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Fashion: Enigma variations

Owen Gaster may be more than a little mysterious, but the appeal of his clothes is clear enough, says Rebecca Lowthorpe. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Donna Francesca
Owen Gaster looks like an Irish jockey - his body is slight and stringy and his face, full of bony features, breaks into a broad grin all the time. His hair is receding, although at 29, he still looks like an impish teenager. If it weren't for a few clues: frayed-hemmed mohair trousers and fancy snakeskin slip-on shoes - you would never know he was "artistic", let alone one of Britain's most highly regarded fashion designers.

On the fashion circuit, an Owen Gaster show is an event not to be missed. The clothes are up close and personal as models weave in and out of the audience, allowing the goods to be checked out at close quarters. Picture a pool-hall patrolled by sassy models - part ragga queens, part nightclub hostesses; or a miniature fairground complete with candyfloss stands, a rifle range and dodgems. Another show featured a great open-air catwalk looped like a skateboarders' ramp, underneath London's Westway flyover, where models looked like replicants descending from their spaceship. His most recent presentation, held in a disused shop basement on Bond Street, had partially clad models posing in mocked-up shop windows that flickered with two-way mirrors - now you see them, now you don't. ("We hired a magician for that show," says Gaster, proudly.)

Yet for all the hoopla of these "events", he is something of an enigma to the fashion world. Gaster lives in Brighton ("not the posh bit"), favouring the reclusive coastline to the cut and thrust of London's fashion scene. He is also a family man, with partner Sindy and 10-month-old son Rocko. (Had Rocko been a girl he would have been called Stiletto - so it might be fair to say that Gaster isn't entirely anti-fashion.)

What made him want to be a fashion designer in the first place? "I've just always had a joy, a passion for it," he says in a low whispy voice - no doubt a symptom of years of chain- smoking Marlboro Lights. "It was an exciting time for fashion during my teenage years, in the Eighties, when image and labels and football culture reigned supreme," he reminisces. "Plus there was BodyMap, Galliano, a whole rich culture of clothes." Did he enjoy wearing those clothes, creating a wild image for himself during his teens? "My mum asked me if I was gay when I wanted to buy a shirt with a big bow on it. And my dad used to say there would be some 'funny' people in the business. But," says Gaster, by way of explanation, "they are from rural Sussex."

Gaster was born in Lebanon in 1970. His parents (father Irish, mother English), ran language laboratories for oil companies and universities, but returned to England, to Harlow, when Owen was five. His memories of Lebanon are disjointed: "Sea, mountains, army tanks, forests with huge pine cones and dogs being shot to prevent rabies." What about the Lebanese dress code, has it ever inspired him? "What? Men wearing baggy trousers and a fez?" He chuckles. "In a way though, I suppose. They do wear clothes with a kind of flashy arrogance - casino clothes."

Gaster graduated from Epsom college in 1992 with a raw, futuristic collection that shot its way into style bibles i-D and Interview. After years of financial struggle - the sort all fledgling design talents seem to have to endure in the UK - Gaster pulled through, thanks to Italian manufacturer Casor, which stepped in as his backer a year ago (Lawrence Steele and Emilio Pucci belong to the same stable). Around that time, he also won sponsorship for his twice-yearly catwalk shows from the store group BhS. In return, he designs a capsule tailoring range for the high-street retailer which he says, "gave me a chance to show I could do anything I put my mind to". Today his clothes can be found in America, France, Italy and Japan as well as the UK.

Owen Gaster is a fashion designer's designer - respected by his peers for his strong signature and his relentless pursuit of complex cutting techniques. He thrives on the architecture of fashion: a jacket made from no less than 116 pieces; an intricate waterfall drape on a jersey top or dress; other-worldly fabrics that mould or loop around the body.

If any criticism can be levelled at him, it is that occasionally his designs actually look complicated, rather than deceptively simple. Perhaps he is a show off, or perhaps simple clothes are not his bag. Whatever, he is a designer worth watching, and wearing too