Never mind the clothes, see the show

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The Independent Online
INTRICATELY hand-carved wooden legs, improvised avant-garde choral works, models sprayed with paint by robotic arms, skirts made of wicker work or razor wire, revolving floors, drama, suspense, theatre.

No, we are not talking about the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber West End musical or Ridley Scott film. This is London Fashion Week and clothes alone are no longer enough.

British designers have a lot to live up to. The hype they have generated over the past few seasons means their couture alone will no longer keep the world's media happy.

The point was proven again last night. Young gun Andrew Groves attracted attention by sending out a five pound note and a razor blade with much sought after invitations to his show.

Simon Costin, the show's art director who has previously worked with Alexander McQueen, built a 22-metre catwalk out of "white powder" for the occasion, making the catwalk itself an art installation.

To succeed in London, designers need to follow in the footsteps of Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen, the kings of performance art.

Both designers have broadened the idea of the catwalk show. For most designers, fashion week is about selling clothes. For Chalayan and McQueen, fashion is about theatre, atmosphere and peddling an image. Indeed, in some cases, the concept is more important than the clothes.

These are designers who have something more to say than "here's a pretty frock"- but their ideas have none the less made them the UK's most successful fashion exports.

Not only do their own collections make London Fashion Week unmissable for overseas press and buyers, McQueen also designs for the French house of Givenchy, while Chalayan's talents have won him the job at the American knitwear company TSE Cashmere.

Chalayan's work involves music and architecture. His shows are precisely choreographed performances to which access is deliberately restricted.

The Atlantis art space in the East End was transformed into a stark theatre set; under the bright white lights, the conductor and musical improviser Gregory Rose, dressed in industrial white paper overalls, tapped his baton and a 30-strong choir stood to attention.

The complex work that followed was far from the pounding house music we associate with catwalk shows. But then, nor was there a catwalk, just a vast white performance space. Sniggers and titters rippled through the audience.

Not surprisingly Chalayan is accused of being pretentious. But he merely uses clothes as a medium for his art. His performance pieces could be held before art, dance, or music critics as easily as the fashion word. They would be impressed. In the fashion arena, Chalayan's audience focus on the clothes. He has refined his minimalist designs to perfection. But the clothes themselves do not a show make. The models stepped out onto the white stage in pairs, in precise choreographed symmetry, their clothes mirror images of one another.

McQueen's collection was shown on a set that took two days to build, with the unexpected addition of two robotic arms built into a wooden floor. For the show's finale, the American star model Shalom Harlowwas frozen to the spot. The robots, borrowed from Fiat in Italy, sprayed her with fluorescent paint as though she was a car on a production line.

"The collection was about arts and crafts, and the relationship between man and machine," McQueen said yesterday, adding, "I'm just a bit mad in the head."

His role as fashion designer has grown beyond the making of dresses. He is the fashion world's provocateur. His work as an art director is regularly seen in the pages of the style magazines The Face and Dazed & Confused which the designer recently guest edited with the "Access-able" cover story featuring people with physical disabilities. One of them, Aimee Mullins, modelled in the show helped along the way by a pair of beautifully elegant, hand-crafted haute couture wooden legs.

McQueen's work is about image-making. "I am an illusionist for the next millennium," he says. Like Chalayan, he uses fashion as an arm of the visual arts. If he sells a few suits along the way, so much the better.