She's from Scunthorpe. She works with Elastoplast. She turns accidents into frocks. Is Shelley Fox fashion's next star?

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The Independent Culture
Shelley Fox is like her clothes: very gentle, very feminine, very graceful, if a little dour. She is also endowed with quiet power. In the case of the woman herself, this translates as grim determination. Her designs are as thought-provoking as their creator is thoughtful. Take the season before last's Braille skirt, for example: perfectly simple, A-line and with "this is a skirt" embossed on it in oversized Braille print. "I was working on a project at the RNIB [Royal National Institute For The Blind]. The ladies there told me that when blind people dress themselves, each item of their clothing carries a button with Braille print on it, describing what colour it is. That got me thinking about things the rest of us take for granted."

Not that Fox would ever be likely to take anything for granted: the designer is nothing if not resourceful. To say that Fox has learnt from her mistakes would be to understate their significance. Rather - and displaying a typically frugal English sensibility, creating something out of nothing - she has encouraged them.

In the past, she has created garments out of sticking-plaster fabric. "I tripped over a carpet rail, cut my knee and then took a good look at the Elastoplast I put on. I sourced the fabric to Smith & Nephew, and they sent me their archives." They also sent the then-penniless designer 100 metres of fabric to work with; she produced almost an entire collection out of it.

The scorched fabrics that have formed a large part of her work came into being when, while a student at Central Saint Martins in London, she allowed a press to overheat. On a third occasion, attempting to felt some wool, she put too much cloth into her washing machine.

"It came out all scarred and rippled," she says. "I spent ages trying to do it again." Felted, scorched and embossed wool has since become central to her signature style.

Aged 32, Shelley Fox was born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire and grew up in the shadow of the steel-works. "When I was young," she says, "I didn't think I wanted to be a fashion designer. I didn't even know you could do fashion. But - and I only really know this in retrospect - I felt quite claustrophobic in this very small town. And I could never find things I wanted to wear, so I used to buy old curtains and furnishing fabrics and turn them into clothes. I used to make patterns out of old newspaper."

Aged 14 - and in a part of the country hardly known for its fashion consciousness - she attracted more than her fair share of attention. Her work is deemed difficult by some. It's rather more serious than that of her contemporaries: a far cry from both the hard-edged glamour the British fashion capital has come to represent on the one hand, and the London Girl thrift shop- chic aesthetic on the other.

With their gentle envelopment of the female form and reliance on abstract shapes, Fox's clothes are more reminiscent of the great Japanese designers, those interested in draping the body subtly rather than exposing it for all to see. The signature Fox neckline is asymmetric and tends to be cut so high it appears restrictive; the fabric, however, is as soft as feathers. Dresses are based on geometric shapes: dropped circles that enfold the body like a pod: they look almost like shadows. Colours, similarly, are sombre - burnt orange, black and grey. Where the fabric is scorched, the resultant effect is not unlike that of marbled walls.

"It's not all that frightening, you know," says the designer's press officer, Kate Monckton. "Shelley always wears it. If a designer does that and doesn't look like a freak from outer space, that can only be a good thing."

It was her mother, Fox says, who finally inspired her to make the break from Scunthorpe. Fox's father was a steel-worker, her mother had a job in the administration department of the steel-works. When their daughter was offered a place at Grimsby College of Art they did not hesitate: "I knew I couldn't draw, so I decided I couldn't go. Mum said: `you're going'. She knew it was the only way."

After completing her foundation course, Fox went on to Croydon College, then Middlesex, then Central Saint Martins, Britain's most famous fashion school, which also produced the designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. She graduated with an MA in 1996.

Fox's London catwalk debut was last season. It was put together for under pounds 1,500, while a big name designer show costs more like pounds 150,000. Models were paid in clothes. The show was a critical success but, financially, Fox's position was tenuous. It's an all too familiar story: a designer whose work is feted and photographed by both newspapers and magazines, but still paying back the bank loan that funded her degree collection in the first place, can barely make ends meet. To support herself in between designing her own collection twice yearly, Fox teaches fashion - at Central Saint Martins, Nottingham Trent University and the American College in London.

Two weeks ago, she was forced to move into her tiny studio in London's Brick Lane. Her boiler had broken at home and she couldn't afford to have it fixed. On 10 February, however, Fox's fortunes changed radically: she became the first (and only) recipient of the Jerwood Fashion Prize, winning pounds 20,000, a guaranteed order from Liberty worth pounds 25,000 (retail value), sponsorship for a stand at London Fashion Week next season - and for a show the season after that.

It is the first prize of its kind, in that fashion sponsorship in general - and even for a high-profile designer - tends to be hard come by and, more importantly, because it is doing rather more than simply throwing money at a designer one season only to let them flounder the next.

Not insignificantly, the entry requirements for the prize concentrated as much on designers' business acumen as it did on creativity - a detailed business plan including financial forecasting was insisted upon. Fox was considered by the panel of 11 judges to be in possession of both - and out of almost 200 applicants you can be sure that she was a member of a tiny minority.

"You know," she says, "I hate it when we're all seen as these whingeing designers. Of course there are some designers like that, but look over there, look at those files." A tall shelving unit in one corner of her studio totters beneath the weight of them. "It's all about organisation and it has been since day one."

With names like McQueen and Hussein Chalayan threatening to move on to fashion capitals other than our own, the pressure is on to replace them. Fox, however, is cautious. She has seen too many of her contemporaries forced to live up to the hype - and failing.

As well as winning the Jerwood Prize, she has also signed a deal with style guru and retailer Joseph Ettedgui, to design a small collection of dresses specifically for his stores, which will go on sale in about six weeks' time.

"I think Shelley is very professional," says Ettedgui, "very confident. She enjoys what she's doing and she does it very well. I think she's like a young Comme [des Garcons] or Yohji [Yamamoto]. It's very refreshing to see."

"Shelley's extremely creative," says Angela Quaintrell, senior buyer of Liberty and a Jerwood panellist. "I asked her to come and present her collection to the press the first time I bought it, two years ago now. She was there for two days solid. I don't think she ever sat down. At six o'clock I'd say: `Shelley, go home now, for God's sake.' She'd say: `But what if someone else comes to have a look?' She was like a little bulldog."

Today, Shelley Fox insists that she is unlikely to be carried away by it all. She will continue teaching in order to support herself, and is more than woman enough to handle anything the press and the buyers might throw in her direction.

"I believe in what I'm doing and I don't think it's like other people's work," she says. "I've worked far too hard to be around one season and disappear the next. I've just been waiting quietly in the background because I knew, eventually, it would happen. I knew, eventually, it would come through."

She relaxes if only for a moment, then grins from ear to ear: "And it has!"

London Fashion Week starts tomorrow