Style Politics

How British fashion has the nation riding top of the global soft power list


London Editor

27 February 2013

It's the wind beneath the sails, the butterfly effect, it's the way you place your handshake, the ripple on the lake. If soft power were a person he would be invisible, discreet, utterly authoritative and sartorially pitch perfect. 

Soft Power - the buzz phrase coined by Harvard professor Joseph S Nye's book - is the pragmatic, empathic and caring retort to the all-guns-blazin' tactics of hard power. With the latter wars are waged, ultimatums issued and wallets waved. “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” Nye states. 

Last year, thanks to the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee, Britain finally knocked the USA from the top spot of the World Soft Power list. Could this be Britain's most culturally important year yet?
Look to the Olympics opening ceremony to see what was arguably the embodiment of soft power. It showcased everything the nation's reputation rides upon - from heritage to social care, the founding of the world wide web to fashion, music and James Bond - direct to every television across the world.

The English monarchy has been instrumental in keeping Britain on top through the global economic crisis - buoying both the nation's spirits and image via the royal wedding, diamond jubilee and future king or queen who'll greet the world this summer. Since marrying Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge has enjoyed her position as the most influential woman in style globally. Items she wears - from the classic Burberry trench coat she donned to visit Belfast to the Alice Temperley Moriah dress she wore to Wimbledon -frequently sell out within hours.

British designers have been quick to jump on the nation's fashion cache by rolling out its creative capital across the world - combining the UK's impeccable craftsmanship and tailoring pedigree with the cutting edge progressiveness and creativity for which the country became renowned in the Sixties. 

Burberry leads the pack - the heritage brand's image is undeniably British while still being thoroughly cutting edge, as exemplified in its 121 Regent Street 'Burberry World Live' flagship, where plasma screens and interactive mirrors grace the Grade II listed retail space alongside Burberry Bespoke, and the mission statement lies in 'seamlessly blurring physical and digital worlds'. The luxury house's online endeavours - from being the first brand to air their catwalk shows live online and in 3D - are leagues ahead of the fashion pack, and the Burberry World Live events, where acoustic acts perform at secret gigs against giant catwalk backdrops to style insiders in 3D glasses - convey so much more about the brand and its positioning in the global style league than mere tailoring and cuts (which, of course, Burberry nevertheless leads the fashion world in, too).

In fact the luxury industry in general is extending its arms far beyond the reaches of its perfectly tailored shirtsleeves with charitable and artistic foundations becoming a worthy medium through which to weigh its influence - from the Prada Foundation to the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards.

Just as Mary Quant and Jeff Banks, Biba and Vivienne Westwood came to define British style in the 1960s and 1970s (interestingly, Westwood - the only designer of the set who had a message, and that message was punk - is the only name still thriving today), the turn of the millennium saw the rise of a new tranche of high fashion arbiters whose empires continue to grow. Stella McCartney - with her clean, green and animal-friendly ethos supports numerous charitable foundations. Jimmy Choo is arguably the leading shoe designer worldwide, Mulberry has been one of the biggest fashion success stories this decade, while Alexander McQueen - and his incumbent, Sarah Burton - have brought a return to the kind of sharp tailoring, wearability and instantly recogniseable style that the British designers of the Sixties and Seventies championed. Coming up behind them, Christopher Kane, Alice Temperley and Erdem could be the McQueens and McCartneys of tomorrow. 

It's this legacy of talent that's contributed to Britain knocking the USA off the top spot, and made it a 'global cultural magnet' (while being far smaller, it has the same national spend on public diplomacy as its transatlantic neighbour). Rule Britannia! (Though softly does it, please).