Fashion: Unique? Definitely. Bonkers? Oh yes

Designers Antoni and Alison define their own rules, and come up with their own one-of-a-kindness.
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The Independent Culture
As part of the research behind their spring/summer collection, being shown today in the lecture theatre at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Antoni Burakowski and Alison Roberts took a trip to Cadbury World, which is in Bournville, just outside Birmingham. "We rode around in a Cadbury's Cream Egg," laughs Roberts. "We wanted to see a working factory," adds Burakowski, "And of course, they gave us loads of chocolate to eat, so it was the best factory to see in motion, perfect really."

Odd-balls? Certainly. Eccentric? Definitely. Unique? Oh, yes. Burakowski and Roberts, designers of the Antoni & Alison label, are hardly your typical fashion twosome. They don't burrow their heads in encyclopaedias on costume; they don't travel to India in search of inspirational colours and textiles (Blackpool would be more their scene); and they don't aspire to be head- line grabbing glamour pusses.

They would rather go and see Bernard Manning in concert at the Embassy Club in Manchester, or check out car boot sales in the hope of purchasing a collection of rare beer mats, or Adam and the Ants badges, rock and pop memorabilia and, their latest acquisition, a vintage Bay City Rollers' outfit.

They do things differently, map out their own territory, define their own rules as they go along and consequently come up with their distinctive one-of-a-kindness. If last season's show, also held in the V&A, is anything to go by, today's offering will be a cross between performance art and a Women's Institute slide show. "The idea of doing a straight catwalk show has always scared us," says Burakowski.

Hence, in their last offering, a single model laid on the floor to have her pictures taken by the press photographers, while images flashed up on a screen accompanied by a very British sounding 1940s voice-over: "Tartan," it said, with impeccable enunciation, "is an example of a monotonous weave," and "If you buy your clothes from second hand shops, you rarely bump into anyone else wearing the same thing." These harmless pronouncements emanating from the crackly wireless voice, had the audience in fits of giggles.

Indeed, giggles are something the design duo are rather good at generating. Unlike most designer affairs, where shows have a cathedral-like solemnity, Antoni & Alison productions are meant to be fun, and good old-fashioned chuckles play a large part in the proceedings. "We just hope all the fashion editors will be awake enough to laugh," says Roberts, of today's 9am show.

Antoni & Alison's spring/summer collection promises to be another treat, served up on a mix of friends and "real" models, against a film backdrop. "We shot the film ourselves, so it's a little bit home-done, you know, a bit crap on purpose," says Burakowski. Their collection, ironically called "No Fun", is based, among other things, on a photograph of Burakowski's sister and her boyfriend who, allegedly, had no fun when they dressed up in Medieval costumes. "It was really hilarious because they made their own outfits for this medieval week-end trip and they were so pleased with themselves, they wouldn't take their costumes off and when I took a photo of them, they looked so grumpy and the image became the starting point for our collection - `No Fun'," explains Burakowski.

The clothes, featuring tank tops with upside-down smiley faces, jackets with images of gin bottles, jumpers with "cigarette sleeves", whole ensembles printed with characters eating chocolate or night clubbing scenes, will be presented to the sombre sounds of "anything by Morrissey" or Elvis's "Lonesome Tonight". "We thought that really miserable, gloomy music would be funny, because it's not us at all," says Roberts.

Antoni Burakowski, 37, and Alison Roberts, 36, met in 1982, while studying fashion design and painting respectively at London's Saint Martins. "We haven't spent more than two weeks away from each other since," they say in unison.

Burakowski inherited his name from his Polish father, but was born in Epping and grew up in Harlow. "He's much more exotic than me," explains Roberts who was born and raised in Eastbourne. "Rubbish!" responds Burakowski, "I was so jealous when you told me where you were from."

The pair had barely enrolled at art college before they began collaborating on projects. "I spent so much time in the fashion studios, all the tutors assumed I was on the fashion course," laughs Roberts. After college, they set up their own business and came to the fashion world's attention when they patented the first vacuum packed T-shirts, an idea that was apparently inspired over the bacon freezer when shopping in Sainsbury's. Today, the design team has its own shop, Factory of Lights & Experiments, in London's Islington and a thriving mail-order business. But ask them how much their business is worth, and they claim they haven't a clue. "We'd have to ask Michael, our accountant," they say.

If the company were to be judged on cult status alone, it would be worth a tidy sum. Their designs are hugely in demand in Japan and the United States. Some pieces, especially those bearing the logo "Souvenirs for the Year 2000", which they produced in 1997, are considered highly collectable here in the UK. The Victoria and Albert Museum considers Antoni & Alison memorabilia to be of such importance that it has collected a body of work from the designers for its archive.

"We get a lot of tourists in our shop who collect the vacuum-packed T- shirts and never open them. They say it's for their collection on the wall, back home," says Burakowski. Apparently, those printed with the words "Very Boring" and "I find plain exciting" are most popular with the Americans. They're in the process of trying to make the shop look "as boring as possible", by showing just one style in the window and repeating it many times. Obsessive? Absolutely. Original? Definitely. Bonkers? Oh, yes.

Antoni & Alison, 43 Rosebery Ave, London EC1. Tel: 0171-833 2002