Fashion: Young gifted and Manc

After just one catwalk show, a 26-year-old designer from Manchester has become every fashion editor's tip for the top. Tamsin Blanchard meets Matthew Williamson
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The Independent Culture
IT'S NEW Year's Eve. You have the choice of staying home and working in grey old London, or partying with your loved one on Rio de Janeiro's Copacobana Beach. Naturally, you go for dancing the samba on Rio's silky sands ... Wrong. Not if you're Matthew Williamson, you don't. For on 31 December, while Williamson's partner and business manager Joseph Velosa jetted off to Brazil, the 26-year-old fashion designer from Manchester was focusing his attentions exclusively on the collection he'll be showing at next month's London Fashion Week.

Initially, you might think he needs his head examined, but Williamson is right to be working so hard. Last October, the young designer made his catwalk debut with a brightly edited, 11-piece collection that garnered rave reviews, and the fashion world - an unforgiving, fickle place - is expecting great things of him in 1998. Williamson knows that one short, sharp catwalk debut does not a great designer make; but a second that surpassed the first would see him well on his way.

In truth, he can't go far wrong. Already he has a cult following among the Kates, Helenas and Plums of this world; already, he has a famously stylish muse in the form of Jade Jagger, who loves to wear his clothes. And already a high-street chain is selling a dress remarkably similar to the black chiffon shift with an embroidered peacock feather that appeared on Williamson's catwalk three months ago. In clothes retailing, plagiarism is the greatest form of flattery.

Today, fashion's latest Boy Wonder is sitting in his studio-cum-flat in London's Gray's Inn Road, feeding me tea and Florentines from a gold packet (just the sort of tasty-but-fancy biscuit you'd expect from a fashion designer). When I ask why his debut attracted so much attention, he says: "I hardly know myself. But a hell of a lot of common sense went into putting the show together. For instance, it was bloody crucial to get some great girls modelling for me."

Luckily, earlier in the year Kate Moss had admired a Williamson-made beaded jumper Jade Jagger was wearing; as a result, Jade took her to meet Matthew and see his clothes. "Kate came round here," he says, "and actually liked what she saw." (Touchingly, he sounds quite surprised by this.) "She said she was more than happy to model if she could have something from the collection."

She was in good company. Crucially, Helena Christensen, a model not normally inclined to get up for first-timers' morning shows in far-flung venues, joined her on the catwalk. Williamson says he met Helena "when I gave her my business card at a private view of her first photography exhibition". Later, when she saw one of his outfits featured in an American magazine, she phoned him and said she would love to place an order. She didn't need to: one canny bit of bargaining later, and Helena had agreed to take a short turn down Williamson's makeshift west-London runway in return for a pounds 770 cobweb-beaded dress.

But you need more than famous faces to impress hard-nosed fashion pundits: in the end, it is the clothes that matter. What got women salivating at the show last autumn was the collection's juicy neon colours, its delicacy, and its rainbow-hued, sequinned and beaded motifs. The clothes were modern, I tell him, yet still - and I know he is going to hate the word - "pretty". He cringes visibly at this. ("Pretty" is not a word most designers feel comfortable with, despite the fact that it is a quality many women are drawn to. It is the equivalent of describing a collection as "nice".) "My things are becoming less pretty," he says, a little defensively. "It's important they have an edge, and don't fall into the category of 'vintage clothing'." It's a safe bet, though, that his clothes will always have a certain fragility. And that people will buy them.

MATTHEW WILLIAMSON is yet another graduate of Central Saint Martin's - and a contemporary of Antonio Berardi, the more established great white hope of British fashion. The two both left college in 1994; but while Berardi chose to brave it alone straight away, Williamson first chose to work part-time as a freelance designer for the high-street chain Monsoon. For two years he did all sorts of things for the company, from window displays to designs for Accessorize, its off-shoot. "What I gained from those years was very little creatively, but I learnt masses about how a huge company operates," he says. He also got to travel to India, working with suppliers of beadwork and embroidery.

Williamson owes a lot to India. When he felt he had become "creatively frustrated" at Monsoon, it was an Indian manufacturer who agreed to make up 15 of his own designs for him - and not charge him until they sold. From that small seed, Williamson's self-funded business has grown. Now, he travels to India several times a year, working with beading and embroidery craftsmen in Bombay and Delhi. Recently, he took one of them to see his clothes in their commercial environment, hanging on the rails at Knightsbridge designer boutique A La Mode - a nice touch.

During the time he's been building up his business, Williamson's designs have shown a clear progression. Despite what he says, his pre-1996 pieces were more along the lines of vintage clothing, the sort of beaded dresses you usually only see in antique clothing shops. October's show saw a more contemporary look, with the beadwork and embroidery used sparingly and graphically. Next season, he says, "the collection will include more tailoring". Nature has also been a constant inspiration. That party-free New Year's Eve may have been spent browsing through a book prominently on display in his studio: Flora, Nick Knight's photographic record of wild flowers from the archives of the Natural History Museum. The frail skeletons of leaves and delicate hues of dried petals featured in its pages are the natural successors to the butterflies, peacock feathers and dragonfly wings that wove their webs and spells on his last set of designs.

Only one question remains. Why, when almost the entire high street has now invited Williamson to consult on ranges for the mass market, is he not interested? "I've trod so carefully while building up my company, that I don't want now to dilute its vision or its craftsmanship," he says, as if he wants to keep his world as small and elite as his collections are tiny and refined. Whether he can achieve that largely depends on the success of his next collection: but he is calmly trying to ignore the pressure. "I don't know what people expect," he says shrugging his skinny Northern shoulders in bemusement. "But the biggest mistake I could make would be to try and please everyone this time. It has to be a subtle and gradual thing. I'm not ready to have my name in lights." He may not have any choice. !

The gospel according to Matthew: models at Williamson's debut show in west London included Kate Moss (this page, right) and muse and friend Jade Jagger (facing page, top right). Williamson himself made an appearance - in one of his own T-shirts - at the end (facing page, top)

Dressed for success: features of the small-but-perfectly-formed Spring/Summer collection were sequinned butterfly motifs (above), cobweb- beading on silk (bottom), and brilliantly coloured peacock feathers embroidered on to black chiffon (top). All 11 of these stunning outfits were snapped up by stockists such as A La Mode, Browns and Joseph


MATTHEW WILLIAMSON isn't the only hotly tipped young talent for whom this year could be make or break. Andrew Groves' debut last year shocked fashion's establishment by using live flies as accessories. So far only London boutique Koh Samui sells his clothes, but a lot is expected of him in 98. He advises us to "watch his space". Tristan Webber graduated from Saint Martin's with Groves last February; by October, Browns and Liberty had bought his hard-edged leather-and-latex collection. Thirty- something Malaysian designer Justin Oh will show his fourth collection next month; he has nine Japanese stockists, but only Koh Samui sells his collection of brightly coloured basics over here. Many thought 97 would be his year, so 98 will be the real test of his staying power. Finally, Mark Whitaker, a former New York fashion editor who now makes ultra-feminine designs, is stocked at Liber- ty in London and Henry Bendel's in New York. This year sees his fifth mini-collection, and it's time, he says, to "focus my dreams, and consolidate". Melanie Rickey