FASHION: RIPPING YARNS

Knitwear from the Dublin-born designer Lainey Keogh (above) is something special. Irish writer Niall Williams says that it "flows like water and feels like coloured wind"; U2's bass player, Adam Clayton, wooed Naomi Campbell with the gift of a Keogh sweater; and her catwalk show on Monday is one of London Fashion Week's most eagerly anticipated events. Yet this will be only the third collection Keogh has shown. Where has she been all our lives?

IN THE world of celebrity fashion designers, the name Lainey Keogh is relatively unfamiliar. Yet her first major catwalk show, held in London's Cobden Club early last year, featured Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Helena Christensen; the music was supplied courtesy of U2, who allowed her to feature five tracks before they had been released; and Oscar-nominated actor John Hurt recited a poem by Seamus Heaney. What's more, they all provided their services for free.

Perhaps they had some intimation of how, without an Aran-knit or cable pattern in sight, Keogh would turn out a mesmerising collection that was hardly recognisable as knitwear. Giant, multi-coloured "poodle" mohair coats knitted on huge 12-millimetre needles stalked the catwalk, alongside second-skin quilted cashmere dresses so fine they could be measured in deniers, and cropped amphibian cardigans, cuffed and collared with utterly convincing knitted fur. The audience had never seen anything like it - this was knitwear with a distinctly modern, urban edge. So when, six months later, Keogh consolidated her position with an equally stunning show at last autumn's London Fashion Week (featuring the spring/ summer collection seen on these pages) her place in British fashion was assured.

Although these were her first catwalk shows, Lainey Keogh, 40, has actually been designing since 1984, when she set up shop in her home town of Dublin. For the last 14 years she and her agent Pat O'Brien have been quietly building her reputation; despite spending the majority of that time out of the spotlight, Keogh is now stocked by some of the most exclusive stores world-wide, and boasts a client list which includes Isabella Rossellini, Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore.

This may have something to do with the highly individualistic nature of her designs. Unusually, Keogh's collections are not built around a particular idea or concept, which would dictate the cut of her cloth or the length of her hemline. "Fibre comes before form," she explains. "Each collection starts with the yarn. That's my inspiration. Each yarn tells a unique story. It's like having an artist's palette, where suddenly anything you imagine becomes possible."

Keogh's palette has in the past stretched to gold mesh, steel, linen, elastane and even polished amber beads. Her team have managed to knit with them all, successfully combining the ancient crafts of knitting, weaving and crocheting with the latest developments in fibre and manufacturing technology. The results are luxurious, lyrically beautiful and often surprising: would you expect crocheted flowers (those staple decorations of tea cosies and loo-roll covers) to be sexy? Well, yes - when they are embroidered beneath the plunging neckline of a yellow cashmere dress. It's an unusual - not to say bizarre - imagination which can make that sort of a creative leap.

On arrival in a small Dublin cafe, far away from the carnival of what will be her third London Fashion Week, the owner of that imagination seems very bizarre indeed. Wearing a geranium-coloured, knitted devore mini- dress, her mane of fiery red hair anchored by an impossibly large red flower, Keogh teeters in on five-inch leopard-print platform shoes, clutching a matching Kelly bag. Watching her, it occurs to me that there is something disconcertingly arrogant about a designer who always wears her own creations - as if she has found the only acceptable solution to a very complex problem. Yet later she will happily admit to being surprised that so many women agree with her.

So, arrogant - maybe not. But it's generally accepted within fashionable Irish circles that Lainey Keogh is entirely mad. Not barking bonkers, ready- to-enter-an-institution mad, but way-too-much-energy and far-too-many- ideas-for-one-small-person mad, the kind of mad that flirts with genius and sends everyone around it into an anticipatory flap. "Must you scribble away in that notebook?" she mutters. "I can't possibly concentrate on what I'm saying." Dictaphone? "I can't stand them," she sniggers with dismissive wave of her hand, before launching into a fascinating frenzy of knitting techno-speak.

"Our fibre manufacturers in Italy are like alchemists," she enthuses, "because they can literally make something from nothing. We begin with a tiny fibre, we create our own textiles and then we translate each into its own unique language, a finished knit which has both form and meaning."

Is this Keogh's own particular brand of fashion psychobabble? Perhaps. But her fans seem as convinced as she is. "If to see a woman wearing Lainey is to be bowled over," explains John Hurt, "then the privilege of touching a Lainey is quite simply to die for." Luckily, Hurt won't have to expire just yet, for, as Keogh explains, her "spring/summer collection was all about life." Her voice cracking with excitement, she speeds on: "I wanted to create living textiles, which would absorb and reflect light and which would give a feeling of energy, like physical manifestations of light and life and being alive." Which in terms of actual clothing meant sourcing light-sensitive fibres, such as rare embroidery threads or pure gold- and silver-plated copper yarn; thread that would not only shine, but also give the impression of precious molten metal or finely crushed jewels tumbling across bare flesh. "Our silver thread was so pale it was the colour of light itself," Keogh smiles, "and it shone with such iridescence that it looked like reflections on the models skin."

This was the collection featured in Keogh's second catwalk show last October. Marianne Faithfull, a long-time fan of Keogh's work, kicked off the show in a boned rubber bodice under a sheer gold metallic cape. She was followed by a roll-call of supermodels and aristo catwalk-queens which would make the editors of Hello! green. "Lainey's clothes are exactly what I like to wear," Faithfull said afterwards. "They are sensual, elegant and easy, and they've got a subtle sexuality which I really like."

Of course, you could say that about the work of any number of designers. But what sets Keogh's work apart is the time it takes to make her creations. "In Irish culture, time is wealth," claims Keogh. "And to create something worthwhile takes a lot of time. That's what I want people to appreciate when they buy my clothes." So she'll take a deceptively simple, liquid gold T-shirt and have it covered with 2,500 fresh-water pearls, each one painstakingly positioned and sewn by hand. It's this combination of blood, sweat and tears which gives Keogh's work that human element which is often missing in fashion today. "Skilled people invest their time and their craft into creating my clothes," she explains. "That's what makes them so special and that's why they are so expensive."

Her creations are certainly not cheap, starting from pounds 350 for a sweater and reaching in excess of pounds 5,000 for an elaborate crocheted dress. But women the world over seem more than willing to pay the price for these investment pieces - and the less expensive items have a cost-per-wear low enough to compete with a pair of greying smalls from M&S. "Even though her garments seem complex, simplicity is the key to Lainey's success," claims Keogh's sales manager, Marianne Gunn O'Connor. "She creates clothes which fit perfectly, which feel beautiful against your body and which weigh next to nothing."

Such lightness is achieved only by special production techniques, as Adele Hickey, Keogh's production manager, explains. "We use the basic washing process as a creative technique. All of our cashmeres are double- or triple-washed to remove the oils that might weigh them down." This way Keogh can create deep-pile honeycomb textures, which have the depth of a duck-down duvet while remaining as light as a linen sheet.

That's not all. Keogh's approach to dressing for the Nineties combines a deft hand with an intuitive understanding of the concerns of modern women. "By focusing on interesting surface detail," explains Gunn O'Connor, "Lainey is kind to the body and takes away the need to have the perfect figure." It's true - Keogh's undulating textures tend to ripple delicately across the female body like the surface of worried water, distracting from the shape underneath.

Why, with all this - an influential fan-base, a prodigious imagination and the technical ability to match - did Keogh wait until last year to stage her first major catwalk show? "The time just seemed right," she claims. "It was an intuitive thing." Surely it all came down to money? Apparently not. "Although sales have increased by 100 per cent in one season, turnover is still not huge," explains Gunn O'Connor. "As Lainey insists on everything being done in individual homes by highly skilled people, the company will continue to grow only very slowly."

Keogh agrees. "We could have gone huge years ago," she laughs. "It's much more interesting to explore and create than to manufacture vast quantities of the same old thing." So does it irk her when the British press refer to her as a new talent? "Not in the least," she smiles. "I'm just glad that both the British press and public have reacted so positively to what I'm doing. People's interest has been wonderfully generous and inspiring. In a way it's like they are confirming thoughts and ideas which I have always had, but which I have only recently chosen to share." We should be grateful she's finally gone public. !

Clothes from Lainey Keogh's spring/summer 98 collection, as featured on these pages, are stocked by A La Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, SW1 (0171 584 2133); Liberty, Regent Street, W1 (0171 734 1234); and Browns, 23- 27 South Molton Street, W1 (0171 491 7833)

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