Fashion: They seek him here, they seek him there

He's rumoured to have been in talks with Donatella Versace. His name has been top of a whole host of design houses' hit lists all in search of a designer, from Givenchy, Balenciaga, Celine, Chloe and Lanvin in Paris to Iceberg, Cerruti, Etro and Sergio Rossi in Italy, not to mention the latest offer from TSE, the New York-based cashmere company. Oh, and John Lewis approached him with a deal to design a capsule collection for the department store. He was even recently rung by the fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily to ask him if he had been approached by the House of Chanel before Karl Lagerfeld re-signed a contract for another five years. He's turned down more offers than you can count on two hands, not to mention the bungled British Fashion Awards title of Lloyd's Bank New Generation Designer for 1997. Antonio Berardi is a mere 26, less than four years out of Central Saint Martin's, and a name to be reckoned with - invited to dinner with Madonna, no less - although, he says, he is still finding his feet.

The idea of taking on any old house, or a relatively new one for that matter, does not fill Berardi with ambition or excitement. He will happily design a collection - for a fee - and remain anonymous. But these days, whether he likes it or not, Mr Berardi is a commodity, a name synonymous with Cool Britannia that companies who lack their own credibility would give anything to buy into. No way, says the designer. The name, which he put in lights on the catwalk for his last show, is not for sale. Not for any amount. And to prove it, he also turned down a pounds 20m manufacturing and licensing deal last year because the contract involved selling half his name.

One of the few contracts Berardi has signed is to consult on a line for the Italian leather manufacturer Ruffo. The deal is for two seasons and he is producing a new leather line for both men and women for the company to be called RR, Ruffo Research, unveiled this March at the Milan Fashion Week.

Despite the fact that he is still relatively inexperienced with his leather work, he has been hailed a master of the material by Harper's Bazaar, and his cut-out leather suits have become a signature as well as a best- seller. This spring, orders for his clothes have doubled from the world's most exclusive stores and boutiques, including Barney's in New York and A La Mode in London. For winter, the leather sold out within days of reaching the shops. "Those leather suits were so expensive," he admits, "yet there aren't any left." Berardi must be doing something right, and he's certainly learning quickly.

Berardi believes a woman should look like a woman. He is Italian, after all; born and bred in Lincolnshire, but Italian in blood and culture. For Spring, the Antonio Berardi look is "sexy, flirtatious, feminine; clothes that women look good in. My philosophy is not about making a suit for you to go to work in. It's about making a woman look as sexy as possible, but within the constraints of reality." It may be a fantasy, he says, but then so, too, is a woman going into Next to buy a velvet dress for a New Year's party. "I think my clothes empower women. They don't make them feel vulnerable but powerful and sexy. I was called a misogynist because I did short skirts for spring," he says incredulously. But as long as there are women out there who want to wear his clothes - and there are, ranging from a thirty-something Harley Street doctor who saw a suit in Liberty and had it made to measure for a mere pounds 1,200, to Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston - Berardi is filling a gap in the market. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

It has not all been roses for Berardi over the past 12 months. As well as being labelled a misogynist by fashion editors on the New York Times, The Times and The Guardian, he has been accused of plagiarising the work of his mentor, John Galliano. "That comparison really annoys me," he says. "Yes, we have similar sensibilities and have similar backgrounds and upbringing. Lace and macrame are part of both our heritages. But my vision is totally different to John's. I'm a romantic but I'm a realist too."

Like Galliano, and indeed the majority of other designers, Berardi trawls vintage clothing shops in search of inspiration. Rather than looking for dresses to reproduce, he takes details and techniques from old clothes like the basket weave ribbon work made into a ruffled and pleated sun dress for summer. Undoubtedly, the two designers share a streak of perfection and a passion for fine detail. And without Galliano's struggle and string of bankruptcies in London during the Eighties and his subsequent move to Paris and most recent elevation to high priest of French couture, Berardi acknowledges that he would not be in the position he is in today. Galliano paved the way for Alexander McQueen and between them they have finally achieved recognition and acclaim for British designers.

Berardi is, however, still sceptical about the future of the British fashion industry. "How many times did John go bankrupt and no one cared? It took a French company to rescue him. It's sickening that there is still no one here willing to invest in British fashion. In Italy and France the government is proud of their fashion industries. If only the government realised it is a large industry and invested in it, we wouldn't need to think about `defecting' to show abroad."

Along with every other big name in British fashion, from Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood to Clements Ribeiro and Hussein Chalayan, Antonio Berardi's collections are manufactured (and financed) in Italy. The great underlying problem with the industry here is that there really isn't one in the sense of a manufacturing base and infrastructure. It's all ideas without anything to back them up, like having a car industry that comprised a few brilliant designers with only a few magic markers and no factories or raw materials.

"We have nothing left here, just Savile Row. The mills and factories have all gone," he says. Although he owes everything to the art school system that thrives in this country and the atmosphere that allows new talent to grow creatively, he is pessimistic about the future of London Fashion Week. Unless there is more back-up to the industry rather than just a handful of innovative designers and a lot of hype, he predicts it will never grow and will just be a spurt of creative energy every 10 years: "There has to be a backlash against London. I don't particularly want to move, but in a few years' time, if the bottom drops out of London, I'd have no choice but to move to Milan." He spends every other week working there as it is.

If an Italian backer had not financed Berardi in the winter of 1996, it would all have been over for the designer. He was paying pounds 492 to have a jacket made in England, without the cost of fabric. He was selling the jackets to Liberty for less than it was costing him to make. Not surprisingly, he had debts of pounds 20,000. It is the familiar lament of British designers.

Fortunately for Berardi, the future looks rosy. He still lives on the breadline, ploughing any money he makes into paying bills and buying fabrics, and generally living beyond his means. But he also still has his name intact and he still has a dream. Which brings us back to Versace. As well as Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent, Berardi sees Versace as one of the few houses he would one day love to design for. That his chance to prove himself is imminent is, he says, pure rumour, hot air and fashion gossip. "Nothing happened with Versace," he says simply. He met Donatella backstage after her first collection for the house since the death of her brother and she was complimentary about his work. Her elder brother Santo even posed for a photograph with the young designer. There was no job offer, but that is not to say Berardi has not fantasised about it. "I'd say don't pay me for a season. Sometimes it's about proving you can do something. You could be really clever with it ... winking medusas, very tongue in cheek. Versace is very modern. It would be a celebration of Versace. I've had brilliant ideas ..."

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