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The Intelligent Consumer: A long way from Leyton

People in fashion: Sylvia Young's Soho boutique sells classical clothes for women with curves alongside pieces by young artists - rotten vegetables included. Linda Taylor reports
ROTTEN ONIONS and classic-cut clothes might seem an incongruous mix but not if the boutique doubles as a gallery, the onions are an installation, and the couture is Beau Monde.

Sylvia Young - no-nonsense creator of Beau Monde, a thriving fashion business/art gallery in the heart of Soho - is no stranger to incongruity. She was born and raised in the East End of London. Her mother did everything from rat catching to delivering babies, her pioneering great aunts left leafy Leyton to run a tea plantation in India, her father gave up the Scots Guards at 40 and became a self-taught accountant, so for Sylvia, "getting up and out of the East End, where careers weren't really thought about" was simply a matter of following in the family's intrepid footsteps.

It's Monday. She is tall, cool and punctual. On the way to her club, she tells me about her morning. Up early, hug for accountant husband, daughter to nursery, call in at the factory, open shop, doodle a few designs, and on to a meeting. As a member of the Soho Parent's Committee she's just finished thrashing out ideas on how best to implement the latest initiative outlined by the Government on working mothers and childcare.

We snake effortlessly through the backstreets of Soho, bound for Charlotte Street, sharing views on childcare, work, art, fashion and Sylvia's pet passion - women's curves.

Over lunch, she explains how the shop came about. "I'd spent all Saturday shopping, with money in my pocket, but I couldn't find a thing to buy. I went home depressed. When I woke on Sunday I knew I had to open my own shop. I ran the idea past my hairdresser, as one does, and he put me in touch with a couple of young designers. Rents back then were fairly cheap [she's been in Soho for 11 years], which allowed me to make a few mistakes in the first few years. Even so it was hard, and for a while I barely covered my outgoings. But I had a lot of supportive people around me who believed in me and helped me out. Initially I carried a range of different designs but after a few years I began to develop my own. "

So where did it all begin? In Sylvia's words she has simply "gone with the flow". She has sold fashion, managed it, styled it and worn it. So it was inevitable that one day she should design it. She studied shop design and point of sale at the College of Design and Technology (CDT) on the Charing Cross Road, part of Central St Martins, where, incidentally, she saw the first Sex Pistols' gig. Her first job was to dress the windows of Harrods. She moved on and up to run a concession at Dickins & Jones. But it still wasn't exactly what she wanted. A shop was the only logical conclusion.

Looking back over the past 11 years she has never been happier. "It's hard work. I'm here six days a week. But I love it. I like girls to look good. I like to flatter girls ... to accentuate their curves." And it seems the girls like Sylvia. Customers from all over the world return time and again. "My designs are for women like me, business women, working mothers, busy people with no time to shop around. Typically, a client will rush from Heathrow for a 10am fitting, then on to a meeting, back at six to collect the outfit and on to Heathrow, all the time juggling children, nannies and the rest of it. More and more these days women are breadwinners and carers, with heavy schedules and no time for themselves. So I'm here to pamper them."

Her designs are aimed at the 24-40 age group and about 90 per cent of her customers are regulars. She dresses all sorts, from scientists to socialites, advertising execs and media types to Ascot ladies. She even transformed one woman's love life after persuading her to wear a skirt, her first since her school days.

While other labels have come and gone - not many shops survive the rigours of fickle old Soho - Sylvia's designs have endured. They are timeless, elegant, formal and, with the right accessories, sexy. The fabrics are exquisite, the colours earthy and natural - burnt siennas and ochres - the cut is elegant Fifties and early Sixties. "My mother was a great inspiration. She's gone now but I have these photographs of her looking so smart in those sharp suits."

Most importantly, however, the clothes are affordable. A dress suit costs about pounds 400 and a skirt suit, pounds 300. Sylvia pitches her prices at "less than the average monthly mortgage repayments". Not bad for a suit that she reckons will "last four years".

But back to the onions. Sylvia believes in "cross fertilisation" and is a dedicated follower of modern art. "There are a lot of young artists out there who have just left college. They need to show and sell their work but may not have enough pieces to exhibit in a mainstream gallery." Her shop space is booked up until October 2000. "Everyone benefits. My shop gets redesigned every six weeks. The artists find buyers for their work and my customers enjoy the paradox. After all, where else can they buy outfits more frequently seen on the backs of Ascot ladies alongside mad organic installations or framed by tortured oils on canvas?"

And her plans for the future? "To see my outfits selling countrywide." To this end, and in keeping with her patronage of new young artists, Sylvia has just employed the services of the radical Submerge Advertising to redefine the Beau Monde image. "It was a great job, the new look is brilliant. So now we're all set for a concession with ... well, who knows, perhaps Austin Reed! I think they'd like my customers."

Beau Monde, 43 Lexington Street, London W1, 0171 734 6563