City of culture, city of style? Scouse: it's the new black

Forget Paris, London and Milan: yesterday saw the launch of Liverpool Fashion Week. The WAGs were out in force but, reports Ciar Byrne, the style world is taking it all very seriously

At Liverpool's über-fashionable Kingdom club the local royalty was out in force: Coleen McLoughlin, Alex Curran and Abbey Clancy – consorts all of North-west footballers – boogied their bronzed bodies alongside other champions of the WAG-look at the launch party last night for the inaugural Liverpool Fashion Week.

A decade ago, in a city overshadowed by its richer, cooler neighbour, Manchester, such a "week" would have been unthinkable. Today, the organisers have high hopes of making a major contribution to Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture.

Southerners may be tempted to sneer, but fashion insiders are more inclined to take Liverpool style seriously. Some of the credit for this should go to the Liverpool WAGs – a dismissive moniker they have made proudly their own – who have injected a sense of fashion joie de vivre. But it also reflects a wider exuberance in the city, whose cultural highlights range from the Turner Prize at Tate Liverpool to Sir Paul McCartney's forthcoming summer jamboree.

At the centre of the Liverpool look is Cricket, the designer boutique owned by Justine Mills, whose fashion shows are the hottest ticket in town. Cricket's current collection includes frocks by Roland Mouret, Missoni, Lanvin and Roberto Cavalli and shoes by Marc Jacobs and Matthew Williamson.

Whether you aspire to look like them, or prefer to look down on them smugly, there is no denying that Liverpudlians take their fashion seriously.

The brains behind Liverpool Fashion Week belong to Kay Uchegbu, just 24 years old, but already a veteran of events planning. It has taken three years to get off the ground, and was postponed last year so that it would coincide with Liverpool '08, although it has no formal links with the year of culture and is privately backed. There are already plans to make it an annual event.

This year, a week of fashion shows running from 10 to 15 March will be held in the city's top nightclubs, with capacity for around 3,500 guests. Next year, the organisers plan to take over the Echo Arena, the newly opened 10,000-seater stadium on the banks of the river Mersey, to host two huge fashion shows for around 8,000 guests.

The opening show this year will be held at Society, one of Liverpool's biggest gay clubs, with clothes from local boutiques Lola Loves, Sarah Alexander, Begin Couture and Joy. It will be followed by a Moulin Rouge-themed lingerie and bikini show at Mosquito, a Sex and the City-themed high street fashion show at H Bar – owned by the former Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton – including Karen Millen, Evisu and Storm, and an Oliver Twist-themed show at Kingdom.

Friday night will be a "Cirque de Celebrité", with guest appearances from the stars of the locally-shot teen soap Hollyoaks and ITV2 reality TV show Wags' Boutique, as well as unconfirmed footballers. Students from Liverpool John Moores University, which runs a respected fashion course, will be helping out behind the scenes and a student show is planned for 2009.

Uchegbu explained why fashion is so important in a city where the average income is just £16,234 per annum. "If you look around Liverpool it's just amazing," he said. "Next year we're going to have the biggest shopping centre in Europe.

"We wanted a fashion week that's not like London. We want to be something that everyone can access. We don't want it to get up its own arse. Every time I go to London Fashion Week everyone walks around like they own Britain.

"If you look at the WAGs, they're at the centre of it all. It's turned Liverpool into a more high fashion place. Manchester's clothes shops are probably twice as big, but the attention the WAGs have got has helped make us a bigger city fashion-wise.

"If you go out in London and Liverpool, there's a major difference. In Liverpool, you wouldn't see people in a pair of jeans in the city centre."

WAGs aside, the North-west's reputation for being at the forefront of fashion goes back much further. Not only is the region the home of the textile industry in the UK, it has produced a long line of top fashion designers, including Warrington-born Ossie Clark, and Red or Dead creator Wayne Hemingway, who hails from Morecambe, Lancashire.

According to Jo-Ann Furniss, the editor-in-chief of the men's high fashion bible Arena Homme Plus, and a native Mancunian, Liverpool and Manchester led the way in another important fashion trend: the sportswear revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sportswear emerged from the dominance of local football teams, whose supporters were the first in the UK to start wearing expensive clothing by Lacoste and Fred Parry and trainers by Adidas and Fila.

It was a "rebellion of aspiration", with people from ordinary backgrounds adopting the casual clothing favoured by wealthy Europeans, a trend that is mirrored today by the WAGs' adoration of fashion labels such as Missoni, Fendi and Balenciaga.

"The rise of people wearing sportswear globally started in Liverpool and Manchester," said Furniss. "There's a very big youth culture menswear tradition which comes out of the North-west. "What was great in the late Seventies and early Eighties is that people invented their own way of dressing. The rebellion of aspiration when people started wearing things that weren't meant to be for them: expensive designer clothes and sportswear.

"It was the most brilliant appropriation of fashion that I've ever seen. When I was at school in the 1980s, everybody wore ridiculously expensive sportswear, and the fashion would be so swift, ever-changing and insane.

"There are certain things that sell better in that part of the world. Armani Exchange does a bomb in Liverpool; [so did] Missoni when Coleen started wearing it, people are very astute at picking things up and making them their own."

As a Mancunian, however, Furniss believes that Liverpudlian women have a tendency to, "gild the lily". She is a fan of McLoughlin – who after all has graced the pages of Vogue – and believes that the fiancée of the Manchester United player Wayne Rooney "has very good taste and wears things way ahead of the game". She is less kind about Alex Curran, wife of the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard who is a shopping columnist with the Daily Mirror.

As to the question of whether Liverpool could ever rival London, Paris and Milan as a capital of fashion, Furniss, despite having grown up in the North-west, is dubious.

"I could never do what I do there, because it's just not feasible. The fashion industry is based in certain places around the world for a reason."

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