A designer who is Oh, so collectable

He has been working round the clock preparing for his first show, but he's not panicking. Perhaps it's the soothing effects of the tea his Malaysian father brews ... By Tamsin Blanchard
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Indy Lifestyle Online
London Fashion Week has built up a reputation for being a platform for exciting new design talent. As the newcomers of yesterday become more established, new names appear in their place. And new names do not always mean strange, avant-garde clothes: three of the fresh designers showing this week are steering away from being overtly trendy, and concentrating instead on good, wearable clothes that are not designed with only young clubland in mind.

Tonight, the shows kick off with 26-year-old Maria Grachvogel's second catwalk collection of slinky, elegant eveningwear, all cut on the bias. Her clothes are sold in Liberty and Lucienne Phillips in Knightsbridge. Slotted into the tight schedule on Friday is a brand new name - Oshinski. The designer is Anthony Cuthbertson (his Polish mother's maiden name is Oshinski) who graduated from the Royal College only last summer to high acclaim from Liberty. British manufacturer Mansfield saw his graduation show and was so impressed, it has backed him. Cuthbertson's grown-up collection will feature sharp tailoring with a soft edge, cocoon-style coats and state-of-the-art fabrics.

Another name to watch is Justin Oh. I went to visit him a week before his first independent show, also on Friday. Oh showed the season before last on the catwalk as part of the Marks & Spencer New Generation show. This time he has been given backing to hold his own show over breakfast at the newly opened Avenue restaurant in St James's. M&S continues to pay for his selling stand at the British Designers Exhibition. Oh has also been backed by the Tottenham-based manufacturer Sirelli, the factory that manufactures for Vivienne Westwood, Bella Freud, John Rocha and Copperwheat Blundell. What I saw on the rails at his Clerkenwell live- in studio was a refreshing sight - real, beautifully tailored clothes made from fine fabrics that make you just want to put them on immediately.

"I went through that phase of doing tricksy cutting while I was at college," says Malaysian-born, thirtysomething Oh. "But I always remember Lydia Kemeny, my tutor, saying, 'Darling, this is not a drag party!' It really sank in. I think you have to grow up."

He travelled the traditional route: from the only First in his year at Central St Martin's, to a year out in Paris working at Charles Jourdan, and then on to the RCA, where he joined a talented group that included Philip Treacy, Andrew Fionda (of Pearce Fionda), John Crummay and Harvey Bertram Brown and Carolyn Corben of the New Renaiscance. After the RCA, Oh travelled to Tokyo to work with Yohji Yamamoto, where he learnt the true art of perfection.

His experience has given him a wise and realistic outlook: "Designers should be aware that they're part of a chain (buyers, the women who will eventually buy the clothes, etc); they are not just an isolated entity."

In the days before the show, Justin Oh has been working around the clock, taking fabric to the factory when they ran out, finishing off hems, sewing on buttons and button holes, cutting off dangling threads, sending out invitations, having a screen made for models to dress behind, choosing music, deciding on a running order, liaising with hair and make-up teams, and 101 other tasks. "It is both exhausting and exciting," he says.

His livelihood over the coming months depends on the orders he hopes to receive after the show. Lesser mortals would be tearing their hair out. They would be losing their minds with worry and panic. Not Justin Oh. With less than a week to go, he is cool, calm and perfectly collected. His father, who still lives in Penang, is a herbalist, and I suspect that Justin has been brewing up tea out of some soothing roots and herbs. It may all be on the surface, but he seems reassuringly organised.

After living in London for 12 years, Justin Oh has chosen Britain as his base and draws on very English influences - such as Vita Sackville- West, who inspired his debut collection shown in March 1995, and the film Brief Encounter, the starting point for the collection of around 40 outfits he will show on Friday. Celia Johnson-style Forties jackets in geometrically woven wool are lovingly tailored with precisely cut lapels; bias-cut trousers in bright red crepe flare out gently from the knee; knee-length dresses are crafted from black-and-white woven cloth that is soft and fluid to touch. There are also neat shirt-dresses, an electric-blue coat, and thoroughly modern skirts and jackets cut from shiny "pleather" (Justin's nickname for a PVC material that looks and acts like leather). These clothes are not going to change the world or redefine the shape of fashion for the next millennium, nor are they trying to. And that, perhaps, will be the secret of their success.