Metropolitan life: They're weedy and waifish, funky but not hunky. So why do the world's designers love British male models? asks Lucy O'Brien
A lot of Americans revere London for its style," says Ellen Carey, who runs Seed, an "image- ing" clothes wholesale firm in New York. "We scour your magazines; we can't get enough of it. Also the film world is very influential and Trainspotting has blown out of the water here, it's so popular." Whether pale, punky and wasted, or urchin-like and funky, British male models are the "It" boys of the international fashion scene.

"American models are more beefy and Waspy, whereas the British tend to be eccentric and odd. I wouldn't call them handsome,'' continues Carey. "But the Helmut and Gucci clothes don't require you to have a beefy body. You can have a weird haircut. And it doesn't look so modern to walk around with that muscular physique, I think it's a bit vulgar."

The British look is partly due to designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan now opting for "street" models and also, more pragmatically, the influx of British editors and stylists into influential American magazines such as Details and Interview. "We can take a Polaroid of a boy who walked in yesterday and he'd be part of an advertising campaign tomorrow," says Melissa Richardson, of Take Two, one of London's top agencies, sporting alternative models such as Keith Martin and Luca Fedrizzi, the guy who within a month went from selling the Big Issue to selling Versace.

Her latest discovery is Finn Vine, a 6ft 2in, 17-year-old musician from Norfolk who has become this season's Calvin Klein Khakis model. And on the strength of a couple of Polaroids, he was shot by Bruce Weber for Versace. The biggest coup of all, however, was getting Weber to photograph Vine's nascent band Arturo for the upcoming issue of Interview. "Bruce Weber seemed an all right bloke so I talked to him about the Pre-Raphaelite features of other members of the band, and he was interested in photographing us," says Vine.

There has always been a strong connection between music and fashion in Britain, and with the appeal of Britpop it's no surprise that British models are having world-wide impact. Lee Williams, for example, an androgynous slip of a thing who graces the cover of Coming Up, the new Suede album, is often rung when "they need someone who looks like Brett from Suede or Damon from Blur". Williams exists on a diet of double espresso and Marlboro, exudes the cool spark of early Bowie and has become a photographic muse for the likes of Stephen Meisel, Weber, Mario Testino, Paolo Roberti and recently, David Bailey. "I'll go to castings and there's all these big French guys saying, 'Oh you English roast beef, you're all so skinny, all look like you're on drugs ...' '' The British models also convey a streetwise humour in a business that can become ridiculously earnest. Billy White, aged 26, the star of the new Richard Avedon commercials for Calvin Klein, is a tailor and model who has kept his South-east London edge. "I gotta laugh at all this or I'd go mad," he says, "let's face it, modelling is not very cool. If this is my 15 minutes I'd rather be in a rock'n'roll band." He sees the Britlook as a successful derivative of punk. "If Paul Cook were younger he'd be earning a fortune, Rotten as well. Steve Jones I'd stop at, you'd need a wide angle lens for him."

Despite his scepticism, though, White is dedicated to his job. "It's not just about quirky personality, it's the ability to do the work. If some Geordie bastard calls me a poof, I'd like to see him doing a 16-hour day standing in a pair of Katharine Hamnett platforms. You try that and do a good job ..."

Another British characteristic is shown in the multicultural mix. "London is integrated culturally, and you can see that in the British models," says Sharon Blankson, a stylist for titles such as Arena and The Face. "It's a movement thing. They don't have a straightforward catwalk walk, it has an oddness and an ease that's nearer black male models." Moose, an Asian model who in the past 10 years has worked for everyone from Yamamoto to Hamnett and Jean-Paul Gaultier, ascribes much of the originality of his look to his British background. "I've crossed over barriers of colour and race," he says. "This I feel could only have transpired in a multi-racial community such as London."

Though British men are now receiving maximum exposure, some predict that there will be a swing back to the sculptured body beautiful. Paul Sculfor, one of Britain's most successful male models, is sanguine about what he sees as a street trend. ''Whatever the shoot asks for, whether it's being a grunge person or whatever, I fall into it like an actor." Now 25, he has plans to carry on until he is at least 30, and longevity requires more than being the quirky professional Brit. Gerard Smith, a British model featured in campaigns for Gucci and Hugo Boss, also sees the writing on the wall. "Last season the boys that were underweight or screwed-up looking did really well, but now Ralph and Calvin are booking good-looking guys again."

Menswear designer Joe Casely-Hayford admits that, though he has used the "British waify boys" for a number of seasons, in his last Paris show he opted for a more "muscular, cowboy, mannish look that reflects the mood of our clothes". He is admiring, though, of the way British men have redefined expectations: "There is now a runway mix of body-types appealing to a wider audience, rather than one specific type of guy. The eclectic mix is similar to women's modelling, and that is an important new direction."