The coolest catwalk

London Fashion Week is about to begin. For years international fashion saw it as a backwater, but now everyone wants to be in on the act

NEXT weekend the world's leading style press and store buyers will descend on London for the start of the capital's Fashion Week. It's the moment when British ready-to-wear designers reveal what they envisage women wearing in autumn/winter '98 (not always a pretty sight).

In the past, Fashion Weeks - there are two a year - have been a time when our designers would whinge about lack of backing from government, press and public (who were criticised for not spending enough money on clothes) and lament their inability to get anyone to place meaningful orders. Even the title, Fashion Week, seemed comical when it lasted a weekend at most and there was only a handful of names on the catwalk schedule.

But the Nineties have seen a remarkable resurgence for London style. This season the "week" lasts a hectic six days - seven if you count Friday's opening-night celebrations. There are 46 shows scheduled, while more than 20 designers who wanted runway presentations didn't make it past the increasingly picky British Fashion Council's selection board; plus numerous smaller-scale, unofficial catwalks. Equally important is the London Designers Exhibition, where jewellers, milliners and fashion designers take elegant stands. So has Cool Britannia turned fashion into a solid business at last?

Wayne Hemingway, head of the ultimate street label Red or Dead and a veteran of the London catwalk season, says: "I've never known such an interest in British fashion. In New York everyone is in awe of Britain at the moment, whether it's shopping, fashion or music, Britain is the place." Like many he's unsure how British fashion managed to get itself into such a great position. "Perhaps it was the publicity surrounding the appointment of Galliano, McQueen and McCartney to Paris fashion houses. Maybe it's a reaction against the Thatcher years. It's hard to say."

But Hemingway is concerned that without increased grassroots support, the industry could still falter. "What sickens me is that all this is being turned into just another photo-opportunity by Labour with their Downing Street parties. There's nothing wrong with them wanting to pose with designers, but they should do it after they've achieved something." Hemingway believes, for instance, that more money needs to be invested in our design schools: "Labour keeps on going on about how great our colleges are but that's often in spite of their facilities, not because of them. It's the teachers who make them great."

However, he admits that for now, "Wherever you go doors open for you as a British designer. In the past, no matter how good your product was, they often stayed closed." It's a level of excitement that could aid Britain's 14,000 apparel manufacturers and their 240,000 employees.

THE YOUNG designer Matthew Williamson, showing at London Fashion Week for the second time, has become something of an overnight success because of the interest in all things British. Self-financed, Williamson is facing a problem that many young firms would kill for: too many stores want to buy from him.

"The reason we did a show last time was to accelerate the press coverage of our firm but not to get too many orders, because that needs to be very carefully monitored and controlled. Eventually we chose just 13 stores that we wanted to do business with and these are the best shops in each of their cities. So we sell to Browns, Joseph and A la Mode in London, Barneys in New York and LA, Nieman Marcus in San Francisco and so on."

Williamson's cautious approach also shows that British fashion is maturing. In the past the catwalk has been littered with firms that looked promising but which overstretched themselves in the first season, failed to meet orders, lost the confidence of buyers and collapsed.

The emergence of British style as a stable business also owes a big debt to the British Fashion Council. Once regarded as ineffectual, the BFC has matured under the leadership of Clinton Silver, a former director of Marks & Spencer. The BFC used to find it impossible to find regular backers for London Fashion Week, but now firms such as Vidal Sassoon, Renault UK and Marks & Spencer have become reliable supporters. M&S plays a crucial role in encouraging young talent by backing emerging designers showing under the New Generation banner.

What's more, the Department of Trade and Industry has put its weight behind Fashion Week and insists that, "When it is successful, as it is now, its success has a knock-on effect on the image of the UK, which in turn reflects positively on UK design and product development generally and on all things British." The DTI says that our hippest fashion designers can even have an impact on the number of tourists who come to the UK.

SIMON Ward of the British Fashion Council has only one concern: that economic chaos in the Far East may stop Japanese and Korean buyers travelling to London. "We've been ringing around to see who is coming and are hoping for a significant number, but there will be some drop-off. It's a shame because these are good markets for young designers."

London Fashion Week is also set to benefit from an unusual tie-in with the Foreign Office. On Friday a show has been organised at the main catwalk stage in the grounds of the Natural History Museum to celebrate Britain's EU presidency, with the theme of youth. The show will feature the work of three student designers from each EU country. There will then be a reception where the fashion kids will get to mix with Labour ministers and EU ambassadors. Hopefully all ice buckets will be kept under lock and key.

Simon Ward is delighted with the initiative, while the Foreign Office is hoping a bit of Cool Britannia will rub off on its rather grey image. A spokesman says: "It's the first time the EU presidency has had a fashion show and we're hoping to discover the new Jasper Conrans. Every country is taking part except the Greeks; presumably they don't have any young designers."

How to be cool

TAISHI Nobukuni is preparing for his first London Fashion Week show. The only problem is he can't get on to the schedule and is having to organise an unofficial event. Trained in the UK at Central St Martin's college, he is now based in Osaka but believes that London is the only place for a young designer to have a show. "It's not so good for manufacturing, but for press and sales it's perfect."

For Nobukuni to be a hit, he needs not only to produce a great collection but to generate publicity - that requires a dramatic venue and the support of cutting-edge stylists and technicians.

Nobukuni has had the good fortune to link up with the young PR Kelly Luchford who also has the contract to promote the forthcoming trendy London hotel, One Aldwych. In a move that helps both of her clients, Luchford has arranged for Nobukuni to show his collection in the concrete shell that will become the hotel's Axis restaurant. The hotel's owner, Gordon Campbell Gray, explains, "I like the idea of a designer showing here in this raw space. It will act as a teaser, so that the people who come will think that they must come back here once it's all done."

Next Luchford persuaded Beki Lamb to style the show. Lamb, currently working on the latest All Saints video, loved the clothes and signed on her friend James Dimmock to make the video and light the catwalk.

What's more, the show is being talked up by London's most influential trend-spotter, Isabella Blow. Blow is famed for discovering Alexander McQueen and the model Sophie Dahl, and is now helping promote Beki Lamb, James Dimmock and, of course, Nobukuni. She has promised to sit on the front row at his show which will ensure that this event will be the epitome of London cool - well, for 20 minutes anyway.

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