Stephen Webster founded Rock Vault, a platform for emerging British jewelry designers, with the support of the British Fashion Council in 2012. Image courtesy of Rankin
New York—Rock Vault, the platform for emerging British jewelry designers, which saw the likes of Fernando Jorge and Tomasz Donocik pass through its ranks, was noticeably absent from this year’s Couture show.

But the program is not dead by any means.

The brainchild of designer Stephen Webster, the initiative was launched under the umbrella of the British Fashion Council in 2012.

At the time, he wasn’t yet a member of the organization, which is funded by the British government and fashion industry. Attending one of its events, he noted to BFC’s then-new CEO Caroline Rush that there wasn’t any kind of support for emerging jewelry designers.

Webster recalled: “She said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Oh I’m busy,’ and a month later I was running it.”

At the time, he envisioned passing off the project, which gives designers mentorship and a presence at London Fashion Week in addition to certain international exhibitions, to another established British jeweler after a few years, but somehow, that never materialized, “partly (because) I was loving it,” he admitted.

Last year, the government made cuts to BFC funding.

“It’s only small funding anyway but that small funding is everything to someone who is starting out,” he said. “The return that the country gets once that person starts exporting and employing people and everything that happens … I have no problem being vocal about (the government’s) short-sightedness because we had something incredible that could still be to this day if there was still a bit of funding there.”
“If you’ve got $10,000 and you’re going to spend it to come to America and it’s all on you financially and then three people come to you and they’re all consignment—that’s a really difficult position to be in.” — Stephen Webster
The loss of funding made impossible what was already a difficult situation for small brands trying to establish a foothold in the market.

“By last year I could see that things were changing,” said Webster, noting that he had decreased the number of Rock Vault designers from 10 to six about three years ago so he could adequately mentor the group.

Of that number, only four made the trip to Couture in 2017.

“People were a bit like they would use their last penny to get there and that coincided with the British Fashion Council losing funding,” he explained, “so the little bit of funding that would help with the fairs suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Even though I was (paying for) the space they still had to pay for the ticket to get there and their badge for Couture so it just became too much.”

Of the group present at last year’s show, two of the brands—Rachel Boston, and Shimmell and Madden—graduated out of Rock Vault.

“I only had a couple of people that were in their first year,” Webster said. “I said to them, ‘I know you’ve put all of your money into being here and I think we all know that the industry in America is very much built on a memo/consignment model, which is very difficult as a young designer.’

“If you’ve got $10,000 and you’re going to spend it to come to America and it’s all on you financially, though the space is provided by me, and then three people come to you and they’re all consignment—that’s a really difficult position to be in.”

Webster used one Rock Vault designer, Frances Wadsworth Jones, as an example.

“Frances Wadsworth Jones, who is an incredible designer, couldn’t afford to come (to Couture) so I couldn’t have her there. Fortunately, by being in Rock Vault at London Fashion Week she picked up Boon in Korea and they wrote a massive order. Then my partners in Moscow, Mercury, wrote another one so suddenly her only worry is, ‘How am I going to make all of this stuff?’ That’s a different worry altogether.”

That Couture Allure

As dismal as the situation might sound, Rock Vault is not going away, but it is undergoing changes.

Webster said BFC CEO Rush did everything she could to find the group funding and it will now fall under the Newgen banner. Newgen is the BFC’s fashion equivalent of Rock Vault, and has supported a gaggle of British fashion superstars, Alexander McQueen and Erdem’s Erdem Moralioglu among them.

“It will be smaller, but it doesn’t mean it has to stay smaller; it’s just where it is right now,” he said.

Under Newgen, Rock Vault jewelry designers will continue to appear at London Fashion Week, an opportunity which, earlier this year, saw them meet Queen Elizabeth II, in addition to the regular group of buyers and editors.

Webster will take the opportunity at September’s London Fashion Week to see “what Rock Vault looks like under Newgen” and decide from there what direction is best for the group.
“The spirit of Rock Vault was different. Nothing to do with talent. The talent’s out there. Putting the talent together and giving it a name and supporting it—that was the difference.” — Stephen Webster
In the long term, he’d like to see the group return to Couture, despite how difficult it can be for young designers to succeed in the American market with its overreliance on consignment practices.

“I’m fortunate to have had a long career as a Brit in America and that could never not be a part of my plan,” he said. “The only reason I would say, ‘Forget America at the moment,’ is if someone can’t afford to get there. Other than that, it is always part of my plan and it should be.”

When Rock Vault returns to the jewelry trade show, it will likely look a little different, though Webster isn’t sure how exactly.

“I’m working on [it] with Gannon (Brousseau, Couture show director) because he loves the spirit of Rock Vault and every year a designer from Rock Vault would win something at the Couture Design Awards.”

In fact, Webster said that his favorite Rock Vault memory thus far was when his passion project received a number of nods at the 2016 awards, current members and alumni alike.

“Whoever was on stage said, ‘My God, it’s the British invasion.’ It almost made me cry,” he recalled.

“I think seeing Imogen (Belfield) get an award for Best in Gold and Tomasz (Donocik) won something and it was a crazy brilliant time when you think: It just works.

“Everyone knows what Rock Vault is. You can’t not know. To establish yourself on your own—if you’re good you’re going to get there in the end. But the spirit of Rock Vault was different. Nothing to do with talent. The talent’s out there. Putting the talent together and giving it a name and supporting it—that was the difference.”

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