Saris for the streetwise; people in fashion

Chris Maume meets Kurt Jones of Elvis Jesus and Co Couture, whose ethnically eclectic classics are dazzling, versatile and a not a million miles away from 'The Valley of the Dolls'
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AS KURT JONES submits to the photographer, he clearly feels like a butterfly being pinned down. As the snapper gets ready to take a picture, Jones freezes, though a smile spreads across his face as he relaxes between shots. "Do I look like a monkey?" he asks as he poses behind a clothes rail. "I can't bear it. The last time I ended up grinning like a moron."

The publicity machine is something the designer is going to have to get used to, though, as Elvis Jesus and Co Couture, the company he founded last summer with Helen Littler, is destined to go far with its giddy, exotic collision of saris and street style. Neither Jones or Littler have been to India, but both grew up in a multi-cultural society in which fusions of styles are inevitable.

"My best friend at school was Indian, and the house I was born in was turned into a temple," says Jones, who was born in Birmingham. "I used to walk by and see all the shoes outside, and all the Indian people coming to pray in their fabulous dresses."

He left Birmingham for a fashion course at Salford University just as the Madchester scene was working itself up into a frenzy at the Hacienda, and the phrase "summer of love" was back. "I thought I was going to do jewellery, then I really got into textiles, and did a lot of sculptural textiles. I started off doing mad clothes, unwearable clothes, so a lot of people who knew me in the old days are shocked that the clothes we do now are so wearable."

It was on the club circuit that he first met Littler, who was also studying in Manchester. After that, it was exile in Chislehurst while he worked for his degree at Ravensbourne College. "It was a constant struggle to do what you wanted," he says. "When I left there it took me a year to find my fashion self again."

He did that by making going-out clothes and doing some freelance work, and Elvis Jesus was born from his friendship with Littler, who was working as a pattern-cutter. "We just thought we'd get together and do something." First, though, Jones sampled life as a pop star of sorts. "I've got no musical talent whatsoever," he says, but he did play keyboards with an offshoot of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Although they inexplicably avoided star status over here, Sputnik: The Next Generation had a couple of hits in Japan - not bad for someone who confesses to a weakness for Alma Cogan and Dean Martin.

The company's split-personality name is reflected in the fact that Jones works in London, while Littler runs the studio in Manchester. "We're really happy where we're living," Jones says. "We've got our own friends and contacts, and it's good to have the two cities coming together. It works for us rather than against us. It just means a lot of telephone calls and faxes." The working process varies: an idea might be faxed back and forth, though sometimes one of them comes up with a finished design.

How did the look come about? "We wanted to create collections that were classic, not trend-orientated. We wanted each collection to flow on to the next, so that you could buy a piece from the first one, then wear something with it four collections later, and they'd still go together. We're trying to come up with the perfect wardrobe of clothes for modern living," he says with a smile of shy irony.

So who does Elvis Jesus appeal to? "It's really hard to say, 'Oh, it's young twentysomethings'," Jones says of the clientele, which includes Jade Jagger and Kylie Minogue. "I've got friends in their forties who wear the dresses. They can look clubby if you wear trainers or boots, but if you're wearing lovely shoes and accessories, they can look very chic." The fact that Jones's mother wears his clothes is testament to the cross-generational lure.

Although the business will inevitably grow, Jones and Littler intend to retain their uniqueness: "We want to produce clothes so that two items are never the same. Everything's made to order - we're against all that mass-produced fashion. Shops order things in different colours, so the collection never looks the same in two different shops."

Perhaps one of Jones's principal passions holds a clue to the healthy sense of excess that makes Elvis Jesus clothes so disarming. "I'm obsessed with Jacqueline Susann," he says. "Me and my girlfriend [who plays in a Sixties-retro girl band] are having a competition to see who can get the most copies of The Valley of the Dolls. Last week, I got the last one of her complete set of novels, from a charity shop in Bromley. The things she did! She slept with Coco Chanel and Ethel Merman." And if Elvis Jesus and Co had been around at the time, she'd have probably leapt into bed with them after tearing off their clothes. In Kurt's dreams, anyway.

Elvis Jesus and Co Couture is available from Browns Focus, 38/39 South Molton St, London W1; Kokon To Zai, 57 Greek Street, London W1; Geese, 26 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 and Hip, 9 Thorntons Arcade, Leeds. Enquiries: 0171 637 1450