Fashion: Home-grown and proud of it

They said it couldn't produce anything new. But London Fashion Week has a few surprises in store for the summer. By Susannah Frankel
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The Independent Culture
It would be safe to say that the run-up to last week's London collections was the most doom-ridden in fashion history. Alexander McQueen had defected, so had Antonio Berardi, Vivienne Westwood and Nicole Farhi. All were gone, lost forever etc. We should have known better. This isn't the first time our designers have outgrown the British fashion capital and moved on to sunnier - read more economically viable - climes. And London - which, more than any other city, continually throws up names in the insatiable search for the Next Big Thing - survives the storms, time and time again.

In the end, this season was, no exception. True, running between the official schedule shows located in the grounds of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and the, often more interesting, off-schedule shows in the East End was a logistical nightmare. But that didn't stop the spring/summer 2000 London collections from holding their own - and then some.

Markus Lupfer, former design assistant at Clements Ribeiro, kicked off the proceedings, proving himself, in only his second season, a name to watch. Fine-gauge knits in brightest primrose and geranium looked sweet worn with more severe, coolly low-slung, box-pleated skirts. Leather skirts - also knee-length and A-line - were given an arts and crafts twist, stamped with the outlines of psychedelic blooms. Matt sequins, shimmering like fish scales, graced what must be the most glamorous knickerbockers of the season. German-born Lupfer's style is chic, if slightly askew; sharp, if slightly naive. His clothes are easy enough on the eye to suit the west London posse, but not so sugary as to alienate more directional tastes.

Robert Cary-Williams appeared to be attempting to calm his look down to more commercial effect, and it didn't always work. There are those who might say that last season's offering - deconstructed to within an inch of its life - was a little too out there for its own good.

This season, however, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a more mainstream sensibility, he lost some of the raw-edge spontaneity that was his signature. Leather cut in strict silhouettes - a hobble skirt, which Naomi Campbell clearly had some trouble negotiating, and spiky, strong-shouldered jackets - were barely recognisable as Cary-Williams's tailoring. More diaphanous, "Hollywood" dresses, slashed and with fluorescent zippers running their entire length in place of seams, were more in line with what we have come to expect from this designer. There is an awful lot of pressure put on our young designers to cut clothes with commerce in mind. But Cary-Williams is that rare thing in fashion - an original, who should not allow his spirit to be dampened.

No chance of that happening at Boudicca. Brian Kirby and Zowie Broach came up with a very slightly more commercial collection this time - yes, a model in surgical latex strapped to the back of a musclebound male is commercial by Boudicca standards - without wavering from their signature style. Staring out through huge magnifying glasses suspended from a warehouse ceiling, models wore the most severe leather clothing imaginable. "Tight- arsed bitch" trousers, skirts laced tight to the hip then released into a stiff A-line and a bright, white dress, its bodice moulded in strips, its skirt full and feminine, were testimony to the fact that there's no need to compromise style in order to sell clothes. These are aimed only at a small, fashion-literate customer, but they are made with love.

Roland Mouret is also clearly not trying to cater to the mainstream: his clothes are all made to measure and, this season in particular, will look best on the long and lean. Marc Almond serenaded a bewitched front row, while the most glamorous models of the week came out in skinny, mid calf-length skirts, in fabrics more readily associated with men's tailoring, with sexily curvaceous waistlines. These were wrapped round the body, then fastened with hatpins and worn with army vests, pinned with childlike suede flowers and sky-high black courts. The silhouette was so slender it was reminiscent of John Galliano at his sinuous best.

Also on fine form were Clements Ribeiro, whose collection looked, well, good enough to eat. Chiffon tea dresses were layered in sunshine colours and scattered with Betty Boop polka dots. Evening dresses crafted in tablecloth lace with a Twenties line were lovely, as were opalescent, sequinned eveningwear - straight skirts and low-slung trousers. This is a design team whose look is just a little off-kilter - Louise Brooks wigs gone awry, high-heeled clogs trimmed with rainbow-coloured pom-poms the texture of wire wool - so while pretty, it never veers too close to the girlie.

When Paul Smith launched his womenswear collection in London four seasons ago, he was a nervous man. It is true that the line had teething problems. This season, however, Paul Smith Women came into its own with a kookily aristocratic look that is gorgeous and female-friendly. Safari jackets looked cute over saucy, barely-there hot pants, djellabas in cornflower blue were embroidered with sprigs and trimmed with pom-poms. Monogrammed schoolboy blazers looked cute over itsy-bitsy paisley or Liberty-print bikinis. For evening, sarong skirts came in lovely beaded and embroidered silks and velvets, worn with cotton or candy-striped shirts.

Shelley Fox, like Smith, is an English eccentric, but of a different order. Her cerebral approach - she cuts her clothes from geometric shapes and prints Nietzschean axioms on to softly draped dresses and skirts - is all the more welcome in that the British fashion establishment, which is famously suspicious of such conceits, seems finally to be embracing her work. This season, she rewarded their emthusiasm with a collection lighter of touch and spirit than her previous work. Though her signature felted wool and predominant grey and black were still in evidence, a sequence in pale lemon - little cotton skirts, narrow knits and immaculately crafted high-necked shirts - made for more upbeat viewing. Fox is a woman's woman and her clothes are aesthetically gentle if conceptually rigorous.

Spring/summer 2000 also found Hussein Chalayan, British Designer of the Year and hitherto the most uncompromising of designers, on surprisingly blithe-spirited form. Pretty, fondant-colours replaced Chalayan's monchromatic palette. A frilly, frothy silhouette looked the height of femininity alongside his more strict and narrow, if always graceful, line. This was an exceptionally well balanced collection and one that showed off Chalayan's genius with proportions and cut to the full.

Elsewhere at London Fashion Week, Betty Jackson came up with delicately feminine skirts and dresses in mouth-watering colours which will suit all shapes and sizes. Her loyal clientele will be filled with glee at the best of the summer cotton knits. Tristan Webber sent out brilliantly crafted leatherwear - the most intricate of the season. Matthew Williamson, meanwhile, still wildly popular and with quite the most glamorous front row of them all, failed to move this reviewer. It's almost as if he's been to India one time too many and never quite got over it. That's India, London W11, incidentally.