Fashion: Design for life

The best thing about the honest, straightforward clothes of husband and wife design team Eley Kishimoto is that you can buy them whether you are a trendy young thing or a senior citizen. Words by Rebecca Lowthorpe
When Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto sold their first collection of printed cotton clothes to Liberty in London, they attracted a somewhat unfamiliar clientele. "Little old ladies from Basingstoke were buying our designs in bulk," says Mark. "It's true," adds Wakako. "They looked fantastic head-to-toe in our prints."

Home Counties pensioners were uncharted territory for the couple who had grown accustomed to seeing their designs striding down catwalks (Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen) or sauntering down the street on the capital's style-setters. Still, it's not difficult to see why Liberty's older customers converted to Eley Kishimoto.

Their own-label clothes are cut into simple shapes: classic V-neck tops, short-sleeved dresses, T-shirts, wrap skirts, pea- jackets and belted macs. And the prints - polka dots, wiggly checks, deck- chair stripes and childlike blossoms - are quaint and charming and, indeed, just the sort of thing your grandmother might wear. The irony being that Eley Kishimoto kit is considered the essence of cool by the in-crowd for the very same reasons. Oh, and the fact that their clothes look like grown-up versions of cut-out clothes for paper dolls. "They're just honest, straightforward patterns, not weird for the sake of it," says Wakako.

Eley Kishimoto's laboratory-cum-cottage industry is a white stone building near south London's Brixton prison. The studio appears to be in utter chaos. Ink-stained cupboards burst with fabric; paint-spattered magazines, newspapers and books are stacked in piles; their new collection hangs from a washing line; the walls are plastered with lists of things to do and fabric swatches. A 20ft-long printing table is scattered with tools. At the far end, barely visible behind the printing machines, are two assistants preparing complex-looking silk screens, their hands and arms stained with rainbow colours.

Mark and Wak, as they call each other, are the perfect team. While Wakako is the creative force, Mark steers the business, which, he says, is thriving. Their clothes are stocked in London, Hong Kong, New York and all over Japan; the pair are currently working in collaboration with some of the grandest Paris fashion houses, although, contractually, they are forbidden to name names.

Back in the studio, their children -Naoki, five, and Tomomi, two - tumble through the door. Naoki wears an Eley Kishimoto school T-shirt. "From the fashion houses in Paris to Clapham Manor School. We work for everyone now," says Mark.

Mark Eley and Wakako Kishimoto were married in 1992. Their wedding was anything but traditional. Wakako wore a red dress sprouting plastic flowers, Mark wore a suit printed with an English landscape and the ushers wore Wakako's cloud-print catsuits.

Wakako, 34, was brought up just outside Kobe in Japan. She came to London, aged 20, unable to speak a word of English. "I had no Japanese friends when I arrived, so I had to learn fast." She graduated in 1992 from Central Saint Martins where she was the print-room's star.

Mark, 31, grew up in Wales. "The valleys are scary," he says. "I used to get beaten up all the time for looking weird." Mark studied woven textiles at Brighton. "I wanted to be near the sea so that I could surf. I didn't realise Brighton had the flattest sea on the south coast."

V-neck top, pounds 120; floral A-line skirt, pounds 110

Scribble top, pounds 60; rib leggings, pounds 110

Dress, pounds 220; leggings, pounds 10, from Portobello Market, London W11; Sellotape shoes, by Emma Cook, to order from Kokon Tozai, 57 Greek Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-434 1316

All clothes (unless otherwise credited) are from the autumn/winter 1999 collection by Eley Kishimoto, available from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1, enquiries 0171-584 0011, Liberty, Regent Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-734 1234

Hair and make-up Liz Daxeur at Marina Jones

Model Joanne Watkins at Premier

Photographer's assistant Andrew Walsh