Fashion: Are you being served?

This autumn, British fashion is red-hot. And nowhere more than in ultra-cool New York, where some of our best designers are pulling in the most discerning Fifth Avenue shoppers.
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The Independent Culture
We step from the VIP entrance of Saks on New York's Fifth Avenue, away from the yellow cabs, the crazies on rollerblades and the Empire State Building which has been lit red, white and blue in honour of British fashion, and into a Disney version of London. Desperate Dan legs of roast beef are being carved up on the cosmetics counters to be served with bite- sized Yorkshire puddings.

A model dressed up as a kinky London bobby presides over the shop floor, directing the flow of party-goers and revellers. A couple of acrobats, cunningly disguised as Tower Bridge on stilts, wander through the crowd. On stage, Johnson, destined to be the UK's hottest musical export of the year, are performing. The duo, Noah and Rain, are dressed in Alexander McQueen. And Mr McQueen himself is there, watching in the crowd, just a little knocked out by how many of New York's fashion cognoscenti, here tonight to celebrate "London Now" - Saks Fifth Avenue's biggest ever promotion of fashion from one country - are wearing his clothes.

There's Liz Tilberis, one of the party's hosts and the most celebrated Englishwoman in New York, in McQueen's cowl-back jacket. But nothing can quite beat Trino Verkade, the designer's director of licences, wearing the hot red bugle-beaded dress that was shown on the catwalk in London last February in a ring of flames. A stylist asks Trino if she can borrow the dress for a British designer shoot the next day. She almost unzips her there and then.

If Trino's dress is hot, London is positively a ball of flames in the eyes of New York right now. Our designers are sizzling. Cool Britannia? Forget it. More like red-hot Britannia. The party thrown by Saks in honour of British creativity was proof that, at long last, our designers are being taken seriously. The American store put its money where its mouth is for one reason only: British design talent is no longer just quirky, individual and, at times, outrageous. It is sellable, too. It is also the surest way for a store like Saks to give its credibility a boost and raise its profile as a cutting edge retailer.

Nicole Fischelis, Fashion Director of Saks Fifth Avenue, knows a winner when she sees one. "Fashion is about creativity but it's also about commerciality," she says, as she gives me a guided tour through the shop's floors. Wherever we go, Union Jacks mark the spot: it is like Are You Being Served? meets Absolutely Fabulous. On the ground floor, Bill Amberg's modern leather goods and Stephen Jones's splendid millinery creations; on the second floor, Paul Smith; third floor is home to Antonio Berardi, Pearce Fionda, Anya Hindmarch, Julien McDonald, John Rocha, Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy, Zandra Rhodes, Tracey Mulligan, Bellville Sassoon/Lorcan Mullany and English Eccentrics; fourth floor is Gina Shoes, Jimmy Choo and Burberry; five for Christa Davis, Elspeth Gibson, Martin Kidman, Joseph and Tracy Boyd, and in the menswear department on six, there are the luxurious cashmere stripy jumpers, the signature for Clements Ribeiro. It is quite remarkable: the Union Jack flies in all areas of the store, from grown-up classics to shoes and accessories to the cutting edge style that has earned British fashion so much praise and publicity. "British designers have achieved a new level of credibility," says Fischelis.

The designers who Saks had flown into town for a two-day event included Antonio Berardi, Philip Treacy, Hussein Chalayan, Pearce Fionda and Clements Ribeiro. No expense was spared. What the small-scale British designer lacks in financial clout and advertising budget, Saks Fifth Avenue made up for. "I know the designers don't have the money for marketing and promotion," says Fischelis. "This is a great way to create the awareness for our customers. But ultimately it's the product that matters. If it's right, it will sell."

It is indeed a coming of age for British fashion. It is now over half a decade since the explosion of raw talent that spawned McQueen, Chalayan, Berardi, and Clements Ribeiro among others. Their businesses have all been steadily growing and they have learnt by their experiences. Take Clements Ribeiro. The husband and wife team has now signed a deal with Staff International, the Italian manufacturer that also works with Martin Margiela, Vivienne Westwood Red Label and Stephen Sprouse. For the first time this season, their samples have been made for them, in duplicate and triplicate. Until now, they, like many other British designers, have struggled to make up their own sample collection each season. "This is the first time we have been able to get on with simply designing the collections," says Suzanne Clements. The deal with Staff means that next season, Clements Ribeiro will have finished selling and closed their order books before their catwalk show, allowing them to compete with the Italians and Americans on early deliveries to the shops. "All the key designers get their deliveries out early," says Inacio Ribeiro. Already, buyers have told them they are delighted; early deliveries means more time on the shop floor to sell and - hopefully - increased orders. It marks a new phase in the growth and development of their business.

Despite the strong pound, making British exports to America expensive, business is good. Clements Ribeiro's men's cashmere sweaters are $700 a throw, but half of the stock at Saks has sold already, and we are only two weeks into September.

It is typical of Britain that it takes an American store to do our marketing for us. Last week, Saks did a better job blowing the collective trumpet of British fashion than we ever could. "They actually did it," says John Rocha, who spent an afternoon in the shop meeting some of the women who buy his clothes as well as giving the shop's staff an insight into what his collections are about. "The London Now party was a celebration. For Saks to do that for us is fantastic. They think we mean business and we do."

While one third of Clements Ribeiro's business is in America for Rocha, he says it is simply a bonus on top of his business in the Far East and Europe. "We give the Americans something different," says Rocha. "Before, we gave them something different and they didn't take us seriously. Now we are still giving them something different and we are being taken seriously. They know that we mean business."

The hyping of British fashion that culminated in Vanity Fair's March 1997 Liam and Patsy cover might have burnt itself out. The feeling in the fashion world is that the cool hunt has moved to Paris. But the hyping of London has paid off. And it was not all hot air. For the first time, it seems, British fashion has entered the world stage, not just as a source of inspiration for other designers - usually American - to look at, rip off and make commercial, but as expanding businesses in their own right.

Despite the lack of manufacturers in the UK, the foundations have finally been built for a strong British fashion industry. Our designers can learn a thing or two from the way American designers build their businesses, but they have a long way to go before they can compete with the Calvins and Ralphs of this world. It is, however, the very fact that British designers offer a different way of dressing that has given them their appeal in America where the dress code is almost universally conservative, grey and bland. "We cater for fashion-conscious people," says John Rocha. "The big American designer caters for America as a whole." It seems that American women are bored with clothes designed by committee and with an eye on sales and production rather than good design. And there is no other collective group of designers who can add vitality and colour to a shop quite like the Brits. As Nicole Fischelis says: "British designers have a passion for fashion."

In two weeks, the Saks buying team will be back in London for fashion week, hungry for new collections and new talent. The store bought Alexander McQueen from the beginning, when other buyers might have run a mile from his uncompromising and controversial collections. The crop of new designers showing their work at London Fashion Week, as well as the more established, have a lot to look forward to.