Lincoln's Italian stars in Milan

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The Independent Online
IT'S ONLY four days before he unveils his autumn/winter collection and Antonio Berardi - all smiles - brandishes his show invitation with pride. This looks more like a CD - and a rather lurid one at that - than anything remotely fashion-related: "Never Mind The Borgias," it reads, echoing the Sex Pistols' typeface. "I'm Italian," says Berardi, explaining himself, "but I want to keep that London edge."

Tomorrow evening, Berardi, 30, will follow the mighty Prada to open the autumn/winter 1999 Milan collections. That city has been "hospitable to me in every sense," he says.

Now in his eighth season - he graduated from Central St Martins in July 1994 - Berardi, along with Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, is widely credited with putting the British fashion capital back on the map, transforming it from the relatively paltry, two-day, low-budget affair it was in the early Nineties, to a fashion force alongside Paris, New York and Milan.

Berardi, in particular, introduced a dose of high-octane glamour, not normally associated with the London collections, that will be much missed.

The designer's decision to move his show to Italy has been perceived by the media - busy spreading rumours that Cool Britannia is no more - as a defection. All of our young talent is headed for sunnier and more lucrative climes, apparently, deserting a sinking ship.

In reality, the situation is far more measured than that, as Berardi himself points out. "Italy and America are my biggest markets," he explains. "I have buyers in Italy and they've never actually seen one of my shows. This is a business decision and, anyway, people have always left London when they get to a certain point: John [Galliano], Vivienne [Westwood], Rifat [Ozbek], Katharine [Hamnett]. They've all moved on."

The world's four fashion capitals break down - basically - like this. London is a hotbed of young creativity where unformed design talent has a chance to mature. New York is fashion's commercial heart. Paris is where the creme de la creme of the world's designers show: they are only invited to do so by the Chambre Syndicale once they are deemed grand enough. And Milan is famous for establishing the following season's trends and for having the finest mass production of clothes at the most reasonable prices.

Berardi has an Italian backer - Givuesse. His production is already in Italy where he regularly travels for business. And he is more widely stocked in that country than he is here. "What's more, I'm Italian," he says.

The designer was, in fact, born in Lincolnshire in 1968 to southern-Italian parents. The family regularly holidayed in Sicily: Berardi was confirmed there in 1979.

At St Martins he was in the same year as Matthew Williamson and current rising star Robert Cary-Williams, who remembers him well and has said that his talent shone through, obscuring lesser lights.

Berardi shot to fame with his debut catwalk collection - something that is rare even in London, where the search for the Next Big Thing seems insatiable. It was hardly surprising in his case, however. The show notes read like a Who's Who of British fashion: Mary Greenwell did the make- up, Sam McKnight the hair, Manolo Blahnik designed the shoes, Philip Treacy the hats. Most importantly of all, Kylie Minogue made a celebrity appearance in a barely there, tomato-red dress.

Since that time, Berardi has regularly lifted the proceedings at the London collections to more glamorous heights: there were Vegas showgirls one season; flower maidens the next; rapacious sirens after that. He is still a London designer in the sense that there is a raw energy to his work, but an Italian sensibility shows in his use of figure-hugging leather, acres of sequins and sparkle and in his belief that high heels and short skirts empower rather than degrade women.

But does he plan to return to London? For now, it seems not. "If I need to stay in Italy for one season then I will; if it's 10 seasons then I'll do that too," he says. And who can blame him? For now, he has the Italian fashion establishment - in urgent need of an injection of young blood - at his command.

This means a super-slick PR operation, a dazzling off-site venue and the pick of the most beautiful women in the world.

"We've got all these models whom I've always wanted to have in the show," he says. Audrey Marnay, Kirsten Owen and Stella Tennant are all set to appear. For a designer with the kudos of Berardi some if not all of them will waive their fee.

"Normally we're messing around at the last minute, this time we're spoilt for choice," he says. Searching for a way to express his new-found fortunes he comes on a very English simile: "It's a bit like having a never-ending gobstopper," he beams.