FASHION: MATERIAL GIRLS

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The Independent Culture
Mention contemporary British fashion and the same few names pop up like clockwork: Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Antonio Berardi. All men in their late twenties.

You'd be forgiven for believing that it's only these designers - the stars of London Fashion Week - who deserve attention. Not true. For each British male designer, there's an equally talented female one.

The eight designers profiled here - from quintessentially feminine Elspeth Gibson to innovative street fashion designer Sherald Lamden - have all got something significant to say. Not to mention gorgeous clothes; designed for real customers and not 6ft beanpoles.

They are all in their thirties: old enough to know what women want, young enough to have a great time creating it. So, boys, now it's your turn to step aside

MARIA GRACHVOGEL

It's like a scene from Blow Up. Maria Grachvogel (above) is dressed in her typically glamorous designs. Wearing a silk slip and very high heels, she reclines languidly on a black suede day bed indulging in her sumptuous clothes. She is her own best advertisement. "These are not for the shy and retiring," she admits.

"When I design something, I think of the type of woman who is going to wear it - someone who has confidence in herself as well as her body - and about how she wants to express herself."

It all began with a fascination with bias-cutting. "I've always been logically minded and mathematical, which meant that I enjoyed the challenge of creating patterns for dresses that were moulded around the body." Maria Grachvogel, may have made her name as an evening-wear designer, but says "the essence of my collections is not specifically about glamour, more about inner sensuality."

Couture glamour from the Twenties through to the New Look of the Forties is dominant throughout her work. "But I like ambiguity in clothes," she adds, "an eclectic feeling to fit the different moods of women. I like to mix ordinary pieces - like a devore skirt with a jumper and knee boots; combining sexiness with comfort."

Grachvogel's next collection for spring/summer 99 - gossamer-light day and evening dresses - is strongly influenced by the sea in colour, fabric and texture. Iridescent shimmers blend with cobweb lace detail as if contrasting water and ice crystals in delicate, fluid designs. "When I present the collection, I do it piece by separate piece," she explains. "I like the idea that every one is precious, a possible heirloom." Belinda Morris

! Maria Grachvogel is wearing pieces from her spring/summer 99 collection, available from Liberty, 214 Regent Street, London W1 and Selfridges, 400 Oxford, London W1 (enq: 0171 581 8180)

PAM BLUNDELL

"I'm thinking Cuban whores and Fifties glamour girls. It's very Latino, very passionate and very bright. But I've only got the Angel top ready." Pamela Blundell is describing her new collection, while deciding what to wear for the shoot. The Angel top, part of the Mainline range, is sheer, bright pink and ruffley. The photographer thinks it's a great idea. Blundell doesn't. Instead she opts for an army-green padded waistcoat, part of the Outline range - the urban arm of Copperwheat Blundell, the label she has been co-designing with Lee Copperwheat from the East End since 1992.

Lee, 31, designs the menswear; the kind of louche, sexy gear favoured by fashion lads, all performance fabrics, baggy tailoring and clever sporty detail. Pam is responsible for the womenswear. Their main objective, she says, is to reflect the times. "Our work blends so well," she explains, "because we're always playing with ideas. I'd say most of the new collection reflects what me or my friends want to wear. Lee's the same."

At 31, Blundell is already a fashion veteran. Aged 18. she won the Smirnoff Award for Best Young Designer, then spent four years working with one of the Eighties most talented designers, the late John Flett. By the time she was 22, she was teaching MA fashion students at Saint Martin's.

The mainline collection is where Blundell has had her fun this season. It's theme is of a fictional girl travelling the Caribbean. Hence the bright pink Angel top which features alongside some sexy turquoise peep- toed high heels, and something called The Modesty Belt. A sheer latticework of crocheted orange and pink rayon, designed to be worn over bikini bottoms, it is certainly not for shrinking violets. Melanie Rickey

! Pam Blundell is wearing pieces from her spring/summer 99 collection. Green nylon sleeveless hooded sports jacket, pounds 300, by CB Outline, available from Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1 (enq: 0171 613 0651)

TRACEY BOYD

Tracey Boyd's home, which doubles as her place of work, is ripe for a photo spread in World of Interiors. Early British portraits and antique furniture are set against a creamy buff backdrop. It looks as pretty near perfect as they come. But Boyd is twitching to make changes - "I feel the need for something cleaner and more modern." The painters and decorators may not be called for a while yet though. For the moment, at least, Boyd is satisfied to channel her creative energies into her clothes designs.

"My tastes change all the time, depending on how I'm feeling. Clothes are the easiest way to express those changes. This season, everything is much simpler and stronger. But as always, despite the fact that I love black, colour is one of my main influences," she explains. Her off-beat, but intense candy colours like delft blue, pink and lilac are feminine, but not girlie.

Blessed with the kind of bohemian childhood that you normally only read about in books (her mother was a much-married Mary Quant-like figure and friend of Elizabeth Taylor), it was perhaps inevitable that Boyd should find herself taking an artistic path through life.

An appreciation of French couture greats like Givenchy is evident in Boyd's designs - clothes that are really works of art. "Historical fashion references are important for mood and style, but there's also so many amazing fabrics now," she says. Stretch viscose, one of the fabrics featured in this season's collection, illustrates the point. A pristine tailored look is softened by the fluid weightiness of the fabric when used in a floor-length, hip-slung skirt in pearl grey. "You have to think about who is going to wear something and how it's going to be worn," explains Boyd. " Male designers see women as icons. They don't give much thought to what women don't like showing. Comfort is as important to me as sexiness." BM

! Tracey Boyd's autumn/winter collection is available from Tokio, 309 Brompton Road, London SW3 (enq: 0171 823 7310) and The Cross, 141 Portland Road, Holland Park, London W11 (enq: 0171 727 6766)

TRACY MULLIGAN

There are several rails in the corner of Tracy Mulligan's spacious whitewashed home-cum-studio in London's East End. The one nearest the heavy door of the industrial lift is tagged with "Harvey Nichols. To go."

Hanging on the rail are grey trousers (as worn by Mulligan above) and skirts with waist ties, matching jackets and tops, and some claret-beaded organza skirts.

By now, "Harvey Nichols. To go" will be in the Knightsbridge store. Or maybe not. Judging by the response to her first own-label collection, "Mulligan", the clothes will not be hanging around for long. "I'm selling out in sacks," confirms Mulligan. This is good news for the designer, who has had her ups and downs.

Remember Sonnentag Mulligan? Despite critical success, the business was forced to close in 1995 due to cash-flow problems. Now 36, Mulligan will soon be back where she belongs. Last February she showed her comeback collection, "Urban Spiritualist", outside from the official schedule of London Fashion Week. This season, not only is she on the schedule, but she has been awarded Marks & Spencer's New Generation sponsorship.

The spring/summer collection, "Walk Your Own Path", has been, in part, inspired by the Anish Kapoor installations that look like giant belly- buttons. "This collection is a natural progression from the last one," says Mulligan. There are white cotton dresses, slim skirts, and wrap jackets featuring organic embroideries inspired by artist Andy Goldsworthy.

When Mulligan finishes working on a design she says two questions go through her mind: "Is it beautiful?" and "Would I wear it?" If both answers are yes, the garment is in. It's hardly rocket science, but it does makes perfect sense. BM

! Tracy Mulligan is wearing grey waist wrap trousers, pounds 229, and plain grey jersey top, pounds 60, both from her autumn/winter collection available from Tokio, 309 Brompton Road, London SW3 (enq: 0171 637 1450)

SHERALD LAMDEN

Sherald Lamden is giggling. It's the kind of giggle that makes other people smile. "Oh God! What makes me tick? I hate that question. I never know what to say." After some thought Lamden announces "coffee", and giggles again as she pours herself another cup.

It's two weeks before her fifth catwalk show, and she and her business partner Cynthia De Maria are getting ready to roll.

Their label, Seraph, was born when Lamden, 34, was working as a designer for Ghost. She wanted to do her own thing, and Tanya Sarne, Ghost's owner, was all too happy to help. Last September Seraph left the Ghost stable to go independent. It was a difficult, but artistically necessary move. Ghost is floaty and ethereal. Seraph is funky streetwear.

Favoured fabrics are dark denim, fleece, boiled wool, soft stretchy cotton, and tulle. A typical Seraph "look" is wide-leg dark denim jeans worn with a puff-sleeved T-shirt and covered over with a glittery tulle dress. The jeans are carefully cut to flatter the hips and bum. "I can never work without thinking about what flatters a woman's shape, no matter how mad it is," insists Lamden.

The best word to describe Seraph - a label favoured by Tori Amos - is kooky. "These are good-time clothes you can wear to work, pick up the kids in, go out in or wear on the bus. Seraph is not for prissy people who want to sit in the corner and be perfect," she says.

For the spring/summer collection Seraph has moved in a new direction with some classical satin-backed crepe dresses. "We've had that streety club-girl thing stamped on us so we thought we'd answer back with some powerful, sexy dresses. I think our clients really appreciate the fact that in our designs we consider what we need as women." MR

! Sherry Lamden is wearing pieces from her autumn/winter collection. Navy boiled wool dress with red stripe, pounds 225, by Seraph, from Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1 (enq: 0171 837 1342)

ELSPETH GIBSON

Elspeth Gibson has just returned from a glitzy Brit-cheering trip to New York. The fashion editors are panting for her beaded cashmere knits and perfectly cut pencil skirts. She has found favour with some of the most prestigious stores around the world (never mind the UK). But what's on her mind? "I want people to feel that they have value for money and that I am giving the best service that I can." Despite her success, Gibson remains touchingly eager to please.

According to her staff she is also a perfectionist. "I feel that clothes should be special, whether it's a cotton dress or an evening-wear piece. I like to use amazing qualities of cloth - I love cashmere, woven or knitted - and I work very carefully on the fine detail so that I can get the best out of a fabric," she says.

Her philosophy - one that says clothes should always flatter - together with her preference for beautiful, luxury fabrics is evident in Elspeth's spring/summer 99 collection. "I really like a woman to look chic and tasteful. I design clothes that are womanly, but for a woman who would wear many different looks, from long to short, from sparkly to plain, depending on the occasion or her mood. I'm not keen on clothes that are over the top, I prefer unusual, but wearable pieces - and perhaps a little sexy."

This season there's an extra - more casual - dimension to Gibson's work. For the first time she's included T-shirts in the line; but throws in the notion that these could as easily be worn with an evening-wear piece as a pair of jeans. "The overall mood is relaxed, slick and modern, but using intricate fabrics with plain ones, in contrasting colours that move from light to dark, with crystals to emphasise the very fresh look. And everything will be shown with flat shoes. I want women to feel confident but relaxed." BM

! Elspeth Gibson's autumn/winter 98 collection is available from Elspeth Gibson Boutique, 7 Pont Street, London SW1 (enq: 0171 235 0601)

SHELLEY FOX

At first sight, the dress Shelley Fox shows me is very disconcerting. The cut, off-kilter neckline, creates what can only be described as a hump. Allow yourself to acclimatise to Shelley Fox's odd world of fashion, however, and the hump begins to look first perfectly normal, then rather fabulous - honestly. This is Fox's forte - seducing you into wearing the bizarre.

The dress is part of "Nervous" (so called because that's how she feels about it), Fox's sixth collection of dress designs but the first she has dared exhibit on the catwalk. "Even I have to keep remembering where the collar is," Fox admits. The clothes in the new collection range from comfortable, lightly padded cotton dresses with humped shoulders and misplaced armholes, to padded cotton A-line skirts with an extra semi-circle of laser-treated fabric - like a protractor - added to one side, and circular jackets with arms.

"I know I won't be Calvin Klein. But my clothes are not for that niche market of 25- to 35-year-old women, they are about a feeling. Anyone can wear them because they are not fitted to the body in an obvious way. Rather the body gives the garment definition."

Fox, 32, graduated with an MA from Central Saint Martin's in 1996. Her designs have always been what can only be described as odd.

In her tiny studio above a bakery in the East End, she gestures towards a row of part-finished, creamy-coloured Elastoplast dresses. "Last weekend I had to go down to Devon and burn them," she explains. They have in fact been artfully toasted by a former British Steel employee who did the work with lasers. The result, heat-treated Elastoplast, looks surprisingly elegant. But then everything Shelley Fox designs - from bandages and scorched lambswool to wadding and bubbled wool - has a certain je ne sais quoi. MR

! Shelley Fox is wearing items from her autumn/winter collection. Worsted wool curve dress, pounds 320, available from The Pineal Eye, 49 Broadwick Street, Soho, London W1 (enq: 0171 251 8861) .TEXT: SONJA NUTTALL

Less than two weeks to go before the show and 15 completed jackets have had to be sent back for being, inexcusably, half an inch out. Although it's way past her bedtime, Sonja Nuttall is still busy. She is mopping the floorboards of her studio before she goes home. As always the atmosphere is perfectly serene, as befitting a woman blessed with perfect karma. It's a spirit that is echoed in her clothes.

Drawn time and again to a monochromatic palette ("traditional colours like black, white and navy, that everyone loves and wants to wear"), simplicity is the key to Nuttall's design.

"Silhouette excites me most," she explains. "I like to play with line and proportion to create a balance. What I wish for most is clothes that are easy to wear. I fight for the comfort factor: clothes that skim rather than cling. I think about what women desire. Most women, after all, don't want to be reminded about their waist. This season I've had no single muse but all women, which has been less restricting and much more exciting."

The collection blends the "express it big/just-do-it" philosophy of the late Diana Vreeland with the mood and elegance of Fifties couture. The result exudes a new sense of refinement hitherto absent from her familiar urban, street look. Fine detail, beautiful fabrics (like precise pin-tuck cottons) and forms that allow for freedom of movement are dominant elements. The languid line of long, easy trousers is echoed in floor-length skirts.

"Although the references are from the Fifties the clothes have to be for now," insists Nuttall. Cotton drill, used here for the first time, takes the industrial look and gives it a chic and sexy edge.

Without so much as a sideways peek at what the competition is up to, Sonja Nuttall, as always, follows her own course. "I don't go with particular trends - I just know I have to set them." BM

! Sonja Nuttall is wearing pieces from her autumn/winter collection. Black slouch trousers, pounds 275, black cashmere cardigan, pounds 510, available from Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1 (enq: 0171 613 0651) and Pellicano, 63 South Molton Street, London W1 (enq: 0171 323 3801)

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