London Fashion Week: Southend to South Ken? No problem

Essex boy Tristan Webber has never doubted his direction in life. All the way to the top, and no short cuts. By Rebecca Lowthorpe
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The Independent Culture
How many hours have you been working on your collection? "All of them," says Tristan Webber. "I get up, have a cup of tea and don't stop until, well... I just don't stop."

Anyone who works day and night for not much, if any, financial reward must be utterly driven. Needless to say, this 27-year-old designer is doggedly determined in his single-minded vision.

Webber's shows are of the avant-garde persuasion. Set productions, put together on a shoe-string budget, have included powerful wind machines that blew the models' voluminous chiffon dresses and floor-length fibre- optic wigs into the air. He has also presented his clothes in various derelict industrial warehouses in London's East End, and against the peeling walls of the crumbling Cafe de Paris in the West End, but today he will show in one of the purpose-built tents in the more salubrious area of South Kensington. "The tent is not ideal, because it's more difficult to generate a certain atmosphere, but financially, it was the thing to do," he says.

As for the models in his shows, they have been transformed into Amazonian vixens in metal sky-scraper heels (with spurs) and tooled leather bodices. Or they have metamorphosed into sexy, cartoon superheroes in boldly coloured second-skin rubber dresses. Whatever the look, it is an empowering visual statement.

Webber researches his collections to a fanatical degree. For months, before he sews a single thread, his head is bent low over great tomes in deathly quiet libraries, or he'll sit in grand museums and scribble furiously in his sketchbook, collecting inspirations as he goes along. Once he has his story mapped out, he's ready to start designing the clothes.

His first collection, entitled "Genus Orchidaon Demonix", represented four imaginary species of a chameleon-like woman capable of transforming herself from aggressive (moulded leather pieces), to alluring (clingy latex) to flamboyant (real fur). His third offering. "Danaiides', was based on a mythical Greek legend, and again showed varying degrees of metamorphosis. This was followed by his last collection, "The Orchid Engineer', in which he built a wardrobe for a female botanist fighting the use of unnatural bodies in altering plant species. "A bit like our modern day equivalent of GSM foods," laughs Webber.

It is pretty extraordinary that Webber, who, tall and willowy, with a mousy blond crop, fine features and big blue eyes (ringed with dark circles at the moment), designs these hard-core, often aggressive clothes. If he was to be judged as a designer on his looks alone, one might easily assume that he knocked out pretty, inoffensive frocks. But that's what makes him all the more fascinating, his unpredictability means that you never really know what he might come up with next.

Webber grew up in Southend. "I didn't feel part of it at all," he says. "I was a bit of a dreamer and very isolated, but I suppose it was pretty much self-imposed." His father, who worked in a bank, and his mother, a social worker, encouraged him from a very early age to draw.

"I used to fill numerous sketchbooks, one after another, with drawings of buildings, and then more abstract sketches, influenced by artists like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali."

At school - Southend's Thorpe Hall ("It was a microcosm of privilege, and of course I didn't feel as if I ever fitted in") - Webber was rooted to the art room, where he hibernated for most of his school years, feeling more confident there than in any other classroom. When he left school at 16, he knew instantly which career path to follow. He enrolled at the prestigious Southend College (the ultimate pre-Central Saint Martins training camp), there to study for three years. "My tutor was my mentor and really pushed me to experiment," he says. From there, he headed off to the bright lights of Saint Martins.

Now ensconced at Britain's most auspicious fashion school, he finally found his niche, he says: "I was surrounded by like-minded people. I didn't feel as if I had to be the biggest, the brightest or the loudest." Webber, it should be noted, is extremely shy and softly spoken, despite the hard- edged, glamorous appeal of his clothes. "I thought Saint Martins would be full of characters, and it was. But I didn't feel intimidated."

After studying for both a BA and an MA, at which time he was trumpeted by his tutors as the next big thing, Webber appeared to have been launched like a comet into the stratosphere. Isabella Blow, the champion of fresh design talent, bestowed him with her stamp of approval by wearing his creations and rattling off his name to anyone of influence in the industry.

Amid hype bordering on hysteria, Webber's became the show to see. But, as with most fledgling designers' first offerings, Webber has endured the fashion hyperbole (innovative tailoring, visionary cuts) along with the critics' faultfinding (too theatrical, too impractical), and all in the public eye.

The pressure to perform out of his socks - on a minuscule budget - to a fashion press eager to place him on a pedestal, has certainly taken its toll on this young designer.

"I've been built up and slagged off. And all I'm trying to do is build a business which has longevity," he says. Perhaps today's offering will not only further raise his profile as a serious talent, but as, a designer to both watch and - more importantl - wear.

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