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Temperature Check: 4 Emerging Designers on the State of London Highsnobiety

This article is part of Not In London, a multi-media celebration of the English cultural capital. With parties, a pop-up store, brand collaborations, and more, check out everything that’s happening right here.

To a certain extent, the story of fashion since the late 1940s has been about wresting control of the industry from the musty couture salons of Paris. In this struggle, London has always had outsize influence, from the mods that gave rise to Mary Quant and Biba to the punks of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westood, the New Romantics and the queer culture that spurred the iconoclasm of Alexander McQueen to the historic romanticism of John Galliano. London’s fashion schools, led by Central St. Martins, have consistently nurtured creative talent, and the city’s healthy support system further propelled it, from the independent fashion media to the organizations charged with supporting British fashion such as the British Fashion Council, NewGen, and the Sarabande Foundation.

London understands something that a city like New York, with its hyper-individualistic and hyper-commercial mindset, cannot quite grock – that it takes an ecosystem to create successful designers; that talent does not come out of a vacuum but demands an environment. This includes the very fabric of the city itself, from dance clubs and art spaces to  walkable neighborhoods, all of which allow creatives to feed off the city and direct their energy back at it.

This mentality has created a London fashion scene that is vibrant, though not without its challenges. To better understand the world of being a designer in today’s London, and the challenges they inherently face, we caught up with four of the city’s young designers to take the temperature. 

nensi dojaka
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

Nensi Dojaka

How did you decide to become a fashion designer?

 It was something that developed naturally. Initially, I thought of studying architecture, but it then became clear I wanted to try something that came with even more creative “freedom,” something that contained more of a fantasy element to it. I ended up studying fashion after trying a few pathways. 

How did you develop your particular aesthetic?

Initially, I was doing a lingerie course. It was very technical and the focus was solely on details, rather than the bigger silhouette. This really informed the way I work today; hence my aesthetic.

What advantages does being a designer in London offer?

There’s a lot of support for when you first start out, and that really helps. There are many platforms that have been operating for decades that have launched the careers of many designers, and I went through similar routes.

nensi dojaka
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

nensi dojaka
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

What challenges do you face as a young designer?

A lot. For a young brand, there’s always the pressure to stay relevant (which is not necessarily the case for huge companies). You have to constantly show something that has a new point of view while trying to build a healthy business. You have to work on so many things at once and make sure they communicate well together; and you have to do this in a small team without the relevant expertise.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully, the brand will have been shaped into a whole universe with a very clear identity and a bigger product range, which would allow for retail stores, etc.

aaron esh
Courtesy of Aaron Esh, Press

Aaron Esh

How did you decide to become a fashion designer?

I grew up with a mother who was a sculptor. My dad was a musician. I was always interested in doing something creative. I got into an undergraduate course at St. Martin’s to do graphic design, and I lasted maybe six months. I realized I couldn’t go into an office and sit at a computer, and I needed to do something with my hands. I was interested in fashion, I was just really into Raf Simons and into the visual identities of these kids in Paris with a skateboard in their hands looking extremely chic with the holes in their jumpers. I felt quite aligned to understanding actually what that type of fashion was, as opposed to something like an Alaia gown. So, at 27, I got into the fashion program at Central St. Martins on a scholarship. And it was everything I kind of expected it to be – really fucking hard and extremely demanding. Which I think is kind of needed, because it’s a really hard industry, and they run that course to be the best. 

But I learned a lot about fashion as a medium of work, and I see it as no different from designing a house or a table or painting a picture; it’s a finished product surrounded by codes and imagery. Or at least that’s how I approach it in my practice. 

Everything moved very quickly after school. I graduated in 2022 and my graduate collection was picked up by Ssence, and then I was picked as one of the LVMH prize finalists, and we just did my debut show in London in September.

aaron esh
Courtesy of Aaron Esh, Press

aaron esh
Courtesy of Aaron Esh, Press

How did you develop your particular aesthetic?

What I like personally actually can be very different from my vestiary research. There, it ranges. I love old Alaia, and this almost upper class vintage Coco Chanel woman. I like clashing the aesthetics of the worlds of luxurious glamor and chic and elegance against someone in their 20s or 30s in a city like London. I think we did that in a really nice way last season, in an uncontrived way. It’s also very reminiscent of my friends, the clothes they wear and how we shop. And it feels quite new; no one is really doing something like this. And it’s authentic, which I think is really important –if someone likes it or not, that’s fine.

What advantages does being a designer in London offer?

It’s quite a unique city; people see it as a young designer city. It feels that people quite like it, because it offers a different point of view when it comes to dressing. There are so many amazing designers here that have a platform to exist, which maybe in other cities they don’t have. London Fashion Week really champions young designers. There is also NewGen from the British Fashion Council that’s financially supportive, and our studio is now at the Sarabande Foundation (started by Alexander McQueen to support young London designers) building. And here you can build relationships with a lot of people who are supportive of your work.

But also the city itself offers a lot of opportunities to see amazing fashion in the street. A Friday or Saturday night for me can feel like research, just looking at the way that people are wearing their clothes as lifestyle coding and visual identity. There’s a real city centric feel to my work that’s really important to me, and it could be down to a very clear reference of like, I know that club or that guy or that girl. And it doesn’t even have to be a club – post-Covid we don’t really go to clubs anymore. But I could find myself at three in the morning at a friend’s house, and the floor is sticky and the prosecco cost eight pounds, but everyone is dressed up. I find that so real, as opposed to when you sometimes see the clothes on a runway and it feels quite removed from reality.

What challenges do you face as a young designer?

The technicalities of running a small business with your ecosystem is hard enough without huge funding, so running a brand when you come from a relatively humble background is really challenging. And then going on a very specific calendar with so much competition and overhead, and a broken system in terms of wholesale is difficult for any brand, large or small. There’s no industry that contains more polar opposites than fashion, the idea of the glamor on the one end and the reality on the other.

The wholesale system just doesn’t work anymore. You have to find the money to pay the factories to release your new collection, but you are waiting for that money from your wholesale accounts, which may come thirty days later or not at all. Ssense has been incredibly supportive and they allowed us to be discovered on Google. We have not done any direct-to-consumer sales, but maybe it’s worth considering. I think Phoebe Philo showed everyone that it’s doable. 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I want to create a brand that has longevity. I’d like someone five years from now to be looking for my jackets on Vestiaire Collective. I don’t have any major plans beyond that. For now I am just happy we are in a building that has heat and a space for a sewing machine. I already feel incredibly lucky.

rejina pyo
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

Rejina Pyo

How did you decide to become a fashion designer? 

My passion for art and fashion design began at a young age, nurtured by the creative environment of my mother’s Seoul-based design studio, surrounded by fabrics, sketches, and endless creativity. Early on,I learned how to sew and began designing my own creations. After university, I began my career by working for a major apparel company in Korea. However, having my own brand was always my dream, and as I pored over magazines and fashion shows, I recognized that many prominent designers hailed from Central St Martins in London. This inspired me to apply for my master’s there and make the move to London. Part of why I wanted to start my own brand was that, in the beginning, when I was first starting out, I felt there was a gap in the market. Mega designer brands were too expensive, and my friends and I could not afford to buy from them. The high street was driven by quick trends, and the quality was lacking as well. I wanted to create pieces my friends and I would wear –pieces that are special but timeless, with great quality but more accessible.

How did you develop your particular aesthetic?

My aim is to create extraordinary clothing for extraordinary women to wear in their everyday life – to provide a complete wardrobe offer with designs that truly stand the test of time. My style is to combine an artistic sensibility with a considered understanding of wearability. Our industry can be overstimulating, so we strive to create clothing that is wearable and timeless, yet still exploring how expansive and dynamic it is to be a woman. 

rejina pyo
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

rejina pyo
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

What advantages does being a designer in London offer?

London is a wonderful city to be a fashion designer. There is so much inspiration here, from museums and galleries to architecture; the food to the arts. I often feel inspired by the women I see around London, just going about their days, on the street. The city provides a substantial reservoir of creative networks and mentorship groups too; there is always something new to learn from your fellow Londoners, and I find people have been very generous with their time and expertise. 

What challenges do you face as a young designer?

When I decided to move to the UK to attend Central St Martins, I didn’t speak a lot of English, and it was a very tough and intense program. Shortly after graduating, I won the Han Nefkans award and was able to fund starting my own label. While CSM developed my strengths as a designer, we didn’t learn much about the business side of things. When I first started I had to learn the hard way about production, pr, sales and wholesale, marketing… and I did it myself. The first years were incredibly challenging but slowly the company started to grow. 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

We were delighted to open our first permanent retail space in London’s Soho at the end of last year. It is a wonderful way to connect directly with our customer, and we have some exciting events and collaborations that are in the pipeline. Moreover, we are excited about extending our brand’s global reach and engaging with our community through events in new cities across the globe.

simone rocha
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

Simone Rocha

How did you decide to become a fashion designer?

When I went to college I found the best way I could translate ideas, express emotions, and tell stories was through clothes, fabrics, textiles, and handwork, so it was then that I decided I should become a fashion designer.

How did you develop your particular aesthetic?

There are recurrent sources of inspiration – family, Ireland, Hong Kong, Art, the natural world, but also always working with a balance of man-made and modern, femininity and strength to create clothing that can be both empowering, beautiful, and practical. 

simone rocha
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

simone rocha
Jacob Lillis / Courtesy of Simone Rocha, Press

What advantages does London have for you? 

London is a very creative city with a lot of places for inspiration – galleries, museums, architecture. It is a melting pot of ideas, identities, and cultures.

What challenges did you face as a young designer? 

When you are a young designer it’s important to stay true to your identity and build and grow from there, also to build a great team and to grow and be responsive to the world around them.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Creating collections that inspire others.

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