our new model army

What have Londoners got that has the world's model agencies scouring the capital's streets for new faces? We join scouts from Select in the search for that indefinable look; 4 'London is such a melting pot, you get more mixed backgrounds here and more interesting looks' 4

why do chic Italians photograph the shop windows at Joseph? Why do posses of Japanese style-victims take snapshots of people in Portobello market? And why do all those GoldCard-wielding Americans buy 10 of everything at Paul Smith? In the interests of research, that's why.

While London has long been a destination for people in need of a little creative inspiration, the city has now become a feeding ground for an international cast of retailers, photographers, designers, modelling agents and creative directors all in search of their own little piece of "the London moment".

Like modern day Huns and Vandals, Prada-clad, Gucci-bag-toting research teams from Germany, South Korea, Australia and America usually hit town any time during the one-month run up to London Fashion Week and within days have emptied stores, ripped off simple citizens on the street and packed all the beautiful people on to Lufthansa flights to photoshoots in the sun.

From the food department at Marks & Spencer to the jungle clubs of south London, there are packs of men and women making notes, taking pictures, bulk buying. These images of London will be taken back to their design studios and used to churn out everything from album covers to faux-bespoke suits that somehow have a frisson of Clerkenwell or a hint of Harrods green.

It may have taken a while to filter through to places like Durban and Taipei, but Brit-pop, Savile Row style, Wannabe loafers and a host of new British models have again made London the global hub of modern popular culture.

"It seems that everyone is flocking here at the moment, particularly the Americans and Japanese," says hip Savile Row tailor Richard James. "I think in many ways it's become flavour of the month because of the music and those typically London girls that keep popping up in everyone's ads."

Aside from the contracts being landed by establishment models such as Kate Moss, Kirsty Hume, Stella Tennant and Jodie Kidd, "those typically London girls" include all the nubile young things sprawled out on the floor in this season's Gucci ads which features a host of female unknowns, as does the new Kookai campaign which has a complement of male newcomers frowning for the camera.

Across London, across Europe and across the Atlantic, model agencies' switchboards are jammed with fashion editors and photographers desperate for the next new face.

"Things got so low in London recently that the only way we could go was up and now we're doing it with a vengeance," says Chrissie Castagnetti, director and chief scout for London agency Select. "London has always been on the circuit but now everyone is racing to have a piece of it. There are things about a London girl that make her different from a girl from a continental city."

And what does this London girl have that Prague girl and Amsterdam girl lack? "There are two things that London girls have going for them that I don't think you find anywhere else in Europe," explains Sara Leon, a new faces spotter at Select. "First she's got this quirky English style which is easy for photographers and editors to visualise in the pages of a magazine. The other thing is that England is such a melting pot, you get more mixed backgrounds and more interesting looks."

If you're in the market for a couple of London girls to sell your line of sportswear in the pages of Australian Marie Claire than you can't get more London then a drizzly grey day at Camden market with the smell of frying sausages hanging in the air and a bunch of stringy haired, just- out-of-bed 14 year olds wandering around looking for something to buy with their pounds 10 pocket money.

Dressed in a long, black leather trench coat and windshield-size spectacles, Sara, along with male spotter Dean Cleary-Patterson, are equipped with the tools of their trade: a Polaroid camera and a pair of cellular phones.

Splitting up to cover maximum territory, they'll phone each other if they need a second opinion. They are looking for good bone structure, the uniquely English attitude of being slightly standoffish while looking completely unaware, and a good nose.

"Noses can ruin everything, the slightest turn up or down and the whole thing is wrong," says Sara somewhat apologetically.

Navigating through the packs of joss-stick-buying teenagers, Sara suddenly sees a girl coming out of Office Shoes. She's tall, the nose is good, the eyes are slightly sleepy and Sara makes her approach. She taps her on the shoulder, they regard each other for a moment and Sara starts her sales pitch.

"Hi, I'm Sara from Select Models (produces business card), have you heard of Select?"

"Non."

"Oh, you're French?"

"Yes," replies the girl, eyebrows raised as if to say, "what else could I possibly be?"

"Bon, ca vous interesse d'etre mannequin?" says Sara kicking into French like she's done it a thousand times.

Impressed, the girl gives one of those "whatever" kind of shrugs and makes a vague commitment to go in and see the agency. I ask Sara if people are sceptical about her running up to them in the street.

"Most people are thrilled and aren't as sceptical as you might think," she says. "While I don't think a lot of these girls have dreamt of being a model, the thought has certainly crossed their mind at one time or another, so they usually come along and see us."

With names like Carolyn Park-Chapman, Joanne Watkins, Lizzy Harvey and Jann Dunning set to join the ranks of Kate and Kirsty, some observers at London Fashion Week think there's a slight problem with turning girls into superstars without having made them work.

"If you pluck a girl off the street and then throw her into a Gucci ad and she's never done any modelling in her life it's going to cause a few problems," says Anne Marie Curtis, style director at large at Sky magazine. "You have a lot of these girls who are really beautiful but they're not necessarily good models. It's important to spend five years shooting catalogues in Germany with bad photographers because if you can shine with a bad photographer then you're going to be a complete star when Patrick Demarchelier shoots you for Harper's Bazaar."

It might be that the hot-housing that's currently going on at agencies might also wear a London girl's moment out much faster than if she was nurtured over time.

"What we have right now is enormous demand and we have to satisfy it," says Castagnetti. "A lot of these girls are going to be around for a long time because it's a look that people respond to. These girls aren't offering that unattainable vision of womanhood that was being served to us two years ago, this is something that's much more vulnerable and more driven by the street."

Back at Camden Lock, Sara is surrounded by seven young girls and boys in front of Toto's Cafe, sitting in front of her is a 14 year old who will turn out to be the find of the day.

"She's got a super face, she's classically English looking and Liberty Frazer is a perfect name," whispers Sara while snapping a Polaroid.

With all of Liberty's friends looking on with a mix of envy and adolescent insecurity, the young south Londoner is thoroughly enjoying her impromptu photo session. Promising to drop by Select later in the week, she picks up her satchel and walks off with a hair flip and sashay that she didn't quite have when she was spotted five minutes earlier.

"Liberty is definitely what people are looking for and she has that sort of look that will allow her to look young and modern, but she could also do very classic things," explains Sara Leon.

Perhaps what London has managed to export to the world is not so much a new sense of style, but an accessibility that has been missing in everything from music to magazine covers. If people are currently ravaging London then it's because it represents ideas that have been born of recession. The city's new role as a centre of pop culture is all about doing things in a modern, less money-driven way: a concept particularly attractive to the style tribes and the economies of America, Germany and Japan.

From the street...

polina

Art History student at the University of East London. Born in Warsaw, she's 21 and six feet tall.

Sarah Leon, talent scout, says: "She's not the ideal London girl, but with those amazing lips, and with her height and looks, she'd make a great catwalk girl."

Polina says: "It might be a nice way to supplement my school fees."

varni

Works on a stall in Camden Market, selling rubber stamps. From Hendon, north London, she's 22.

Sarah Leon says: "She has that Yves San Laurent look from the Seventies. There's a lot of mileage in having Asian girls."

Varni says: "I've already done quite a few bits of modelling, actually."

liberty

From New Cross, south-east London, she's 14 and the find of the day.

Sarah Leon says: "She's perfect. The great thing about the London girl is that she already has her own look. Liberty is a great example - canvas navy Nikes, plywood-stiff 501s, and a Nirvana T-shirt."

Liberty says: Nothing. She's too shy.

matthew

A graphic design student, 20, from Essex, and another find of the day.

Dean Cleary-Patterson, talent scout, says: "He's got the look, the incredible eyes and the perfect hair

- in fact he's the type of guy who could land countless campaigns."

Matthew says: "Is this a wind-up?"

raphaelle

A Parisienne, she's 18, and 5ft 10ins tall.

Sarah Leon says: "She's got the London look, but also looks like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. She's also got the height."

Raphaelle says: Not much. She was sceptical and uninterested; said that she'd turn up for an appointment at the agency, but still hadn't called a few days later.

dave

Architectural lighting director, 33.

Dean Cleary-Patterson says: "Guys are so different from girls because a lot of them can come into their own in their late twenties and early thirties. Dave is also very tall."

Dave says: "I'm not sure whether I'd turn up for a go-see. I'll have to check it out with my girlfriend."

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