Let's hear it for the real women

London Fashion Week wasn't just about Alexander McQueen's catwalk antics. Offstage, many people were getting down to the business of selling wearable clothes. By Melanie Rickey
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The Independent Culture
AWAY FROM the hype of the catwalk there is another London Fashion Week going on. Housed in two marquee tents outside the Natural History Museum is the London Designer's Exhibition which, from Saturday morning until last night, contained 145 companies selling collections of shoes, jewellery, hats, scarves and clothes of every kind; from glamorous to trendy and everything in between.

Many of the catwalk labels hang their clothes in the exhibition hall for store buyers - the people who decide what we are really going to wear next spring - to look at up close, touch, and see being worn by a house model. This also provides the buyers with an opportunity to talk to the designer, ask about various techniques and fabrics, and generally have a chin-wag. It's a bit like having an exclusive shopping preview, and there are plenty of new and talented young designers selling their wares to keep things interesting.

Uniform is one of them. It gained the "label-of-the-moment" tag before its clothes went into the shops for the first time last month. It is designed by Lesley Sealey (embroidery and textiles) and Roger Lee (clothes) and the clothes fuse modern street-wear with couture details. "This season we wanted to have a neutral palette, going from chalky white to soft grey, but we also wanted to use flashes of colour," Sealey says. To achieve their goal the pair created sculptural, sports-inspired coats, wrap uneven- hem skirts and shift dresses, some with innovative, magnetic fastenings that were sourced in Yellow Pages and printed with an abstract glitter print in electric blue or bright yellow. This print was achieved thanks to Sealey's diligence. "I blew ink through a straw about 40-50 times until I saw the pattern I liked, then blew it up about 800 per cent."

In complete contrast is Anna Scholz's four-year-old fashion label. This was the designer's first time at London Fashion Week, and she is the first designer for large women to present her size 10-28 clothes there. "It's been really good," says Melanie Bowler, Scholz's design assistant. "We had a TV crew here on Monday with two `real' women, and they loved the clothes."

The collection is hinged around the layering principle, with added colour and texture. "Most of the dresses are three-quarter length, and are designed to be worn together." Bowler shows me a black crochet over-dress, which can be worn over a colourful floral-print dress or a plain satin slip in ruby or black. Then it's a silver or pink waterproof coat, a glamorous evening coat and a sheer, black chiffon dress.

Also worth looking at among the 145 designers were Born Free, Ann-Louise Roswald, Patty Shelabarger and Joelynian, the husband-and-wife team who are a whiz at sexy swimwear. They have just invented the Trikini, a three- part bikini with vest, bandeau and bottom, and have been signed by BhS to create a capsule range for next summer. The style of Joelynian clothes can best be described as sexy simplicity. "These were hand-knitted in the Lake District; this linen has been waxed and these jumpers were specially done for us by John Smedley," Joely explains.

Born Free, a small design label known for its Charles and Ray Eames and Trellick tower-print T-shirts, have been doing a range of utilitarian and mainly unisex clothes for two years. A denim button-through dress has detachable long sleeves, as does a waxed raincoat. Wide-leg black pants have a waterproof coating, and there are some wonderful pull-on, slim-line parkas in navy and cream.

Ann-Louise Roswald was sponsored by Marks & Spencer's New Generation initiative this season after starting her own business last summer, soon after graduating from St Martin's with a textile degree. Her beautiful hand-painted cashmere cardigans, silk dresses, scarves and silk-jersey- printed tops, are decorated with prints inspired by the Twenties and Fifties.

Lastly there's Patty Shelabarger, an Italian whose label has been going for five years. Her clothes are bright, eclectic and fun. Fuchsia dresses in Chinese embroidered silk or shantung silk with a turquoise trim have matching sheer cardigans, handbags and slippers to complement. Her range is already sold across the UK, and the collection for next summer will fit in perfectly with the girly, colourful trend that looks set to continue.