Culture clash of the catwalk Titans

TAMSIN BLANCHARD

The contrast between the untamed and tasteless, and the polite and tasteful in British fashion design has never been more marked than on the London Fashion Show catwalks. This weekend, during London's biggest-ever fashion collections - more than 30 designers officially showing on the catwalk - we have seen the tame and conservative, as well as the wild and whacky.

Red or Dead, the streetwear label that is headed up by the waggish Wayne Hemingway, can always be relied upon to show the assembled gathering of press and buyers more than they bargained for.

Hemingway likes to tread on the thin ice of bad taste. Last season, there were politically correct tuts as dwarfs took to the catwalk to carry the train of a black leather dominatrix wedding dress. A few seasons before that, there was the sandwich-board man famous for marching up and down Oxford Street in central London preaching of the link between protein and passion.

But this season, following in the wake of the bad press that streetwise fashion magazine Dazed & Confused met by showing models licking sharp knives, there were lunatics let loose pulling blood-dripping knives, meat cleavers, sharpened scissors and pointed knitting needles out of their blood-stained handbags, all trying to enact a particularly bloodthirsty scene of some Alfred Hitchcock film that never was.

There were also anti-nuclear Greenpeace banners pinned to the catwalk and a protest ball dress which looked as if it had been coated in tar and pollution, topped off with next summer's must-have fashion accessory, a gas mask.

Red or Dead are not interested in being part of the fashion establishment and Hemingway tries his best to provoke the matt black, po-faced, perfectly turned-out audience into some sort of reaction. He would like to see them laugh and treats his shows as a comedy sketch, a little of Carry On up the Catwalk, a bit slapstick and a few saucy postcards.

The comedian Roland Riv-ron can usually be relied upon to make an appearance, as he did in an ironic fashion moment of Eighties stone-washed jeans and Spanish holiday disco music. The problem is that the jokes can wear thin and fashion editors do not always find them funny.

Katharine Hamnett paved the way for the politicised fashion designer in the Eighties with her anti-Pershing missile T-shirt, worn for the benefit of Margaret Thatcher. The designer returned to the London catwalks on Friday with trashy rockers in white rhinestone leather, boys in make-up and feather boas and sequin spangled evening dresses - not political but not polite either.

But at the other extreme, labels such as Betty Jackson and the Jean Muir Collection (the first since the late Miss Muir's death) are hell bent on producing clothes for ladies who do not go out on anti-pollution protests. Both showed their collections yesterday. The Jean Muir Collection was worn by models who mingled with guests who sipped champagne in an informally civilised atmosphere, fragrant with sweet-smelling flowers.

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