In another life: They're young, hip and ultra-confident. They have to be - this is the graduation show from the London College of Fashion. Photographs by David Rose
Christine Percy, Course Director; sharp, exactly fitted pinstriped suit and immaculate red lipstick of the sort that makes me took like a drag queen when I try to wear it, glances at a gaggle of chattering youth and sighs. "I do wish the students wouldn't do that. You can see they're mopping it, and they mustn't walk on it afterwards," she says, and leans forward. "Do you mind," she calls to a young woman strolling towards the street door, "asking your son not to walk on the catwalk? It'll spoil the evening show if there's a mark on it."

In fashion, even the catwalk is not as straightforward as it seems. I'd never thought about it before but that virginal unblemished white forces the eye on to the product. It also has this slightly squashy, plastic surface, at once both adhesive and slippery. The adhesive quality saves models from doing a Naomi Campbell from the absurd shoes designers likely to parade them in, and the slip - the way the foot lands and then slides forward a centimetre or so - helps them with that model walk.

You know the model walk: hips forward, shoulders back, teeny bosom to the sky, back arched like Olga Korbut about to do a double-flip on a balancing beam, exaggerated scowl. It makes the fabric come alive, gives curves where there are none, shows off the cut of the garment. It also looks faintly absurd, but then, a bit of absurdity in the human form lends gravitas to the duds it's sporting.

We're between shows, and everything is, briefly, calm. The Dean of School, Roy Peach, is putting final tweaks on the rows of gilt chairs; someone is fiddling with a video camera, and backstage someone is hurrying through final adjustments to a lace slip; but the majority of exhibitors are hanging around on the pavement outside, smoking and talking chic. A hundred yards away, on Oxford Street, crowds surge through low-cost outlets like Mark One and What She Wants, loading up with Indian viscose, lycra cycling shorts and tie-waist shirts for the weekend. The atmosphere at the degree show is altogether more couture.

This is the day when two years of cutting and tacking, laying out and stitching, pinning and basting, ironing and pondering reaches its culmination for the 280 second-year students on the London College of fashion HND course. Most are going on to BA and Masters' degrees, some are even going straight into employment with big names such as Nicole Farhi, Alexander McQueen, French Connection, Warehouse, Marks and Spencer, Next and the English National Opera. And everyone wants to get noticed. Over three shows, the students show off the fruits of the past two terms' labour: for a few seconds, a handful of the artistic creations of each will swan up and down 30ft of white plastic just like it was the real thing.

The London College of Fashion is a bright star at the moment, producing shiny young things whose skills the rag trade are more than eager to snap up. In recent years, their heavily skills-based courses have mutated to indulge artistic expression, but their basic emphasis on the old-fashioned virtues of practical knowledge makes their graduates invaluable to the industry. "It's the Savile Row tradition," says Christine. "We've had a lot of wacky design, a lot of eccentricity, and England has been famous for that, but we've been hiding our light under a bushel about our tailoring skills. We're very strong on tailoring: we know about proportion and cut. The industry wants our students because of the skills we teach. I mean, they take students from elsewhere who don't know how to thread a machine."

Actually, she takes it a bit further than that. A slightly fanatical gleam lights her eye as she expounds her love of exactitude. "As Mies van der Rohe said, 'God lies in the detail'. It's about dissection of lapels, skirting, size, proportion, form, fit and above all fabric, coming together like a recipe into a fluent whole. A wacky statement's fun and grabs news, but quality is about something else. We aim to make beautiful objects, like sculpture, like a wonderful book or a piece of music. It's spiritual. I don't want to exaggerate, but I feel strongly about this. It's good artistic practice."

Meanwhile, the young artists tweak their creations and consider their futures. Faisal Baig, a 20-year-old from Slough, has been working up a sweat helping style the shows, ensuring everything looks just so before it slides round the plywood screen and hits the spotlights. Faisal is frighteningly together: his own samples, a set of grey sleeveless coats with glossy brocade backs, and a pseudo-military khaki suit with gorgeous scarlet fleshings, raise cheers when the gang of tanned, gelled and gym- toned lads swank through the room in them later in the evening. He's already got together his own brochure, which he presses into my hands "just to give you some idea of the thoughts behind the collection". God: I was hard pushed to get out of bed before lunchtime when I was 20.

Dressed in a shirt of his own creation, a simple hessian number with the most dandyish curlicued cuffs this side of The Draughtsman's Contract, he talks about his ambitions as though they were the simplest thing in the world. "I plan to be a famous designer. Fame and fortune isn't everything, but I know what I want. I see my market and I'll sell into it." He learned his trade, literally, at his mother's knee: she is a seamstress. "Whenever I sat down to speak to her, she was always at the machine. And gradually I started imagining myself doing things. I'd sit down and cut things and see how they ended up." From such small beginnings comes great couture.

Backstage at six o'clock, the models arrive for the final show. The boys share a sort of Stepford perfection that is slightly off-putting when you're used to the cosy bagginess of ordinary mortals: little snubbed noses, stripy highlights, even, all-over tans, that Calvin Klein lump in the fronts of their crotches. They occupy one end of the warehouse changing room, lined with rack upon rack of plastic-covered garb, and the girls - bone sacks with exaggerated femurs and that look of rage that accompanies malnutrition - strip down to flesh toned thongs at the other. Everyone ignores everyone else. The heat is ferocious: people crowd together in front of the fans and block the breeze from the rest of the room.

One by one the girls emerge from makeup, transformed from humanity to anonymous masks of Shiseido greens and Hard Candy purples. Someone rushes by, waving a pair of sunglasses designed to look like the aural aids the blind guy wears in Star Trek: The Next Generation. "Has anyone seen the other pair of these? Someone borrowed them for the party on Tuesday and they've not come back." Everyone looks blank. A tall, thin American girl who look like Ally Sheedy with a stonking hangover takes her bra off. "Where is he?" "Not here," says a student - you can tell the students because they have normal bodies. "Whaddya mean, not here?" "Not here." Someone comes round the front-of-house curtain. "Are there any pins back here?" "I should think so," replies a dresser over her shoulder, "this is the sort of place where they have pins."

Meanwhile, the audience is gathering: a smattering of parents and a throng of early twenty-somethings with all the nascent characteristics of the fashion crowd. They wear silly hairstyles: a cartoon hedgehog here, peacock blue tips which match a jacket there, and lots and lots of sunglasses. One's glad to see that goatees seem to be on their way out at last: they do have a tendency to make men's faces look like their bottoms. There is a certain amount of air-kissing, a lot of clocking other people and sneering. A man and woman sit behind me. "Did you go to the awards ceremony at Graduate Fashion Week?" "No. I was in New York". "Yes. I was in Paris. I love the atmosphere of these things, though, don't you? Especially in this country".

The lights drop, the lads vogue down the walk in a selection of cagoule- like jackets made by the first-year students. Someone wears a see-through plastic job with teensy swimming trunks underneath; someone else, a fishnet top with a full-face fishnet balaclava hood: top mode for bank robbers in the year to come. Whoops of admiration greet it. Then we're on to the serious stuff - a stream of exquisitely tailored suits, drape coats and Audrey Hepburn dresses in every fabric you could think of and some you couldn't: white pvc alligator; loose weave mohair; black padded eiderdown cloth; gauze; lycra.

The girls thrust their hip-bones ever forward, the boys emote like mad. Anthony Keegan's baby blue and powder-puff-pink safari suits are modelled by two boys with inch-thick makeup and handbags; "Walk Like a Man" plays in the background. This raises howls of joy that were only matched by those which greeted Smirnoff Award winner Rachel Wells's bloodstained tennis dresses on Tuesday. Sarah Crookston has made a hat out lots of little hats; Ursula Geisselman has done something very weird and very wonderful with the batwing sleeve. The clapping scarcely lets up.

Later, there's wine and congratulations. Signe Kjer's mother, Susanne, who's in the trade herself, has come from Denmark to watch her daughter's Seventies-style knitwear get its airing. "I know," says, Signe, "that I've had a really good half year. I'm very pleased with my stuff." Susanne is glad her daughter is training in London. "I like the English fashion scene. There are so many good designers here. Some are mad, but still there are great ideas."

Sunita Patel and Muklet Hadrami are both going on to degree courses in Leicester. Muklet has had some of her stuff shown before, in Birmingham, but this was a first for Sunita. She's still a bit giggly with the rush of it. "It was scary at first seeing your own garments coming down the catwalk and everyone shouting and screaming. I thought I was going to faint at one point." It's that sort of kick that keeps you going, but they're both aware that they're heading out into a tough world. "You have to have skin like a rhino," says Muklet. "If you can't hack it I think your best bet is to try something else. You get a lot of knock-backs. My jaw's sore."