revolving stencil of the company's name. "Fashion is a media magnet after all," points out O'Neill.

Malachy McCloskey of Lakeshore Foods says that sponsoring a designer such as Richard Lewis gives them an edge in a competitive market where most of the other angles - free barbecues, T-shirts and aprons - have been exhausted. "It's about innovation and being interesting," he says.

While most designers are realistic about their reliance on a sponsor, there can be drawbacks, says O'Neill. "When you're doing a show, you're going for a certain look that's clean and pared back and is very much your look. If a company doesn't work with you and comes along with the same load of banners they use at every event, it can ruin it. There's good branding and bad branding."

Sponsors, he claims, would not normally attempt to influence the content of a collection, although he points to the high content of fur in Julien MacDonald's recent London show and his sponsorship by a firm of furriers. "Obviously they would have wanted to see their fur in the show."

Richard Lewis, meanwhile, is up-beat about the relationship between fashion and business. "In my experience it's always been `you know your job, we know ours'."