Colour and texture inspire Henry Bertrand silks
There was plenty of buzz and business at the small but perfectly formed London Textile Forum (30 September - 1 October), where 13 agents and mills presented fabric collections aimed at the more directional and specialist buyer. Tania Casselle reports.

The architectural elegance of the RIBA building set the tone for the show, and the convenience of the venue, just off Oxford Circus, was a plus point in attracting visitors including Belville Sassoon, Jacques Azagury, Antoni and Alison, Ghost, Maria Grachvogel, Justin Oh, Arcadia and Laura Ashley.

"We've seen a few high street people, but our stuff is more couture, and we've been visited by new customers we've never seen before," said Matthew Bradshaw of Bradshaw and Bradshaw. "Lots say they like the small show. Some clients who buy smaller minimums don't do Première Vision - but they can do Textile Forum in a day."

The open-plan arrangement of Textile Forum, with no formal booths or dividing walls between exhibitors, created a relaxed, social atmosphere that seemed popular with visitors and exhibitors alike.

The informal layout reflects the ethos behind Textile Forum, which was established in 2002 as a non-profit making venture by nine founding companies with the support of the British Apparel and Textile Confederation.

This industry-led "Let's put on a show" model was cited by many as key to making Textile Forum work. The no-frills, low-overheads approach keeps the show financially manageable and also keeps the emphasis on serving a specific sector of buyers and exhibitors.

"We really do need a show, but not a commercial enterprise in terms of having to make a profit," said Laurent Garigue of Laurent Garigue Partnership.

"It's important that the UK has a show, as a lot of people can't show at Première Vision, so here we're still burning a candle for UK manufacturers," said Saffron Hare of James Hare Silks.

Rise and fall
Let's face it, the Brits have plenty of experience with fabric shows that rise and fall, partly due to the economic struggles that have plagued the British textile and apparel industry over the last decade. However, it looks like Textile Forum will avoid the mistakes of other home-grown events that became overly ambitious in their expansion, or lost direction and focus, resulting in an incoherent offer.

"We want to expand with a couple more merchants and agents to broaden the fabric range, but at the same time keep it fairly tight," said Adam Mansell, executive for BATC. "We're quite dictatorial on who we let in, but we would take exhibitors from continental Europe and further afield if they met the standards."

In order to keep costs down, promotion to buyers is largely the responsibility of the merchants and agents involved.

"It's up to exhibitors to send out invitations to the people they want to come," says Mansell. "That's more personal, so it's going to be better than any database you can buy in."

"This show is the backbone of what London is about in terms of offer," said Laurent Garigue. "It's for small to medium designers, and top end. Rather than traipsing around 14 showrooms, they can see it all under one roof."

"Our customers don't make decisions at Première Vision, and people spend longer looking here because it's a smaller show," said Saffron Hare. "I think it's better to be last in the season because you stick in their minds."

"This is a mopping up exercise," added Alan Taylor of Alan Taylor Agencies. "PV is so big they can't see everything they need to see, so they come here to fill in the gaps."

Collection directions
This edition's collections were geared strongly towards silks, laces, sheers and decorative lightweight fabrics, which drew a healthy turnout of bridal wear designers. A few more wool houses would be a welcome addition, and are likely to appear in future seasons.

Generally, the business atmosphere was buoyant and merchants were vaunting their low minimum orders as a selling point, although some agents may have been disadvantaged by the emphasis on small runs.

"Merchants have stock, but you can't have two and a half metres from an agent!," said Alan Taylor.

Highlights of the Textile Forum included Laurent Garigue's fabulous digital prints, plaid mohairs in acid drop brights, and space dyed fringes and braids. Pongees' crystal studded organzas were fresh and sweet, and Henry Bertrand's hand-painted effect florals and watercolour print chiffons also caught the eye.

Basinghall's hottest picks were a brushed Raschel lace on an elastane base, and a glamorous sculptured velvet with chinchilla effect pile in gleaming silver and gold.

"This show is ideas and design led and visitors are looking for something different," said Basinghall's Chris Day. "If I ask buyers what they want, they reply 'I don't know what it is until I see it'. They are still looking for summer 2004, as well as for early winter."

Stand-outs at Bradshaw & Bradshaw were Solstiss' highly embellished lace, gauze and mesh qualities combining Belle Epoque extravagance with updated colourways; and Denholme embossed floral velvets.

"Price is less of a problem now than it used to be," said Matthew Bradshaw. "People will pay a lot for one good dress, and where the limit used to be £100 a metre, now it's going up to £350."

"Price was a criterion before, but today if it's £20 a metre that's OK, whereas they wouldn't go beyond £10 before" agreed Laurent Garigue. "The ones they buy at £7 a metre don't sell; the ones at £17 do. People are looking for something with a twist, something odd and different to what everyone else is offering.

"The elitist level is what Europeans are about, and the day you try to go down to mass market level is the day you're dead," added Garigue. "You can see the mills with high minimums at other shows. We've finished chasing the volume end. This show sells from a position of strength."

The next Textile Forum will be held on 10 and 11 March 2004 at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1.

By Tania Casselle.