Fashion week's fanfare for young Britain in Europe

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LONDON Fashion Week fanfared its grand opening last night with a little help from the Foreign Office. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Doug Henderson, minister for Europe, were due for a glamorous night out with the fashion pack, although many of the British designers invited to the European Young Designers Fashion Show were unable to attend. They were too busy with last-minute preparations for their shows which kick off officially this morning with Elspeth Gibson's first catwalk show.

"The UK's presidency of the European Union gives us an opportunity to promote what is great about Europe," said Tony Blair. "Our connections with the rest of Europe are not just about trade and markets, but also about stimulating cultural and artistic exchange."

The show last night was held to celebrate the presidency of the European Union, with young designers from each of the member countries invited to show on the catwalk. It was a unique event - a fashionable version of the Eurovision Song Contest except that everyone last night was a winner. Representing the United Kingdom were Julien Macdonald, Matthew Williamson, and Seraph, the New Generation designers sponsored by Marks & Spencer last season.

Macdonald graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1996 and sold his graduation collection to the Knightsbridge store, A La Mode. He shows his third collection on Tuesday night and continues to design knitwear for Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel.

Williamson's first catwalk collection last September made a splash with just 11 outfits. He has been heralded as one of London's most commercial talents and already sells to A La Mode and Joseph in London. Both Williamson and Macdonald will continue to be sponsored by Marks & Spencer for their shows this week. The sponsorship scheme was launched in 1993 and has helped Alexander McQueen, Antonio Berardi and Clements Ribeiro.

Seraph is designed by Sherald Lamden, 34, who used to work for Tanya Sarne's Ghost. Seraph sells to Liberty and Selfridges, as well as stores in Boston, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. As with most of Britain's young fashion talent, Seraph is very dependent on export sales, with about 60 per cent of business overseas. Shows from the rest of Europe included French labels, Eric Bergere and Veronique Leroy.

Whether the Government's dress sense will benefit from the event remains to be seen, although the Cabinet already boasts designer labels such as Ozwald Boateng (tailor of choice for Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio) and Timothy Everest (worn by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown) which is probably about two more than any previous cabinet. Paul Smith, a member of the Government's culture and media task force, is another new Labour favourite.

Chris Smith admitted yesterday that: "I'm wearing a boring old M&S suit because I've come straight from the office." But, he added, "My tie is by Ozwald Boateng." Pressed as to the other designer names in his wardrobe, he said he also has ties by Paul Smith.

Deborah Milner, Paul Smith, and Tristan Webber have been given slots for the first time on the five-day official schedule. And there are the new names who have been enterprising enough to find sponsorship and put on their own shows. Yesterday, four newcomers included Scott Henshall, a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Northumbria. His label, Made in England, promises to cash in on the concept of Cool Britannia. The name alone will ensure a following in Japan and the United States.