By Leah Dolan, CNN
London (CNN) — The life of any burgeoning designer is far from predictable. But in the last two weeks, Dilara Findikoglu has dressed Cardi B for the MTV Video Music Awards, had Olivia Rodrigo wear her clothes in Rolling Stone magazine, been nominated for best emerging talent at the 2023 British Fashion Awards and officially pulled out from London Fashion Week days before her slot.
Turkey-born Findikoglu — who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015 — was one of the most anticipated names on the five-day schedule, which ran from September 15 until 19.
Her client roster includes the kind of A-list talent many brands can only dream of, from Rihanna and Lady Gaga to Madonna and Bella Hadid. She’s also responsible for some of the biggest celebrity looks this summer — including the ruby red silk mini dress Margot Robbie wore to the “Barbie” VIP red carpet in London, and the hand-sculpted knife dress Hari Nef donned at the film’s premiere. Kylie Jenner is a known favorite, too, choosing a Spring-Summer 2023 look to wear during Paris Fashion Week last September, as well as posing in custom pieces for her 399 million Instagram followers.
From the outside, it seems Findikoglu has made it. Here are all the ingredients that should take the 33-year-old from up-and-coming artist to dyed-in-the-wool London name. But there is one thing missing: money.
“I didn’t have enough budget to do the show. It’s as simple as that,” Findikoglu told CNN during an interview outside her east London studio on the first day of London Fashion Week. “The venue was about to be booked. Then I thought, ‘I can’t do this again with my own money. I’m not doing this to myself.’”
Findikoglu says she’s still paying off the cost of the brand’s Autumn-Winter 2023 catwalk show staged in February this year. If the Spring-Summer 2024 show had gone ahead as planned, it could have cost her between £110,000 and £120,000 ($136,000-$148,000). “I talk to my designer friends, and everyone is in the same boat. We do one show, get into so much debt, and then we keep paying it until the next show.”
This season, a wave of young, industry-recognized talent removed themselves from the official schedule, including 26 year-old Steven Stokey-Daley (who designs under the moniker S.S Daley) and 30-year-old Nensi Dojaka — both of whom won the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2022 and 2021, respectively. In addition, 31-year-old American designer Michael Halpern — who has received two British Fashion Awards in his career — announced just last week that not only would his label be skipping London Fashion Week, but that it plans to close for good.
While she believes it was the best thing for her brand, dropping out was not a decision Findikoglu took lightly. “I couldn’t work for a week,” she said. For days, she was “paralyzed,” rendered stuck by the worry that peers and industry insiders would consider her weak. “But I represent a fearless woman. And if I’m not going to go out and talk about it, then I’m not true to myself and to my brand and everything that I stand for.”
Fashion’s conglomerate takeover
The realities of running an independent high end fashion label today are bleak, and competition for self-funded designers is fierce. According to the Savigny Luxury Index, a general market index measuring published by the wealth management group Savigny Partners, conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering own a combined 53.6% of the luxury fashion market — with LVMH accounting for a whopping 45.4% of that share. Brands such as Loewe, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Celine, Fendi, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs are all owned by LVMH, while Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent all share Kering as their parent company.
Multi-brand ownership means influence. Smaller brands under Kering or LVMH’s care benefit from the leveraging power household names like Gucci and Louis Vuitton offer — which can be used to negotiate better retail placements in stores. They also profit from an exclusive (and large-scale) network of suppliers. But most of all, these umbrella corporations enjoy huge revenue streams, which along with cash flow is the primary burden for designers such as Findikoglu.
Her label has been independently-funded since it debuted in 2016, and Findikoglu says she has long struggled with a lack of government investment. “I was always scared to apply for anything because I’m not British. It didn’t open many doors, especially at the beginning.”
On September 13, two days before London Fashion Week began, the UK government announced it would be investing £2 million ($2.5 million) over the next two years into NEWGEN, the British Fashion Council scheme aimed at supporting young designers with brands less than three years old. For Findikoglu, it’s not enough. “I think (NEWGEN) should get the money. But I’m also a young designer and I’ve been trying to run this brand on my own for seven years,” she said. “It should be (available) to everyone on the schedule.”
‘I want people to see my world’
The question for Dilara Findikoglu is the same for many independent designers struggling: How do you scale up without selling out? It’s a compromise she almost finds exciting having already produced a successful swimwear line, Findikoglu plans to cut down on couture in favor of building a more wearable offering. One motivation is her own office wardrobe. Sitting outside her studio in the late summer heatwave, Findikoglu wears a glorious ivory bias-cut satin dress with vampyric puff sleeves. Is it her own? “No! I want to make more ready to wear, because I can’t find anything to wear from my own brand when I come to work. I’m not going to come to the studio in my knife dress, you know?”
While she finishes off her Spring-Summer 2024 collection (now to be presented at a Paris showroom at the end of this month), she talks giddily of top secret collaborations she hopes will have more commercial viability. Her goal? An entire lifestyle brand. “I want to make furniture, I’m really into interiors. I want to make cushions. I would love to sleep in my own (Dilara branded) bed. I want people to see my world with every little detail. Even if it’s bed sheets, mascara or red lipstick.”
And while some might be resistant to the idea of conglomerate ownership, Findikoglu is no puritan. “I got my brand to this point on my own,” she said. “But I really need a business partner, or an investor or a big house that’s gonna take me to the next level.”
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