Recluse Howard Hughes is an unlikely influence for fashion designers but, as Susannah Frankel explains, Brian Kirby and Zowie Broach (right) are no ordinary designers. And their `demi-couture' label, Boudicca, is definitely not your average fashion label. Backstage photographs by Robert Wyatt
I first came across Boudicca under less-than-auspicious and typically obscure circumstances almost three years ago. Brian Kirby and his partner Zowie Broach were, like me, talked into visiting the sleepy seaside town of Rijeka in Croatia and taking part in the twice-yearly "collections" there.

Croatia, you might think, is hardly fashion central, unlike say Paris, Milan or New York. And you'd be right. The idea behind our involvement - naively enough - was that to bring a little slice of London to an area hardly known for its fashion forward approach - but still wanting to make a name for itself through its clothes - could only be a good thing.

Broach puts it more pragmatically: "Hey, it was a holiday. We did it because they asked us to. And it was good practice. It was mad though, wasn't it?"

It most certainly was. Six hours and around 50 designers into the event, at around one in the morning - in Croatia, fashion shows are clearly, well, an eclectic affair; an eclectic affair that goes on, and on, and on - Broach and Kirby had their moment. To say that their designs were at odds with everything around them would be an understatement. Croatian fashion turned out to be disappointingly bourgeois - a far cry from the radical creativity in the face of adversity we had been led to expect. There were moments of madness, of course (dogs in psychedelic shades and ra-ra skirts adapted to fit the canine form) but for the most part a deluge of ill-conceived Armani and Versace rip-offs were the order of the day. The spiky, raw-edged sexuality of Boudicca's designs put all this to shame - it was also a million miles away from anything anyone in the audience had seen before.

Several seasons on in the rather more design-friendly environs of London Fashion Week last March and Boudicca, by now a more complex and thoughtful label, is still very pleasantly surprising. To begin with, next autumn/winter's collection is inspired by Howard Hughes - the least likely of fashion icons. To be fair, Broach is quick to point out that Hughes' own look - not a famously good one - is not the key to the collection, rather it is his reclusive lifestyle.

"The collection's about the world we live in," she says. "We are increasingly single - we work alone, travel alone, live alone - but we'd rather be part of a couple, we'd rather have company."

Next season then, Boudicca devotees can look forward to a beautifully tailored "Embrace Me" jacket which not only comes in the type of rich fabric you want to reach out and touch, but also has pockets at each shoulder allowing any potential admirer to hug you inside your clothes. The equally accomplished "Solitary Dress" is slashed at both sides of the waist leading straight to skin, meaning the wearer can hug themselves if they're feeling lonely, poor things.

Also idiosyncratic was the way in which the designers chose to show their clothes. There were only 13 outfits and one model - which not only made life rather difficult for the frankly heroic woman in question but also made the audience feel decidedly uncomfortable. While Boudicca and company fretted backstage with what must surely have been the quickest clothing changes in fashion history, the people out front could only wonder what had gone wrong - had the second model failed to show? And the third?

"We just wanted to slow the whole process down," says Fiona Dallanegra, fashion editor at i-D and the person responsible for this concept. "There are so many ideas going on and the clothes aren't easy to understand. We thought this would force people to look closely."

"There were all these students backstage," adds Broach. "And they kept saying, `Where are all the models?' There were only seven of us there. We had to do the clothing changes really quickly. It was all very Countdown."

Visiting Boudicca in their studio in London's Brick Lane - all painted brick walls and rough floorboards - is a lesson in the imposed frugality at the heart of young British fashion. Despite critical acclaim, Broach and Kirby, partners in real as well as fashion life, live and work in this one space. Both cut their fashion teeth at Middlesex Polytechnic and Kirby went on to complete an MA at London's Royal College of Art.

"We met on a beach in Rimini five years ago," says Broach. "We'd rather not tell you how old we are, thank you."

Anyone who works for the couple does so for love rather than for the money - there is no money. "We don't get out much," laughs Broach.

Boudicca currently has no backer and is not interested in a high-street link-up. "It's really quite hard to do your own thing," says Broach, "but the clothes are an expression of ourselves and we'd rather not be controlled by sales or commercial compromise. Any money we do make goes straight back into the clothes."

Happily, the label is at the forefront of a new movement towards more exclusive dressing: clothes that are perhaps best described as demi-couture. These are either bought in small amounts by enlightened buyers, including directional stores like The Pineal Eye in Soho, or fitted for private clients by the designers themselves. Prices start at pounds 120 and go up to pounds 1,500 for a single garment.

"We want it to be like buying [vintage] second-hand clothes," says Broach. "It should be special and mean something to the person who buys them. I love that preciousness."

Boudicca's clothes are made with love. In an age in which clothing is increasingly bland and homogenised, this, it almost goes without saying, is like a breath of fresh fashion air

Boudicca's autumn/winter collection is available from August. For stockist information and enquiries call 0171-377 5002