Fashion: The shape of things to come

They may not be centre-stage at London Fashion Week, but watch out, says Melanie Rickey, here are the up-and-coming young British designers going somewhere fast. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Justin Smith
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In the run-up to London Fashion Week, which starts next Saturday, there has been a distinct lack of positivity among the fashion fraternity. Designers are grumbling about a lack of financial and emotional support. Rumours have been flying that every designer with international appeal is decamping to New York, Paris or Milan. Antonio Berardi, the Italian-backed designer, whose parents are Italian and whose clothes sell very well in Italy, is about to show in Milan for the first time, while continuing to be based in London. The British Fashion Council (BFC) is, in the words of its chief executive John Wilson, "taking it on the chin", and fashion pundits are sounding the death knell on what has been - for the last four years - a fabulous run for British designers both internationally and at home.

But let's get one thing clear: with the exception of Berardi's departure (which could be seen as a logical move), nothing definite has happened yet. The rest is just a few loud critics and some XX-large fashion egos shooting from the lip.

In reality London Fashion Week appears still to be as exciting an event as ever. The line-up of designers showing is impressive, the parties (one is part-organised by Meg Mathews' company 2Active for American Vogue, another is at Harvey Nichols for Visionaire) will be glamorous, and there will be plenty of talent on show "off-schedule" (separate to the diary of catwalk events set up by the British Fashion Council).

If there is a problem with our fashion industry, it's that there isn't enough money to go around. But isn't that always the problem? It's where London consistently loses out, because it can't compete with the big foreign names in terms of advertising budgets, and it could be that, come September, the brightest British hopes will decamp to New York to seek bigger bucks. "But it hasn't happened yet," John Wilson points out. "A lot can change in six months, and we are working on those changes." Initiatives include paying for important West Coast American buyers (the ones Alexander McQueen in particular wants) to come to London Fashion Week, and a high-profile government reception with Tony Blair.

It should be worth the buyers' while to stop off in London. After all, what we've got in abundance is talent, creativity, ideas, drive to succeed, and then some. But Brian Kirkby and Zowie Broach of new British label Boudicca, and their off-schedule compatriots Shelley Fox, Markus Lupfer and Sophia Kokosalaki, while hotly tipped as potential future successes, are finding the going tough. And Roland Mouret, a semi- couturier and dressmaker whose clothes are featured here, had, at the time of going to press, decided not to hold a show for financial reasons.

These as yet unfamiliar names are the new generation of designers. They are working from bedroom-cum-design studios, live-work apartments and industrial complexes, ready to make their mark on British fashion by whatever means possible. They know the risks, but equally the rewards are great. Four years ago their predecessors Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, among others of equal talent, were in the same rocking boat. More recently, Robert Cary Williams showed off-schedule to great acclaim. He is now on the official LFW schedule, and was helped along, says John Wilson, by a huge amount of press interest.

Boudicca is a perfect example of a design team with the drive, passion, and creative talent that Britain is famous for. It has been struggling for two years to keep afloat with no financial aid. "Fashion is in no man's land when it comes to funding,"

says Zowie Broach. "We can't approach the Arts Council, and the Crafts Council told us we didn't fit their criteria." That leaves the BFC, which is not a charity, and which rejected Boudicca's application to be part of London Fashion Week. "I don't know why they refused us. We asked, but got no reply," says Brian Kirkby, who later reveals they left blank all the boxes relating to their business in a standard questionnaire set by the BFC.

Fortunately what they lack in business acumen is made up for with couture- quality clothes assembled in their cavernous live-work loft in a back street off Brick Lane, east London, appropriately called Fashion Street. Moulded leather corsets, layered dirty white organdie dresses, wrap skirts, cutaway jackets, and body-restrictive pieces are gaining a cult following among fashion insiders. Luckily for them their show next week will be funded with sponsorship from a hairdressing firm called Mahogany, and free PR from Aurelia Cecil.

Greek-born Sophia Kokosalaki, 26, is just starting out and is encouraged by the off-schedule success of Robert Cary Williams. "I'm showing on my own," she states. "You have to do that before anyone takes notice of you." She graduated from the MA course at Central St Martin's last year and is funding her first collection with a bank loan. Her hand-crafted clothing samples are being made in exchange for pattern cutting services, and she's loving every minute of it. "I'm so busy I don't notice any of the hardships, and anyway it's easy to do things here with no money."

Shelley Fox and Markus Lupfer have been looking for funding in an altogether different way. At the time of going to press these two were among eight finalists for the prestigious Jerwood Prize. (The winner was announced too late for inclusion in this article.) The Jerwood Prize is the only funding initiative worth getting excited about in fashion, because the winner has a real chance of making it (and no reason to complain if they don't). The prize includes sponsorship for two collections, free use of a design studio and free PR for a year, a guaranteed pounds 25,000 order from Liberty, and an interest-free loan to back up clothing production costs.

Markus Lupfer, 26, could do with the leg-up. German-born, he moved to London to study fashion because "it's the place for freedom and expression, the place to learn. Nothing compares". After graduation in 1997 he landed a job with Clements Ribeiro, and months later sold his own-label collection to London store Koh Samui, where it was an immediate success. He left Clements Ribeiro to go solo in December, and is now facing the reality of working from a bedsit in Finsbury Park, north London, which has a bed against one wall with a cutting table and rails taking up the rest of his space. Still, the clothes hanging in there are divine and will sell: a floaty turquoise skirt looks like petals, and together with delicately printed sheer chiffon aprons and clever knitwear it's obvious why Clements Ribeiro were sad to see him go. "I didn't try to be on the schedule this time. I want to wait until I'm ready for it," he says, shrugging.

Shelley Fox is in a similar position. When I visit her tiny studio off Brick Lane, the most popular corner in east London for designers because of the cheap rent, she is enjoying a practice run at fame: two men from the BBC are filming her for The Jerwood Prize (to be screened on BBC2 on 17 February at 8pm). In one corner of the tiny industrial room is a wall covered with circular patterns which form part of the next collection. It looks ingenious. "You pull it over your head here, put your arms through there and then flip that bit over your head," she says, explaining a spherical blouse. I think I get it. In another corner a colleague tacks some spray-painted cotton wadding to the wall; it will be made into full skirts. Another one of Fox's unique garments is a pair of trousers whose legs are cut into cubes instead of tubes. "My clothes are given shape by the body, the wearer's individuality makes them special," she says.

Fox really wants to get on. She has taken business advice, applied for grants, put a lot of time and effort into the Jerwood Prize, and is holding down a teaching position as well as being a designer. She also came very close to giving up, but just when she had had enough, Joseph Ettedgui called out of the blue and asked her to design seven dresses for his Joseph stores.

These are the people the BFC's John Wilson should be looking at to continue flying the flag for Britain. But, as he says, they "must come and talk to us, the door is open". If he sounds stand-offish, it would nonetheless be worth any young designer talking to Wilson - he certainly knows the ins-and-outs of the fashion business. "Being a fashion designer means a lot more than designing clothes," he says. "What about boring things like the VAT man, a business plan, manufacturing?" This is the sort of comment likely to infuriate designers who want the BFC to hand them success on a plate because they think they deserve it.

To this his response is simple. "Designers must think we can walk on water. We run the London Fashion Week event, but we are not their agents. I can't sell X thousand dresses to Mr X for a designer. We can invite every buyer in the world to a designer's show, when that designer has also invited every buyer in the world, but neither of us can physically make them come."

The most annoying aspect of the doom prophesy circulating about London Fashion Week are the designers who moan about the BFC, when all the BFC has done is help them. Julien MacDonald is a case in point. He stated in the press that the BFC were "hopeless", when in fact every one of his three shows would not have happened without them. "I am upset with him," says Wilson. "We gave him New Generation sponsorship three times, then Marks & Spencer employed him to design a capsule range of knitwear. After that we arranged for Max Factor to sponsor him. We also helped organise for his last collection to travel to New York with funding from Vidal Sassoon."

When I bring this up with MacDonald, he pleads ignorance, claiming that he was misquoted. However, he soon admits that he wasn't aware of the behind-the-scenes work of the BFC, and then backtracks into a semi-apology, stating that "companies have helped me, with the input of the BFC". This highlights one of the biggest problems facing British fashion: communication.

Meanwhile, at the time of going to press, Boudicca, Markus Lupfer and Shelley Fox have decided to put on their shows at the same time as more established British fashion names, an approach sure to cause some friction. Indeed, Boudicca's Kirkby jibes: "We'll have to try and show against irrelevant designers." If Fox, Lupfer, Boudicca, together with Sophia Kokosalaki and Roland Mouret, are to succeed they need to talk to the BFC about setting up an official "off-schedule" day that doesn't clash with any other designers and that can be used as a unique selling point for London Fashion Week.

These new names are after all the future of British fashion, and everyone knows there's no better place than London to find them. John Wilson is open to ideas. "Right now the last day of the coming event is clear, and I'm happy to talk to designers to see what can be arranged." His number is in the phone book under British Fashion Council.

Opposite Julia Ain'Krups, writer and muse for Boudicca, wears `Cut Me Out' jacket, `Miss Ugly' top in black organdie and black jodhpurs, all to order, by Boudicca, from The Pineal Eye, 49 Broadwick Street, London W1, enquiries 0171-377 5002

This page Charlie Pichon, mother and make-up artist, wears white circular- backed dress, pounds 208, by Shelley Fox, from Whistles, St Christopher's Place, London W1, enquiries 0171-251 8861

Below Lisa Ratliffe, dental assistant, wears black dress, to order, by Roland Mouret, enquiries 0171-251 8861

Opposite Kiara Newgent, schoolgirl, wears white pleat top and skirt, to order, by Sophia Kokosalaki, enquiries 0171-836 7584

Stylist's assistant Holly Wood

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