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Free to do what they do best

The prize-winning design duo of Copperwheat and Blundell have overcome adversity and found what it takes to survive, writes Tamsin Blanchard
T his is the story of a young British fashion label. It has the same old beginning: two designers meet and have a dream. They launch their own company. They go into production and are given the opportunity to show at London Fashion Week as part of the New Generation show. Their order books are looking healthily international when, to top it all, they win the Lloyd's Bank New Generation Fashion Award for 1994. The story continues with the same old middle: the backer pulls out and the new generation designers for 1994 are left high and dry with a full book of orders to meet and no apparent way of meeting them. The outlook is bleak. But then, there is a twist to the tale: salvation.

Last January, Copperwheat Blundell, the heroes of our story, should have been basking in glory. But when their backer pulled out (it was an amicable but ill-timed split) the company went into freefall and it looked for a time as though the pair might have to cancel their spring orders. Then in stepped David Jones, not a backer with money to throw at them, but a mine of useful advice on how to run a business and survive.

By February, not only did Pamela Blundell and Lee Copperwheat manage to pull back from the edge of the abyss, but they met all their delivery dates, got on with designing their collection for next spring/summer and, best of all, landed a deal with Tottenham-based manufacturing company Sarelli. Their collection for autumn/winter filters into the shops, including Liberty, Harrods and Browns, this week.

Sarelli makes up collections for Vivienne Westwood and Bella Freud. Good, reliable manufacturers are hard to find in Britain and too many designers have to look abroad to find the quality they need. For Copperwheat and Blundell (their label has now been officially renamed C&B London Ltd), this is a dream come true. They can now leave the nightmares and problems of production to the professionals and concentrate on what they do best - coming up with new ideas for simple, formal clothes for women and edgy, sporty clothes for men.

The man behind this new change of fortune, David Jones, a fashion business and marketing consultant, has held their hands through difficult days. "I always liked the idea of matching small companies together," he says, and the resulting marriage between Sarelli and C&B is a perfect one. C&B benefit from not having to worry about their production, and Sarelli get continuity of orders.

Already, Pam, 28, and Lee, 29, are seeing the possibilities that are being freed up for them: they are talking about sub collections that will break up the two-season fashion calendar and take up the slack during the inter-season periods. They are planning collections of swimwear, leather, knitwear. And they are very excited about a range of unisex clothing they intend to launch this October in London Fashion Week. At the moment, womenswear is Pam's responsibility and menswear is Lee's. A unisex range would give them more opportunity to meet in the middle.

When the two met, they were both teaching at Central Saint Martin's. Theirs was a good year. Between them, they have offered pattern-cutting and tailoring help and guidance to a whole host of young designers who are now their peers - Sonja Nuttall, Fabio Piras, Reynold Pearce (Pearce Fionda), Jeff Griffin (Griffin Laundry) and Alexander McQueen. "Alexander didn't need much help," says Lee.

Before teaching, Pam and Lee notched up their fair share of experience. Pam, who won the Smirnoff award when she graduated from college, worked with the late John Flett for four years. After he died, Central Saint Martin's offered her a place on the MA course, but she did not want to go back to college. At the tender age of 22, she was taken on as a part- time lecturer instead. She was also employed by Liberty to design a small range for them. "I always wanted to work in this country," she says. "I think London is the most creative city in the world."

While Pam was working for John Flett, Lee was concentrating on extending the tailoring skills he picked up at the Aquascutum factory in Northampton between the ages of 16 to 18. "Out of all the training I have had, working at Aquascutum was the best," he says. He went on to assist Helen Storey and his tailoring techniques are evident in C&B London's Crombie-style coats and matching check trousers, and the high-buttoning suit jackets in the collection for this winter. Lee's own brand of tailoring crossed with sportswear and hi-tech fabrics is perfectly in tune with Nineties man, confused about whether he should be wearing formal suits or casual sportswear.

Pam Blundell and Lee Copperwheat are their own greatest advertisement: she with her tanned skin free of make-up and signature close-fitting but informal jacket over a simple grey silk vest, and he, straight out of bed in a pair of trousers that look like pyjama bottoms, a big grey fleecy top and black trainers. With David Jones's firm business hand behind them and Sarelli's manufacturing and distribution know-how, they are ready to justify their Lloyd's title.

"Normally, we would be running around between about five different factories," says Pam. "We would work all day on production and then start work on the new collection at night when the phones stopped ringing. Now all we have to do is hand over the patterns."