Sonja's chilly show gets a warm welcome in new fashion climate

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The Independent Online
When Sonja Nuttall showed her first collection on the London catwalks in 1993, she was hailed as one of a new generation of rising stars.

After just two years, the St Martin's graduate from Liverpool had built up stockists including Pellicano, Jones, Harvey Nichols and Liberty. Business appeared to be going well, although as a small designer, she suffered the usual problems of cash flow, manufacturing hitches and unreliable delivery.

After her third collection in March 1995, she decided to take a break from the catwalk, a risky move in an industry that is famously fickle and moves on to the next big thing as soon as there is a gap on the rails.

But yesterday morning, Nuttall stepped out once again, and showed her new collection in an icy loading bay at Selfridges on Oxford Street in London. "I last slept 24 hours ago," she said after the show which was given a warm reception by press and, more importantly, buyers and representatives from Marks & Spencer.

Clinton Silver, chairman of the British Fashion Council, who watched the show wrapped in a silver survival blanket, had given a personal donation to support the 32-year-old designer.

Since her last collection, Nuttall has been building a new side to her business, hiring out her services as a consultant. The bulk of her time has been spent working with the Irish company Peterson, purveyors of hand-crafted tobacco pipes. It is an unlikely combination, but Nuttall developed a line of luxurious travel boxes, ties, gentlemen's smoking jackets and pyjamas. She also kept up deliveries of capsule collections for the Japanese store Iwaya.

On top of that, she teaches two days a week at Central St Martin's.

The 20-minute catwalk show yesterday also served as a showcase to prospective clients who might be interested in tapping Nuttall's talents to develop their own products. Increasingly, wise designers are linking up with mass-market retailers, putting an end to the days when the high street merely copied catwalk designs. Now they use designer expertise first- hand. Marks & Spencer already works with Tanya Sarne from Ghost and the bag designer Orla Kiely on accessories, while Burton has deals with designers including Clements Ribeiro for Dorothy Perkins, Jasper Conran, Philip Treacy, and Lulu Guinness for Debenhams. Paul Frith consults for BhS. A consultancy can be worth up to pounds 60,000.

Nuttall's own consultancy work has allowed her to employ two full-time members of staff, and to put together her most accomplished, focused collection to date - a commercial hit.

Those who saw the show were impressed and there was talk of a "young Jil Sander" among excited buyers. She may still be a young label, but the clothes - classic tailored masculine suits, chalk-stripe coats, luxurious knitwear, and simple jersey dresses - were modern classics; desirable, wearable, flattering and devoid of gimmicks.

Nuttall has a sense of what is commercial and what constitutes strong design. Her long-term plan to develop consultancy work alongside her own label is the way forward for any sensible young British designer.

"My ideal situation would be to have my own collection as well as two consultancies," she said. "Thank God for backers and investors, but it's never easy." She may still have a struggle on her hands, but this time, Sonja Nuttall's future looks secure.