Fashion: Natural instinct for the Next Big Thing - and it happened to be British

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Two young friends with hardly any know-how open a shop. Recipe for disaster? Not at all. Koh Samui in Covent Garden, is simply the best - and friendliest - place to buy young British designer fashion, says Melanie Rickey. Photographs by Nicola Kurtz

Four years ago, a couple of disgruntled twentysomething Londoners sat on Camden Lock in North London looking at all the market stalls and wishing they could start one of their own.

"Simply so we could be our own boss," explains Paul Sexton, who, at the time, was a sales assistant for French Connection. "Then we realised we would have to stand in the rain and snow," says Talita Zoe, his partner, who at that time was working in an office. Instead of just dreaming of better things, the pair gave up their jobs and went to see the bank manager.

Sexton and Zoe had decided to open a little fashion shop in Covent Garden. It opened in June 1994 on a tiny back street with no passing trade. They called it Koh Samui, and it cost pounds 80 a week to rent.

"At first we had absolutely no idea what to put in the shop," says Sexton. "We knew nothing about fashion, except what we liked."

In fact, the pair knew so little about where to find clothes for their shop that Great Portland Street, the traditional centre for London's rag trade, and Commercial Street in the East End, were their first ports of call. They found nothing inspiring, so they went to look for lighting instead.

This is where Lady Luck took a hand. Through a couple of chance meetings Sexton and Zoe came across the designer Stephen Fuller, and through him they met Janice Taylor, a jeweller who was modelling for him. Then, over a pint of beer at the local pub, they met Justin Oh and Anthony Gibson. All were designers just starting out, and Koh Samui became their first stockist.

As buyers, they learned fast. Today Koh Samui is the only designer boutique worth mentioning in connection with young British design talent. The closure of their nearest rival in Covent Garden, Jones Femme, in August helped to raise their status, and though the pair didn't admit it at first, Sexton lets slip with a giggle: "It felt like Christmas."

Jones's owner, Stuart Molloy, closed his womenswear shop because of increased competition from department stores, and returned to his speciality - menswear. The other designer emporiums of any bearing in London - Browns, Pellicano and A La Mode - can sometimes seem a bit rarefied and forbidding to younger customers. Koh Samui has a deliberately non-aggressive sales policy, and is staffed by the owners on most days, along with Jennifer, a laid-back Australian.

The shop on Monmouth Street is a totally refreshing shopping experience, with rails full of the most desirable designer clothes one could hope for. It's a bit like walking into the fashion equivalent of a luxury sweet shop. Radiohead and The Verve emanate from discreet speakers, and there's plenty of natural light to make the space seem airy. Rather than each rail bearing the work of any one designer, as in other boutiques, the garments are mixed up, as if each rail is someone's very own capsule wardrobe.

On one rail, for example, a YMC fleece sweat-top hangs next to a delicately beaded slip dress by Abe Hamilton, to be followed by a tailored grey flannel trouser suit by Joseph and a cashmere jumper by Clements Ribeiro. At the end hangs a beautiful, slim-line, belted mohair coat by Elspeth Gibson, and underneath are shoes by Patrick Cox and Pollini. This theme cleverly runs throughout the shop, with each individual rail helping the shopper to see finely crafted, special clothes in context with day-to-day pieces. In the main, Joseph own-label provides the basic pieces, but next season Martin Kidman will be added to the line-up.

Sexton, 32, and Zoe, 29, evidently have very good taste in clothes. Their natural instinct for the Next Big Thing helped them enormously in the early days; they were even bestowed with the NBT tag without knowing it. The pair know it now, of course, but are still modest.

More important than a Next Big Thing tag, as anyone in business knows, is understanding what will sell. When asked which designer label sells the most, the pair shrug, and mutter, "All of them sell well." A department store such as Barney's in New York would pay them a fortune for their "eye".

Koh Samui have recently added a new dimension to their business. From the start the shop had an open door to young designers hoping to gain that all-important first stockist. David Purves was one of them. He walked in from the street with a hanging bag containing his thick, worsted wool jackets, intricately cut coats and low-slung trousers. "With David, we knew straightaway," says Sexton. A few weeks later Purves clothes took pride of place in the Koh Samui window during Fashion Week. Now the shop represents Purves to foreign buyers along with Ruti Danan, a former Alexander McQueen aide who is famous for designing his distressed lace dresses, and Juan Lera, a Spanish, London-based designer known for his exquisite tailoring.

Andrew Groves wasn't as lucky first time round, but Sexton and Zoe are now looking again at his and Tristan Webber's clothes.

Their clientele is pretty cool, too. Helena Christensen, Amber Valetta and Tracey Thorn love Christa Davis, as does Bjork, who also buys Hussein Chalayan. Saffron Spanckling from Republica buys Copperwheat Blundell, and Laura Dern buys Abe Hamilton. The celebs are half the story. During my visit a stream of women came in for a spin through the shop, and four expensive items were sold in half-an-hour - on a weekday morning.

Sexton and Zoe caught on to something they didn't even know was happening in 1994 - that British fashion design and its status were about to go through the roof on an international scale. Now they are happy to enjoy their current position as the best designer fashion shop in London - but they won't sit still for long. There are more shops to open, and new designers to discover.

Koh Samui, 65 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (0171-240 4280).

Top three: beaded bits

Beaded handbag, pounds 35, by Lulu Guinness for Debenhams, 334-338 Oxford Street, London W1 and selected branches (inquiries, 0171-408 4488)

Black beaded slip dress, pounds 55, by Warehouse, 19-21 Argyll Street, London W1 and branches nationwide (inquiries, 0171-278 3491)

Beaded slippers, pounds 20, by Paul Smith, 84-86 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 (inquiries, 0171-379 7133)