Fashion: Beware explosive devices

London students are here again with atom bombshells, fish tanks and other outlandish gizmos. Drop the props, says Rebecca Lowthorpe, they're great clothes
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LAST WEEK, a muddy piece of wasteland in London's East End was the makeshift home to the future of British fashion. The venue, titled Planit 2000, witnessed the biggest-ever Bhs Graduate Fashion Week with more than 1,000 fashion students from 37 colleges across the country taking part. Students had just three minutes on the catwalk (though some wearing outlandish footwear took infinitely longer) to impress prospective employers, buyers, head-hunters and the press with their final-year collections. So naturally, the atmosphere was one of cut-throat competition.

Not least at Central Saint Martins. The college trumpeted the world over for spawning some of fashion's biggest hitters - from John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan to the more recently hatched Matthew Williamson and Stella McCartney - the pressure was on to prove that it is still the best breeding ground for new talent.

However, merely studying at fashion's most famous college for three or four years does not guarantee an automatic passport to fashion stardom. It doesn't even guarantee a student a place in its graduate fashion show; 66 students of the class of 1999 didn't make it on to the runway, and the pressure on those 40 students who did was all too evident.

Arkadius Weremczuck sent out models with pan-stick white faces and blue lips; one sported a corset moulded like an atom bomb; another wore a Perspex vase full of lilies strapped to her chest which she proceeded to fling at the audience, only to have them flung back at her.

Of course, the prestigious finale spot went to another young designer bent on histrionics, Marjan Pejoski, who gave Mickey Mouse a millennial makeover. His last outfit - a spherical fish tank full of tropical fish which encased the model's torso - was a clever feat of engineering, as was his entire collection, but these props were obviously created with a Walt Disney production in mind, not the catwalk.

There were, however, less flamboyant talents to watch. Naoko Yokoyama dared to give her collection a commercial spin, skilfully balancing innovation with desirability in the form of fine black-and-white tulle dresses, some embroidered with pink or red poppies. At the end of the week, it was Yokoyama who scooped the two most hotly contended graduate prizes - best womenswear and best portfolio - proving that camp cabarets are simply immaterial when probing the frontiers of design.

In terms of the BA graduation league tables, Central Saint Martins' pole position is assured, despite stiff competition from other colleges, notably Westminster, the London College of Fashion, Middlesex and the University of Central England (Birmingham). From Brighton, a college renowned for its knitwear course, came Charlotte Rolls, who won this year's knitwear prize.

Waving the flag for Westminster was Jasbir Jutley, who managed to give sheepskin - in lilac and orange - a streamlined contemporary look. Northumbria produced two names worth jotting down. First, Sophie Cranston's witty "just got out of bed" collection. Then Sarah Maskell, whose great sense of colour and print gave her range of Gypsy-style camisoles, pencil skirts and head scarves current must-have appeal.

At the end of the week, it was the turn of graduates from the Royal College of Art. Across town in South Kensington, MA students showed their collections in the RCA's very own whitewashed exhibition space. And what a difference two years of extra study had made. Graduates such as Jose Rodriguez, whose extraordinary menswear show (strange Tibetan hats, vast, frizzy Mongolian coats, pony-skin jackets and skinny leather trousers) marked him out as a new Jean Paul Gaultier; Annette Hultzch's womenswear (strategic spots on cashmere tops or starched cotton skirts and leather biker jackets) was a self-assured, deftly styled collection, from the tulle pompons tied at the neck to the spotted socks and shoes.

In fact, almost every collection, from Imken Donde's embroidered jackets to Maya Arazi's innovative fabrics, appeared to have been carefully constructed, beautifully finished and exciting, even to the most frock-weary fashion aficionados.

Some say it has been Wendy Dagworthy, ex-head honcho of Saint Martins, poached by the Royal College of Art, who has made an impact on the class of 1999. Whatever the reason for its current success, the RCA is now the college to watch.

Captions: Arkadius Weremczuk, Central Saint Martins

Jasbir Jutley, Westminster, winner Sheepskin Award

Imken Donde, RCA

Maya Bramwell, RCA

Peter Seebacher, RCA

Maya Arazi, RCA

Sophie Cranston, Northumbria, winner Collection of the Year Award

Sarah Maskell, Northumbria, winner BhS High Street Excellence Award

Annette Hultzch, RCA

Charlotte Rolls, Brighton, winner Knitwear Designer of the Year

Marjan Pejoski, Central Saint Martins. Mickey Mouse for the millennium

Marjan Pejoski's fish tank outfit