Sheer bravado

The saucy chiffons and finely-tailored jackets of Antonio Berardi made him one of the new stars of London Fashion Week. Photographs by Ben Elwes
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The Independent Culture
A huge brimmed hat made of a thousand tiny silk flowers, overflowing out of control; a crown of playing cards; a tiny antique crown floating above a model's head; knuckle duster rings made of milky-green Lalique glass, and an impossible 20-inch waisted, flesh-coloured corset, laced up by the eccentric corsetier himself, Mr Pearl.

Backstage, in the red plush bar of the Royal Opera House, the aristocratic beauty, Honor Fraser, is released from her whale-bone stays with one confident swoop of Pearl's razor-sharp scissors. Before even catching her breath, a red bustle-back jacket, another Antonio Berardi creation, is buttoned round her waist with clouds of net perched over her rear. And she is off again, playing to the audience with her perfect posture and her haughty glances into the audience.

This was Berardi's third collection. And the spies from the mighty French company, LVMH, who own Dior, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix, were suitably impressed. A video of the show was urgently requested in Paris within days of the collection. For a young designer, a summons to the Paris headquarters of LVMH is the stuff of dreams.

"Like all immigrant parents, mine wanted for me what they never had. They wanted us to have an education and go on to better things." Antonio Berardi, the 27-year-old son of a Sicilian ice-cream manufacturer, has certainly fulfilled that wish. But he hasn't become an accountant or a doctor, as his parents might have wished; he has instead become a fashion designer, dressing the likes of Kate Moss and Kylie Minogue, who modelled in his first show, and Evangeline Blahnik, sister of shoe maestro Manolo.

During London Fashion Week, last week, Berardi presented his third show in the Crush Bar at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. The designer, a Catholic who cannot sleep at night unless he has said his prayers, used references as diverse as Aubrey Beardsley, boxing, religion, corruption, football, sex, and the innocence of childhood, to show a collection of saucy, finely hand-embroidered chiffon slips, and intricately tailored jackets.

London's best accessory designers worked with him on the collection: the playful hats and head-dresses were made by Stephen Jones; the shoes by Manolo Blahnik; the bags by Anya Hindmarch; the strict corsetry by Mr Pearl, and knitwear by John Smedley. Champagne cocktails were served before the show, courtesy of Courvoisier - not bad for a third show. But hardly surprising when you consider that for Antonio Berardi's graduation show from Central Saint Martin's, his commercial director-to-be and fellow student, Priyesh Shah, persuaded Manolo Blahnik to make the shoes, and the pair approached perfume giants IFF to sponsor the collection.

Despite his critical success, Berardi is surprisingly self-effacing. He is up for two awards at the Lloyd's British Fashion Awards to be announced later this month - for New Generation, and Streetstyle (although his work is more ladies who lunch than "street"). "I don't expect to win an award," he says. "Anyway, I'm too young. I'm not ready yet." He frequently refers to himself as a bit of an upstart.

After failing to get into Saint Martin's (it took him three attempts before the school accepted him), Berardi took himself off to Milan to work in a small design studio. He later found work in London, as a production assistant with his mentor, John Galliano. It was not long before he was promoted to head of the sample room, but when Saint Martin's finally accepted him, Berardi decided to go his own way.

These days, Berardi returns to his college as a tutor. Indeed, there is hardly a college in London where he doesn't teach. Some weeks, he teaches five days, only starting work at the studio when the students have left. And designing your own collection does not pay the rent. His own line is financed by a commercial mass-produced collection, I-D, that he designs for the Japanese market: "If you're a designer you should be able to turn your hand to anything. You should be able to design a pillow case and make it interesting and useful," he says.

What is unusual about going backstage after a Berardi show is not the chaos of film crews nudging each other out of the frame, or fashion editors queuing up for interviews, but the overriding presence of the Berardi family.

He is one of five children. His three sisters and brother are all there, alongside his proud parents. You sense that their support and encouragement are the power behind the designer. It was never expected that Antonio would take over the family ice-cream business. He concentrates instead on making clothes in every shade: vanilla, coffee, pistachio and lemon sorbet. A far cry from what his father dreamed of, but confectionery all the same.