British menswear designers, for years unheeded by British men, are setting themselves up against the likes of Dolce e Gabbana. Tamsin Blanchard reviews the latest talent at The Arena trade show
Shopping for men has never been easier. Take Floral Street in London's Covent Garden. There's Paul Smith, the great success story of British menswear. Just across the road there is Jigsaw for Men, the company that has brought affordable fashion to men who previously had little choice in the matter. Next door to that is Jones, the store that is guaranteed to stock the labels with the unpronounceable names that are at fashion's cutting edge. Just off Floral Street on Langley Court, there is Ted Baker and the overspill of Paul Smith's empire, the Jeans shop and his utility label, R Newbold. And a little further on from Jones is Burro, the shop set up by two textile graduates from Goldsmith's College, Olaf Parker and Susan Denney, selling funky new labels as well as their own. And soon to join the Floral Street gang is Catherine Byrne, the three-year-old label that is sold in House of Fraser stores and Harrods, as well as across Japan and the Far East.

Burro and Byrne are not alone. They are part of a new crop of British menswear names that are destined to be on the labels inside your shirt, suit or combat trousers in the near future.

Womenswear designers are given encouragement and support by the British Fashion Council and are showcased at London Fashion Week. But menswear designers, many of whom have far stronger businesses than some of our young womenswear names, are not given the opportunity to shine from the catwalk. And in order to compete for shopfloor space with names like Dolce e Gabbana and Dries Van Noten, a high fashion profile is all-important.

But this week the labels that have been quietly building up very healthy businesses, have had their chance to show their clothes on the catwalk at the Arena, a trade show that promises to grow into a London Fashion Week for Men.

The clothes pictured here are from the autumn collections of four of those who put their clothes on the catwalk: Designworks, Burro, Catherine Byrne and Mark Powell. The latter may be a stranger to the catwalk, but the bespoke tailor's client list includes Bryan Ferry, Jonathan Ross, Naomi Campbell, George Michael, and Julian Clary. His suits are influenced by East End gangsters from the days when a sharp suit was as essential as an evil mind.

Powell, who is the subject of a new BBC series, Soho Stories, to be screened next spring, has a small shop in Soho at the top of a flight of stairs. Ring the bell and the tailor will open the door, let you browse through the off-the-peg suits and help you to choose a shirt and tie, and cuff links to go with it.

Like many of this country's menswear designers, Powell has a keen following in Japan where he will soon be opening a number of shops and concessions there. His name is known by the many celebrities he dresses, but he is still relatively unknown by the man in the street.

All that looks set to change, however, and Mark Powell suits may soon be more widely available. For a made-to-measure suit of your dreams, Powell charges between pounds 750 to pounds 1,000, while the semi-bespoke, hand-finished version starts at pounds 500.

Tailoring is an important part of any menswear line. As Andy Shorten, one half of the Catherine Byrne label, says, tailoring gives a collection a serious, grown-up edge. When Liam Gallagher recently visited the shop with Patsy Kensit, however, all he wanted was a T-shirt. And that is the secret of Catherine Byrne's success: there is something for everyone, whether you want an informal shirt to wear by day, or something a bit more flashy for a special occasion. Byrne and Shorten believe men's clothes can be sexy as well as functional. The couple are gearing up for their move to the shop in Floral Street which will, by its location alone, increase the label's credibility and profile.

Designworks is the result of another partnership between the siblings Max and Tamara Plaskow. Up to now, Designworks, whose first collection was launched in spring 1994, are better known in Japan than in England. The clothes themselves are quite low key, but they are very wearable and fill the gap between French Connection and Nicole Farhi. The label is slowly building loyal followers among British men, although nothing can compare with a massive 30 outlets in Japan alone.

Designworks are typical of the new movement in British menswear: they are very astute business-wise with a down-to-earth attitude about how men want to dress - the antithesis, in fact, of how British design is usually perceived.

Most of Burro's clothes are sold as export, too, but the shop in Floral Street is thriving. The label, which is run by four partners including the design team Olaf Parker and Susan Denney, is not afraid of taking risks. Its signatures include bright, quirky knitwear, flat-fronted trousers and shirts with large collars. Burro offers clothes with a different look to the usual high-street menswear. Prices are affordable, too, with suits selling for under pounds 300.