Prices start at 50p - per metre, that is. What the designers are selling is not clothes but surplus lengths from the fabric they use to make them.
Such beautiful fabrics do not usually come cheap, but for people who can make their own clothes and want only the best, there are various ways of cutting the cost.
One of the best sources is the Designer Fabric Warehouse Sale, held twice a year - the November event is the second - in a photographer's studio near King's Cross station, north London.
Roger Dack, the organiser, says the sale is one of the few places that openly sell designer roll-ends. As a menswear designer himself, he knows most of the people in the fashion world, and can persuade them to offload their surplus fabric to him.
'It's not a case of just offering fabrics cheaper than you could buy them at John Lewis,' he says. 'These fabrics are simply not usually available to the general public. When the designers have a collection, they go to one of the fabric fairs, probably in Paris, and order lengths of fabric that the public would usually never see at any price.'
A few shops offer a similar opportunity to the Dack sales, but on a much smaller scale. They, too, have good contacts within the industry and access to fabric warehouse clearances all year round. Sometimes a print will be recognisable, but the fabrics are often sold anonymously; the only consistent clue to their source will be the high quality.
Joel & Son in north-west London is one of the best. It is a surprise to come across the shop in the middle of a noisy fruit and vegetable market. But look carefully into the window and you will see rolls of fabric straight from the catwalks of Versace and Saint Laurent.
How do they come to be there? Joel & Son gives few clues, for fear of competitors gaining access to its suppliers: 'It's a trade secret,' says a spokesman. 'We used to manufacture garments, so we have good contacts within the industry.'
The fabrics come direct from the mills in Europe, often at the same time as the designers themselves start working with them. For pounds 38 a metre, you can buy the nautical fabric - sailors dancing around on the finest linen - from this year's Saint Laurent summer season. Current-season Saint Laurent sells for pounds 78 a metre.
For pounds 68 you can buy a metre of this season's Versace Red Indian print, as seen in Vogue on Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. If this sounds expensive, remember that a Versace shirt in the fabric could cost pounds 1,940.
The range is truly extraordinary. 'That's Saint Laurent couture,' said Joel's spokesman, as I fingered a roll of fine gold brocade. We picked out a roll of shell- print silk/acetate from his stock to tie around our model as a sarong. It cost pounds 25.
The catwalk pictures that decorate the shop come to life on the shelves, where the same fabric lies in rolls with the house signature printed down the selvage. A Karl Lagerfeld length drapes down from the ceiling.
Some of these fabrics might be better kept in one piece, as wall- hangings.
At Borovick Fabrics in Berwick Street, Soho, Martyn Borovick, the third generation of his family to be involved in the business, was unwilling to name the designers whose fabrics the shop stocks, but he hinted that Jean Muir and Caroline Charles are among them.
The shop is jammed high with every sort of fabric you could dream of, colours clashing violently on the shelves. It is a favourite hunting ground for fashion students from Central Saint Martin's art school.
My next stop was The Cloth House, in Camden, north-west London, which clears fashion-fabric mills in this country and abroad. The fashion business works a year in advance, so The Cloth House can buy current fabrics at clearance prices.
The shop, which sells to both the trade and the public, specialises in stretch fabrics, as well as stocking silks, wools, gabardines and a range of linens in 40 different colours.
Following up a tip from The Cloth House's owner, Jay Harley, I trekked across town to The Cloth Shop in Notting Hill, which is owned by Mr Harley's brother, Sam, and is a real treasure trove. Amid the rolls of denim, Lycra, wools, coatings, fake furs, silks and imported American cottons, there are occasional designers' roll-ends. Arabella Pollen velvets and chenilles, from pounds 7.95 a metre, are a good buy for this autumn.
Other designers he has stocked include Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. 'You don't get them all the time,' says Sam Harley, who is constantly on the lookout for interesting fabrics. 'I dig around in old warehouses. Sometimes you will find a metre of something really special in the middle of rolls and rolls of rubbish.'
A recent find was a batch of 25- year-old woven Macclesfield tie silk. In the Sixties, tie fabric stopped being woven and printing took over, but these woven silks, at a mere pounds 6.50 a metre, are intricate in their detail and would make stunning waistcoats.
However, the current pick of his stock, which changes weekly, is a job lot of cashmere/lambswool Ralph Lauren blankets. At pounds 75 each, they will not be there for much longer.
If you are looking for something truly classical, Jean Muir has her own fabric clearance shop, The Turquoise Room. All the fabrics have either been in collections or used for samples, and they sell for a third of the usual retail price.
The matt jersey for which Jean Muir is renowned sells for pounds 12 a metre, woollen alpaca coating for pounds 24 a metre. Among the other fabrics are linens, suede and chiffon. There is also a big range of buttons and buckles.
Finally, there are places that are half-warehouse, half-shop. At P N Jones in Peckham, south London, you can choose from one of the largest ranges of Madras checks in Europe, or stick to plain silks and cottons straight from India. The company started in the Thirties, and, although most of its business is with the trade, it is happy to deal with the general public. Prices are wholesale: silks from pounds 10 a metre and cotton from pounds 3.
Just Fabrics, in Burford, Oxfordshire, sells ends of lines and discontinued ranges. It provides a very helpful service, mainly for furnishing fabrics of high quality at greatly reduced prices. Tapestries, brocades, damasks, silks and cottons start at pounds 3.95 a metre.
For real enthusiasts, the search for the perfect fabric is a never- ending, almost mystical quest. As Roger Dack points out, they are a strange breed. They will go out to find the right piece of fabric for a great shirt; then, when they've succeeded, they will simply fold the fabric up, put it somewhere safe, and just treasure it.
WHERE TO TRACK DOWN EXCLUSIVE FABRICS
The Designer Fabric Warehouse Sale is on from 5 to 7 November, admission pounds 1.50, students 50p. The Worx, 45 Balfe Street, London N1 (071-739 7825).
Joel & Son, 77 Church Street, NW8
Borovick's Fabrics, 16 Berwick Street, W1
The Cloth House, 130 Royal College Street, NW1 (071-485 6247).
The Cloth Shop, 290 Portobello Road, W10
The Turquoise Room, 59-61 Farringdon Road, EC1 (071-831 0691), open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4.30pm; you are recommended to ring first.
P N Jones (071-639 2113, mail order).
Just Fabrics, The Burford Antique Centre, Cheltenham Road, Burford, Oxfordshire (0993 823391). Plain Fabrics by Post is Just Fabrics' mail-order service. For a brochure, which includes all the plain fabrics plus checks, stripes and florals, send pounds 1, deductable against first purchase, to Plain Fabrics by Post, PO Box 88, Carterton, Oxfordshire.
The Liberty Mill Shop, Widow Hill Road, Burnley, Lancashire (0282 24600). Liberty seconds at reduced prices.
Zandra Rhodes, in conjunction with the jewellery designer Andrew Logan, is having her first fabric sale, including bargain-priced items from the late Seventies to the present. The sale is at Andrew Logan, The Glasshouse, Melior Place, London SE1 (071-407 6575). 21 and 22 October, 6 to 10pm.
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