Forget Paris and Milan - fashion's cutting edge is in rural Spain

Elizabeth Nash meets the designers setting the pace from hi-tech workshops in the backwoods
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SPAIN'S most inaccessible and conservative corner, its remote north-western province of Galicia near the border with Portugal, is the unlikely launchpad for a pair of avant-garde designers whose fashions are sweeping the country and poised to conquer Europe.

Even more remarkable for this hidebound rural backwater, the target client is no traditional Catholic housewife-and-mother fond of frills, polka dots and scarlet flounces. The market is the liberated professional working woman who wants informal functional urban clothing in fine textiles and muted tones.

Adolfo Dominguez, 50, and Roberto Verino, 53, have each spent more than 25 years building up an international empire of medium-priced designer gear that suddenly, in the last couple of years, has skyrocketed. The cheaper Zara chain, also based in Galicia, now dominates young fashion throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and is a mecca for Europe's cool bargain-hunters.

Galicia is now the fashion powerhouse of Spain, the vast bulk of whose output is exported to the most sophisticated markets of Europe and Asia. It is an extraordinary achievement for a region that has no particular tradition in fashion, textiles, manufacturing or creative design.

The transformation wrought by Galician designers and manufacturers of women's fashion - part of the transformation of Spanish women's lives in the last 20 years - has prompted other young designers to step into the ring: Amaya Arzuaga, a 27-year-old Basque, takes her sassy asymmetric knits and gauzy shifts directly to London Fashion Week, where they are modelled by Naomi Campbell, then snapped up by buyers from London, Paris and Tokyo. "I design for young people who want to be different," she says.

Roberto Verino, originally Marino, took his name from Verin, a small village three hours' drive from the nearest airport in Vigo, out of "commitment" to his birthplace. His factory, tucked off a sleepy little street, is a four-storey workshop filled with computers, rolls of cloth, racks of frocks ready to be trucked out, and workers in "rapid response groups".

He describes recent growth as exponential: "We doubled profits last year, we are opening 12 new shops in Spain this year, adding to the 32 we already have, and plan 60 by the year 2000." The key, he says, is eliminating intermediaries - including Harrods and Harvey Nichols - to set up his own shops. "This enabled us to cut costs by a third in two years, because we go direct to the consumer. It means we must react immediately to customer demand."

Hence the rapid response groups. Their members are neither line operatives nor handicraft workers, but specialised professionals poised to churn out extra numbers the moment daily computer reports from each shop indicate a gap on the rails. "Like that we eliminate shortages and do not overproduce. Year after year we end up with zero stocks at the end of each season, one of the most difficult things to achieve. It works like a Swiss clock."

The new independence of Spanish women has produced a more relaxed way of dressing, Verino reckons. "You should dress to express what you really are, not to put on a show. Excessive decoration is confusing and conceals a lack of personality. The person, not the clothes, should shine out. So we go for natural textiles, natural colours, practical comfortable tailored suits. Trousers are now indispensable for independent working women who have a clear project in life. The educated, daring, metropolitan woman is an expanding market, according to our surveys."

But this modern image of woman has, he says, deep local roots. Women in Galicia have always been esteemed because of their importance as head of the family in an emigrant society where men are at sea or abroad for perhaps decades. The son of a shoe manufacturer, he was inspired by his energetic and enterprising grandmother, "who always dressed in rigorously simple austere clothes", the epitome of the Galician matriarch.

Dominguez, based in Orense, an hour down the road from Verin, started with menswear, coining the expression "the wrinkle is beautiful" in 1980 that encouraged a generation of European men to opt for relaxed linen jackets and trousers instead of what he calls the "military uniform" of classic suit and tie.

Offering an accessible version of Armani chic, Dominguez too plans an orgy of expansion. "We manage 20 to 30 per cent growth a year. Our objective is to expand as fast as possible." He opened 26 shops last year, and plans 40 this year. Unlike Verino, who burned his fingers in Asia, Dominguez plans to keep going there. "We're not going to reduce our efforts. All countries go up and down."

Two years ago Dominguez launched upon the stock exchange, with spectacular success. He too is rooted in his home territory, which he reckons is heading for a prosperous future. "In the next 10 to 15 years Galicia is set to become one of the great textile centres of Europe, like Lombardy in Italy. It's responding to the challenge of the European market, to globalisation."

Dominguez started with men's fashion and moved to women's; Verino moved to menswear two years ago. Both agree that the women's market is the more important and most rapidly growing, but that the influence of relaxed urban informality on men's style has been transcendental in recent years.

Dominguez has an unrequited ambition. "I still haven't convinced the city man. Liberal professionals and creative people love my clothes, but the bankers, the financiers, the lawyers ..." He shakes his head. "They're so desperately classical. I'm trying to conquer this hard core, bit by bit."

What, I asked, were the coming trends? Functionalism, austerity, durability, simplicity, sobriety of colours were words used by both. Provocative pyrotechnics, la Westwood or Galliano, are not their style. Arzuaga is more adventurous, sending a transparent frock down the catwalk, though muting it with a lining for the real world. "Most Spanish fashion is so boring. You've got to break moulds or you'll never get anywhere," she says.