Romeo Gigli was in London last week, putting the finishing touches to his new shop in South Molton Street. He designs some of the most ethereal clothes and beautiful fabrics money can buy (a dress can easily top pounds 1,000) and displays them in shops that come close to being art galleries.

Given the preciousness of his designs, the height of his prices and the reverence in which he is held by fans, you might expect the man to be somewhat precious, too. He turns out to be the antithesis of the big-name fashion designer. Gigli appears to be modest, self-effacing and extremely nice. He apologises if he has to leave you for a moment to position a silk lamp or take a call from Milan; he listens to questions attentively and answers them as if hearing them for the first time. A rather ordinary-looking man, he dresses simply, in dark blue jacket, waistcoat and trousers. If you met him briefly, you might not think him special in any way.

He would thank you for this. Trying not to be photographed - but too polite to refuse - he says: 'I would hate to have a face everyone knew. I like to be able to walk the streets anywhere without being recognised. I can still go into my shops, and even regular customers don't know who I am. Anyway, it's the work that matters, not me.'

Gigli has no need of a media personality to sell his clothes. They are not the stuff of mainstream fashion; far from it. His is the work of an intuitive designer and skilled craftsman: it reveals a love of colour, texture and light.

'I came to fashion accidentally. I trained first as an architect in Florence; but that was in '68. It was a crazy time. The school was packed out, everyone was doing their own thing, the whole system had broken down. It was impossible to learn anything. So I just gave up and travelled instead. I went to India with the idea of staying for a month, but stayed four. I picked up the travel bug, and have kept on the move ever since. I'm a kind of cultural tourist.'

Gigli would be the first to admit that life has not exactly been an uphill struggle. He could afford to give up architecture: his parents were wealthy antiquarian book dealers - a family business, generations-old - and he was brought up in a beautiful old country house at Faenza, near Ravenna. There was nothing to kick against, no struggle. So what drove him on?

'Well, first the books at home; we had something like 20,000, many of them very beautiful. They were a voyage of discovery in themselves. I travelled first in books. And then India, southern India - those colours, the clothes, the light, the dignity of the people, the women all like princesses.'

He went to New York to further his knowledge of fashion in 1979, when he was 29, and did not produce his first collection - an instant hit, despite his antipathy to structured lines and padded shoulders - until 1986.

He opened Spazio Romeo Gigli in Milan's Corso Como in 1989, a space for art, photography, exhibitions, theatre, cultural events and even a few clothes. Until then, he had sold his collections through a small number of established shops. In 1990 he opened a grand shop in the rue de Sevigne, in the Marais, Paris. Next came New York and a second shop in Milan on Corso Venezia.

'I cannot say exactly what influences my work. It's like a big . . . a big confusion. I love India, Giotto, Fortuny, Persian architecture, Byzantine decoration, and many of these are obvious in what I do. But a list makes no sense. Who knows what images catch our eye and stay with us?'

The thing that catches the eye as you enter his new shop is a ceiling full of silk lamps - designed and made by Peter Wiley - that transform a narrow interior into an Aladdin's cave. ('I like colours full of sunlight, but seen through a filter,' Gigli says.) It is a very different look from the almost ascetic spaces of the big Gigli shop in the Marais. 'Well, there we had a lot of space. That shop is an old printing works; the space is hardly changed from the day I saw it. I like it because it is rather secret, hidden in an old courtyard and because of the roof: there is so much light.

'Finding a space in London was difficult. It had to be here because of my connection with Browns in South Molton Street - it first sold my clothes here (Joan Burstein of Browns began selling Gigli's jumpers in 1980). But this space made some sense to me because it has big industrial roof lights that let in quite a lot of daylight. Even then, I have had to cheat a bit. Look up there . . . there are lamps outside the windows, adding a little artificial daylight.'

For interiors, Gigli likes space and light first, colour second and detail third. This shop is really one big white space with as much daylight as possible. The floor is painted stone. 'It is very simple. What makes it different from my other shops are what you call the Aladdin lamps and the soft screens. It doesn't sound good for the mystique of the designer or the public relations people, but I planned, shaped and decorated this shop in less than two hours. It takes a little longer to make, but wood and stone and paint are still a lot easier to work with than fabric and the human body.

'You know, I would like to work more on interiors and furniture. I do get asked, often, but you cannot do everything. I designed some of the furniture in my own flat to go with all the other things I have brought back from around the world. It would be nice to work in glass too. Buildings? Well, maybe . . . I admire, very much, the work of Shiro Kuramata - sadly, dead now - of Jean Nouvel and my friend Ettore Sottsass. When Sottsass did the first Memphis collection in Milan in 1981, I remember how it pushed me on to be much more creative.'

Unlike architects - or most architects - Gigli has little problem mixing the sensuous with the ascetic. His shops in Paris and New York - and to a lesser extent in London - are simple, white and substantial. They are made to last. But they are made glorious by the clothes themselves - fantastic, soft body sculpture in silks, satins, cottons.

A swirling dress that looks as if Gigli found its shape with a spirograph is made of nylon: he manages to make even that industrial material look like several million lire (which it probably costs).

'I don't have fixed ideas or a particular logic to what I do. I have nothing against modern materials. And next year you could say I am going to be very commercial, because I have designed a minidress (next year's fashion again) when the press says I see women only in trousers.'

Romeo Gigli's is a sensual world of colour, the curves of the body, of exotic designs and sunshine. Around this, he wraps a second and more substantive world of solid architecture. A mix of commonsense and romantic escape, he is a couturier for our times.

I felt a little shifty going to meet him with buttons missing and an 'outfit' not worth more than pounds 100. But this did include a raw silk scarf bought in a Madras market for pounds 8 . . . which took us back in the end to southern India, where Romeo Gigli fashion really began.

Romeo Gigli, 62 South Molton Street, London W1 (071-491 7833).

(Photograph omitted)

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