In March of this year, Winnipeg-born, London-based fashion designer Mark Fast met the Queen. It was a small reception at Buckingham Palace for the British clothing industry. Among the obvious guests were Vogue U.K. editor Alexandra Schulman, Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng and footwear legend Manolo Blahnik.
A contingent of emerging designers - including Jonathan Saunders, Holly Fulton and Fast, best known for his webby knit dresses - was also invited for champagne and canapés.
"[The Queen]said to me, 'You probably know everyone here,' " Fast says, "and I told her it's like a family."
As Fast recalls, the Queen responded, almost in hushed tones, "I'm sure it's very competitive."
But ask these young designers - seven of whom visited Toronto last month for a mini British invasion hosted by the Bay - and they all suggest that the opposite is true.
"I think there is a camaraderie and I've certainly been told that is unique to London," says Erdem Moralioglu, who, along with Christopher Kane, Giles Deacon, Nicholas Kirkwood and Roksanda Ilincic, is helping rebrand the London fashion scene as a thriving breeding ground for talent and innovation.
London has experienced many memorable fashion waves over the past 50 years, from Mary Quant mod minis to Biba era smocks, New Wave punks to nouveau dandies.
What defines this moment is the diversity of bold but wearable clothes combined with quality craftsmanship.
"Previously London was about fantasy," says Saunders, citing the decadent decade of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. "That was a very different time, when the clothes going down the runway were one concept and what [people]saw in store would be different. Whereas we don't really relate to that any more as a culture."
Still, Moralioglu, who studied at Ryerson before interning for Vivienne Westwood, cites the current support for a multiplicity of styles. "I think there's an individuality; we very much march to our own drummer and I think there's an allowance for that," says the designer, who in March won the inaugural British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund prize, worth £200,000, for his namesake line Erdem.
"When I started showing, everything was very black and bodycon and I wasn't that. I was a rebellious romantic."
Everyone, that is, except Burberry. In the nine years since Christopher Bailey came on board as creative director, he has infused the venerable company with cachet and cool, and in turn, directed the world back to London as a playground for inspired design.
The result was a growing interest in London Fashion Week (which dates back to 1984), which continues to gain momentum. Where designers Stella McCartney, Galliano and McQueen continued to show in Paris, Matthew Williamson and Saunders returned to London after stints in New York. And with the talent comes the requisite smattering of front row celebrities. American Vogue's Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington were there in October, as was French Vogue's Carine Roitfeld.
"You get the sense that something big and important is happening there - that there [is]growth," says the Bay's creative director Nicholas Mellamphy, who organized the designer event under the banner of God Save the Queen.
"London is the best place to start because you can start really early on and there's the right support system to help you along the way," explains designer Mary Katrantzou, whose first runway collection for Spring 2011 featured an exciting collision of prints inspired by room interiors. Last week, she won the prestigious Swiss Textiles Award. "It's harder in New York and Paris because you have the huge brands already."
To the extent that many of them attended Central Saint Martins, London's venerable college of art and design, they have been instilled with the ethos that a strong vision is paramount. "The worst thing that could ever be is for us to look like everyone else," says Saunders, crediting professor Louise Wilson for driving this point home.
Once students graduate, London also has a strong support system that recognizes and nurtures talent. There's NEWGEN, a program sponsored by Topshop that furnishes designers with £5000 to £10,000 for show costs and mentoring, and Fashion Forward, another funding initiative sponsored by Coutts & Co and supported by the London Development Agency.
Fashion writer Bronwyn Cosgrave is among eight judges who determined this year's inaugural Dorchester Prize, which awards £25,000 to emerging London talent (named after the luxury hotel chain, it will be awarded in a different fashion capital every year). The winner, announced on Oct. 19: another London-based Canadian, Thomas Tait, whom she calls "the next McQueen."
But all the accolades, attention and infusions of money do not guarantee success.
"The best and the worst part is being small-scale," says Canadian Leith Clark, editor and stylist at London-based Lula magazine. "It's amazing because you can be a control freak and can control every decision, but sometimes that means you're doing things you don't want to be doing."
Or, as Wintour told the Daily Telegraph last month, "There's always great talent in London - that's never the issue, the talent is fantastic - it's just understanding how to keep a business going."
Yet the Brits are proving that they can wear many hats; Kane designs the Versus line for Versace, Schwab is the creative director at Halston and Deacon just presented his first collection for Ungaro, garnering largely positive reviews following Lindsay Lohan's disastrous and short-lived stint as advisor for the venerable Italian label.
London designers are also capitalizing on collaborations, both mass and specialty. Fast recently designed for Italian high street chain Pinko and Nicholas Kirkwood has worked with both Moralioglu and fellow Brit Peter Pilotto.
It was the Bay event, however, that presented a unique opportunity for eight of them (also joining at the last minute was charismatic designer Tom Binns, whose jewellery creations have been worn by Michelle Obama) to congregate and share their stories.
Notes Katranzou, "You're competing on the level that you're all designers at the same stage of business but you're not competing style-wise, you're not crossing over."
She and Saunders both point that many of the designers use the same fabric mills, factories and embroiderers, so dialogue benefits everyone - manufacturers included.
"The more designers that work with them, the bigger they get and the more professional they get," says Katrantzou. "The quality of production in London has also been elevated."
The designers - who might as well be called the London keeners - are very much aware that they are in the midst of something special, contributing and living out what promises to be a notable period in fashion.
"It's something very precious," says designer Marios Schwab. "It will be great to look back and say I was one of the group and [to appreciate]that we were in a moment when London showed us so much support and buyers worldwide supported us."