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Nepal fashionistas woo the West

While the eyes of the style world were on London's autumn fashion week, another couture event was taking place on the other side of the world - in the Himalayas.

At Nepal Fashion Week the models sashayed down the catwalk in a mix of Western and ethnic apparel, contrasting classic with kitsch in a cornucopia of sassy cocktail dresses, flowing silk gowns, kaftans, kurti blouses, shalwars, sequins and ruffles.

Dozens of young designers displayed their collections as the Nepali fashion industry bid to bring itself to global prominence, and attract the attention of international buyers.

The show, which wrapped up on Saturday night, mixed high concept with ready-to-wear, with established Nepali designers, and stars of the future, hoping to introduce themselves to the world.

"There is a lot of potential in Nepal," said US designer Bethany Meuleners, fashion consultant for the event.

"There's a lot more interest than ever before so that gives a big push for where the fashion industry could go."

Organisers of Kathmandu's four-day event, launched in 2004, hope it will prove there is more to Nepal than politics, and efforts to sell the local fashion industry to the West were apparent throughout.

The announcer spoke only in English and themes such as "Cinderella Dreams" and the Harry Potter-inspired "Deathly Hallows" struck more of a chord than the more eastern-flavoured "Thamel Night" and "Tribes of Bangladesh."

The last couple of years have been a busy time for the Nepalese clothing industry, with a proliferation of high street fashion outlets and the launch of two online clothing stores, Fashion Mirror and Harilo.

The unique selling point of Nepalese fashion is the natural fabrics, such as hemp and bamboo, as well as richly textured hand-woven cotton, which are not often seen on the catwalks of Paris or Milan.

But there remains a dearth of prominent Nepalese fashion designers promoting the industry in the West.

New York-based designer Prabal Gurung, courted by the world's top style magazines and worn by Michelle Obama, Demi Moore and Rachel Weisz, can claim to be the first and - as yet - only big Nepalese name to make it on the global fashion circuit.

Nepal suffers electricity shortages which can mean power cuts for up to 14 hours a day in the winter. Experts believe the poor infrastructure and unstable political situation are the main obstacles to the fashion industry's attempts to break into Western markets.

"When you have strikes and power outages and everything, it's hard for them to set up contracts where they can promise the work can get done when it's supposed to get done," said US designer Meuleners.

After years of damaging instability, the green shoots of recovery appear to be showing, with clothing worth 3.64 billion rupees ($46 million) in exports to Europe during the first 11 months of the last fiscal year, according to official figures - a rise of 11.5 percent on the previous year.

Nepal's market is also expanding. A decade ago 90 percent of exports were to the United States whereas now exporters are selling half their stock to Europe and 25 percent to India.

Whether Kathmandu can break into the stronghold of the four main fashion cities - London, Paris, Milan and New York - when other destinations such as Brazil and Hong Kong have failed, is another matter.

Nepalese beauty queen Anupama Aura Gurung, current holder of the Miss Nepal Earth crown, believes the country's industry could match international standards within five years.

"Nepal fashion is really very raw - it's still in the baby phase," she told AFP. "But we are learning to crawl and slowly we will get up and walk."