Hilary Alexander On Her FROW Style & The Designers Getting Her Heart Racing

With a twitter following of 232,235 (and counting) and opinions on football, Strictly Come Dancing and politics, among other things, it would be easy to forget that Hilary Alexander is one of fashion's most powerful women, with the likes of Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld on speed dial. But then you meet her and she starts to talk! Her unrivalled passion and deep knowledge of the industry make her my dream interviewee, and combined with her girlish giggle and mischievous glint she's pretty much my favourite person ever!

Grazia Daily: So London Fashion Week kicks off on Friday, are you excited?
Hilary Alexander: Very much so! I can't wait…

GD: London was once seen as the 'poor cousin' next to Paris, Milan and New York. They struggled to keep big designers and attract international editors, why do you think that's changed?
HA: Getting a new structure with Caroline Rush heading up new administration in the British Fashion Council, a new chairman and new people involved in the PR. Also, I think they've somehow shaken up the fashion world and showing that Britain is really where it all begins. There's no doubt that British fashion colleges and London fashion colleges in particular-Central Saint Martins, Royal College of Art, London College of Fashion-produce some of the best designers in the world. We have a track record that stretches back 25-30 years and you can't deny that. If you come to London you actually see where fashion begins.

GD: London has always been noted for incubating creativity but do you think its now managed to combine commerciality, which maybe it hadn't been seen to do before?
HA: Yes, I think it's been possible through quite a number of schemes. One of the things is Fashion Fringe, then there's Vogue's Fashion Fund and Fashion Forward, not to mention Topshop's New Gen. There are all these schemes now which provide the funding, the mentoring, the business advice and the help so that a brand doesn't just have the exposure on the catwalk during LFW. They're actually encouraged to create a business, build a brand, understand everything to do with financing and deliveries and production which is incredibly important.

GD: So, is it that they're actually teaching these designers these skills or are they providing them with a team to handle the business side of things so that they can get on with the genius creative stuff?!
HA: They generally put them in touch with business or industry leaders that can guide them. Young designers who win a prize are put in touch with more established designers, manufacturers or editors, even financiers or investment people who can explain to them the nuts and bolts. It's not just about doing a sketch and creating a fabulous frock!

JW Anderson Topshop
JW Anderson Topshop

JW Anderson x Topshop

GD: So, what is it you look for? When you sit down and watch a graduate show or a new designer, what is it that excites you? When do you know, this is a big deal AND when was the last time you felt that?
HA: JW, Anderson! It's hard to explain. It starts in your heart, then it spreads to your eyes and then it hits your mouth! The heart starts beating, the eyes get wider and you say 'Yes!'.  I find it very difficult to exclaim exactly; it's a combination of colour, of print, of cut. It's everything to do with fashion but it's also something you've never seen before.

GD: So, essentially that element of surprise is what you're waiting for?!
HA: Yes, the surprise, the delight. The passion and the fact that it somehow effects all the senses.  

GD: It's funny, J.W Anderson recently said his aim is to continue to shock.
HA: Yes, but he shocks in a nice way. He shocks in a way which is wearable and there's always a reference to something so you get an idea of where he's starting from. Even his AW collection, there was a hint of traditional English-ness in the tweeds and oversized knits. It's fantastic when you see a brand like that coming through, that's amazing.

GD: What other designers have got your 'heart racing' over the years?
HA: I felt the same when I saw the very first Mary Katrantzou and that was just in an exhibition under New Gen rather than on the catwalk. Other designers like Chris Kane who I've followed since he won the Harrods Design Award, Jonathan Saunders, Louise Gray, Holly Fulton-there's something, there's just a connection.

GD: Sitting front row at fashion week must bring it's own pressures. Do you ever feel like you want to pull a Wintour and throw on a pair of sunnies on so that no one can see your reaction? Is it obvious from your face if you're underwhelmed!?
HA: Probably! But no to the sunnies. I'm probably not as good at Poker Face as Lady Gaga or Anna Wintour. If it's frightful I find myself turning off and shutting down. I have been known to close my notebook. That would be if it's really, truly frightful! There tends to be a terrible hushed silence… generally it only happens when it's ill conceived, badly made, awful colours, clothes don't fit the models, buttons falling off, threads dangling, models in bare feet as they can't wear the shoes. It's a complete nightmare and you think, 'this should never have been put on the catwalk'.

GD: Is there any way to come back from a show like this?
HA: Yes! With a fabulous collection. Do your homework, don't show on the catwalk until you're ready. Do an edited collection-six great pieces on mannequins with half a dozen editors. It's much better than doing a shoddy, mish-mas of a show. 

front row topshop unique london

FROWing at Topshop Unique

GD: You mentioned Mary Katrantzou and J.W Anderson. How do you feel about collaborations in general?
HA: I think they're an exceptionally good idea. I think they work two ways. They give young designers a bit of bread and butter which means they don't have to worry quite so much about how they're going to pay for fabric or machinists or studio space. And the store also gets the benefit of having a new name, and it means that young girls on a budget who couldn't afford to buy JW Anderson, Hussein Chalayan, Louise Gray or whoever at their normal designer prices can tap into an idea. I think it's good for the industry in general, so that young designers don't just become names only known at London Fashion Week, that they reach a much wider audience and that members of the public realise how important the fashion business is t the country. It's huge industry and employer in the UK…

GD: Some people still consider the fashion industry to be quite niche. Has this perception changed since you started?
HA: Oh definitely. It began to change probably about 3-4 years ago, we started getting regular receptions in 10 Downing St. That was a huge breakthrough. John Major did one, in fact I engineered the photo with John and Alexander McQueen, I thought it had to be done! But it was really under Samantha Cameron, along with the new line up at the BFC and the fact also that Anna Wintour is coming regularly. There's a whole new perspective, we've upped our game and it's now running on a completely different plateau, it's much more professional. Burberry's back in the fold, we have McQ here for the first time, Stella McCartney did her one off show. The only thing is that the better we get the greater the more the pressure is each season to make it even better. But, I think we have enough new designers to pull it off, the world is watching.

GD: Do you think the appointment of Natalie Massenet at the BFC will help to keep London in the spotlight. It's a genius move, right?
HA: It is! I think she's be brilliant. She's a women, she totally understands fashion, she's got worldwide contacts and I think we can confidently except a most amazing fashion week under her leadership. She's got the mix of business acumen and fashion flair which is an absolute killer combination. I think she's going to be amazing!   

GD: So, what shows are you most looking forward to this season?
HA: Well, JW Anderson is one of my tops, Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Louise Gray. But I also really look forward to Margaret Howell she's kind of the hidden secret of British fashion.

GD: You'll be sitting front row at the shows, do you feel any pressure to dress in a certain way?
HA: No! Well I mean I try to have neat nails and my hair cur, no ladders in my stockings but I just really enjoy clothes and I love going to fashion shows. So, for me, it's not about what I'm wearing, it's about being there and being part of the whole, fantastic atmosphere.

GD: Tribal jewellery is your thing. Do you think it's important for women to have a signature look?
HA: Yes, my signatures are tribal jewellery and ethnic clothing. I think it's nice to have one thing that you think defines you or one thing you like, then you can just wear a black polo neck and whatever it is. Like Coco Chanel with pearls!

Somehow I don't think Coco was quite as cool as our Hilary!

by Angela Scanlon @angelascanlon

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