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Harvey's Nick is coming up on the rails: At 23, Nicholas Knightly is selling in one of London's smartest stores and putting on his own show in London Fashion Week. Roger Tredre met him

THREE teenage models tumble out of the door, giggling and pushing back their hair. It is the end of a lengthy casting session. Nicholas Knightly, designer, has been looking for girls who have the right kind of image to model his clothes on the catwalk.

He is treating the casting with the utmost seriousness. He carefully examines the last girl's book, murmurs approval, and asks her to try on a pair of five-inch platforms. He watches closely as she tries to walk in them. Is this the acid test? 'Oh no,' he says, flicking a smile. 'This is the Cinderella test.'

Even in hard times, everyone wants to go to the ball in London Fashion Week. It is the highlight of the fashion year, when London overflows with designers, buyers, models, journalists, photographers, and the groupies who manage to find a way into every show and party.

In this hothouse atmosphere, the hunt is on for new talent. London may be a pipsqueak alongside Paris and Milan, but it is still a place where people search out the new.

And now a newcomer, Nicholas Knightly, a 23-year-old from Sussex, moves centre-stage. No more than a year out of college, he has already impressed some very influential people.

Today he is showing his first full collection in a gallery in Covent Garden, making his debut alongside established talents such as Jasper Conran, Betty Jackson and Nicole Farhi.

He is a slight figure with a short haircut and a boyish charm. At the same time, his manner can be reserved, a touch camp, even arrogant. Clearly he is a born fashion designer.

At the Independent shoot, he insisted on using his own model. He was right, of course, although his manner was less than diplomatic. Kathleen Hall, his assistant, says: 'Nicholas knows exactly what he wants. And he usually gets it.'

Knightly left Ravensbourne College last year with first class honours and a commendation. Angela Woods, head of the school of fashion, remembers him as 'one of the most hard-working students we've had in a long time, an astound-

ing character, full of commitment and dedication'.

His final-year student show was impressive: some immaculate tailoring; tangerine long riding skirts; sharp white shirts teamed with cummerbunds of oriental print satin.

He gained useful work experience with Vivienne Westwood, who scribbled an enthusiastic note to her friend Christian Lacroix recommending the young designer: 'You really really really must give him a job.'

Lacroix didn't, but Knightly found opportunities elsewhere, catching the eye of Amanda Verdan, fashion director at Harvey Nichols. 'He came in to see me to ask me for advice, and I thought he was definitely someone special. His cut is amazing, and I've been very impressed by his attention to detail and quality.'

Verdan has become the inspirational force behind Knightly's solo career. This summer the Knightsbridge store stocked a resort-wear collection by Knightly of swimsuits and beach separates. The autumn collection, now in stock, includes a jeans range.

Can Knightly really make an impact? Angela Woods has no doubt: 'I would put money on it.'

Adrian Clark, fashion editor of the trade newspaper Fashion Weekly and a friend of Knightly's from their days as Saturday shop assistants at Harrods, thinks he has the right attitude. 'He has two minds - one that thinks commercially, and another that is pure fashion, like an old-school couturier.'

Knightly believes his three years at college helped hugely: 'It was like three years in the territorial army. The course was very demanding.' At Ravensbourne he honed his cutting skills. 'I have never been much interested in drawing. I don't see how things can develop in that way. I like to work in 3D.'

For a newcomer, he has an impressive knowledge of fashion history. In an hour, he quotes Chanel and Diana Vreeland, and tosses in Charles James, Balenciaga and Claire McCardell.

Of the bunch, he clearly reveres James, a brilliant Anglo-American couturier who, in the Forties and Fifties, brought sculptural tailoring to a rare peak of perfection (he also died penniless and a drug addict; one of many fashion designers who have found the pressures too great).

Knightly has spent hours in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert Museum searching out the best of James: from the fitted coats with spiral-seamed sleeves of the early Thirties through to the celebrated 'four-leaf- clover' dress of 1953 (the V&A has the patterns).

Like James, Knightly's interest is in form. He abhors superfluous detail. 'So many designers are obsessed with details simply for the sake of doing them.'

The collection that is unveiled today is broad, perhaps too broad for a first catwalk show: tailoring, jersey separates, denim, swim wear, even evening wear. His influences are diverse, but no one period or style dominates: 'I want the collection to look modern, timeless, rather than refer to any particular period.'

The outfit pictured here signals an impeccable taste: a soft wool crepe verdigris jacket with full raglan-cut sleeves and a drawstring waist; and a cream wool crepe full skirt, worn with a Stephen Jones hat and those precarious platforms.

Knightly is self-financed. He works from home in Battersea, uses British manufacturers, and wants to carry on doing so. 'I'm determined to stay in London. It's an amazing place, not just for fashion, but for its buildings, its people, its idiosyncracies. It's a shame that good designers like Ozbek weren't looked after and have had to turn abroad, earning money for other countries.'

So who will look after Knightly? After a few hours in the company of this confident young designer, you get the impression he will have no trouble at all looking after himself.

Nicholas Knightly's autumn collection is at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London.

(Photograph omitted)