Style: Is it an exhibit of cultural cool, or just a fire extinguisher?

powerhouse::uk is supposedly home to what makes Britain the grooviest place on earth, and fashion is an important element in the mix. But Melanie Rickey finds a few serious omissions on the guest list

When it opened to the public, powerhouse::uk - a pre-Dome warm- up exercise for Cool Britons where capital letters are, naturally, banned - was going to be either lauded or loathed. Certainly the timed ticket entry (an hour per person) seemed a little ambitious, but last week there were plenty of intrigued visitors as well as the compulsory blank-faced tourists. Filing in were fashion and design students keen to get a closer look at the work of creative designers like obscure milliner Dai Rees (he makes hats from porcupine quills), jeweller Naomi Filmer (who does stuff that covers the face) and Tom Dixon, young pretender to the Habitat kingdom. Children like seven-year-old Jesse Harrison, meanwhile, loved the snowboards, and Irish builder Gerard Brady, who was in London for the weekend, "saw these silver pods in the distance" and thought he'd take a look.

Nigel Coates, the architect and main brain behind powerhouse, says he wants it to be a "mesmerising" experience, which it most certainly is, but it is also overwhelming. It's the kind of exhibition where you would feel it appropriate to question whether an air vent is an exhibit, simply because ordinary things have been given a degree of artistic importance. I, for one, ended up in a complete daze among the talking heads, pop video screens, cabbages, giant ants (don't ask), Scalextric track and giant Generation Game-style conveyor belt. "So is this book [Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh] an exhibit, or can we buy it?" asked a confused American woman. Quite.

The sizeable fashion element comes in alongside music, video, furniture and gizmos for the home in the Lifestyle pod, which Coates describes as "not cryptic, not holier than thou, just an invitation on how to translate the concept". Design historian Claire Caterall, who curated powerhouse, says that Lifestyle, rather than the Networking, Learning or Communication sections, was closest to her heart. She had to choose from designs by hundreds of bright young things, many of whom phoned her daily, demanding to be included. "It's not about who's worthy and who's not. It's not about success, or who is better than anyone else, either," she says carefully. Caterall also had to bear in mind the business types at whom the whole thing is aimed.

The question of how to represent fashion is certainly an interesting one, particularly as the Far East and Asia is so critical to the survival of the industry and the whole thing was initially aimed at impressing heads of state over here for the Asia-Europe summit. Both Ozwald Boateng and the new high street concept store Jack went into receivership last week due to the economic crisis in the Far East (though they are thankfully now in recovery) and Margeret Howell, who is very big in Japan, cancelled her recent fashion show due to lack of funds. A similar fate could await our leading lights who have so far relied on Japanese business for large orders.

Caterall and co-curator Alistair O'Neill had to choose from a huge cross- section of fashion designers, and made some obvious choices. Our most financially successful (big-in-Japan) fashion businessman, Paul Smith (who provided a newly developed crease resistant suit along with a handwritten postcard from himself to Tony Blair, suggesting "why don't you wear this and you'll arrive crease free"), tailor Richard James, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, and popular conceptualist Hussein Chalayan, who provided an armless cocoon dress.

They also made some serious omissions: where were the trainers? The Acupuncture and Stride brands would have fitted in perfectly. There was no denim, fleeces or casualwear, no Alexander McQueen (who was too busy), and no Vivienne Westwood. However, Debenhams' roll call of designer diffusion lines, from Ben de Lisi, Jasper Conran, Pearce Fionda and Anya Hindmarch, did bring the fantastical element down to earth. The rest of the designers chosen are little known internationally, but respected up-and-coming labels who Caterall calls "the stars of tomorrow".

Womenswear designer and official Next Big Thing Tristan Webber morphed an intricate leather S&M corset into a black leather suitcase; Julien Macdonald donated two dresses crafted from Swarovski crystal chandeliers - which took months to make - and Kenneth MacKenzie from men's label 6876 donated his version of the traditional workman's donkey jacket with exposed shoulder seams. "I'm quite pleased to be part of it now," says MacKenzie, "although at first I was dubious in case I would be part of something suspect." The involvement of Joe Hunter and Adam Thorpe of Vexed Generation was completely unexpected. "We were in a quandary," says Thorpe, who donated the classic parka, and the "Vexed Shopper" a bag which wraps around the body, and can feasibly carry camping gear, or even a few bags of shopping from Sainsbury's. Ironically, when they started their clothing-for-urban- protection business in 1995 it was a reaction against the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, increasing pollution and CCTV. Now, as symbols of New Britain, they are being asked to represent the country in design and fashion with clothing that can hide the wearer from surveillance cameras, and offer a degree of protection against physical attack.

powerhouse::uk until Sunday 19 April from 10am to 6pm at Horseguards Parade, late night opening Wednesday 15 until 8pm. Admission, pounds 3, pounds 1.50 students OAPs, under 18s and unwaged.

Additional reporting by Adam Fulcher

Black leather corset morphed into a suitcase by Tristan Webber

Visitors take a quizzical look at Welsh accessory designer Dai Rees' `quill and human hair constructed face cage'

An assortment of stylish footwear by Manolo Blahnik

Sparkly dresses made from reworked Swarovski crystal chandeliers and glow-in-the-dark fishing line, by Julien MacDonald Photographs: Adrian Dennis

What are you looking at?

What powerhouse says we should be wearing in 1998:

Women

Dai Rees headgear, spangly dress by Julien MacDonald, and spindly shoes by Manolo Blahnik.

or:

Diffusion lines from Debenhams, trouser suit from Pearce II Fionda, little bag by Anya Hindmarch, hat by Phillip Treacy and spindly shoes by Manolo Blahnik.

Men

Paul Smith `crease free' suit, shirt and tie by Richard James or

reworked Donkey jacket from 6876, or parka from Vexed Generation.

What people really are wearing in 1998:

Women

Suit by Nicole Farhi, Jigsaw, Oasis or M&S, shoes by Russell & Bromley or Hobbs, bag by M&S.

Men

Suit by M&S, lace-up shoes by Churches, tie from Tie Rack, shirt by Thomas Pink.

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