Couture returns to cover up depressed industry: Alison Veness reports on how a young British fashion designer is launching himself as a couturier, under the influence of Chinese shapes

Click to follow
A BOX of pins at his side, tailor's chalk in his pocket and needle at the ready, Nicholas Knightly is hard at work. The 24-year-old fashion designer - who has already experienced the roller-coaster ride of producing ready-to-wear clothes in Britain - is about to launch as a couturier.

It may seem strange at a time when those who had money now have less, and when other British couture businesses have dwindled, or, in the case of Victor Edelstein and Hartnell, closed down. In Paris there are 25 couture shows this season - starting with Chanel today. London will play host to only four: Knightly's at the ICA Gallery on 24 January, plus Hardy Amies, Franka and Bruce Oldfield.

Yet Knightly is hopeful. For the first time, he has backers in Creative Management Partnership, headed by Simon Caplan and Manny Silverman, who believe they have found a viable base to keep British couture alive and want him to reach into the Asian and American markets.

'I'm showing 15 pieces in my first collection and I hope the event will be highly civilised, like a couture presentation might have been in the Twenties. The outfits will be modelled languorously, one by one, so that people can really appreciate them, while they sip champagne and listen to the chamber orchestra,' he said.

A recent trip to China not only gave him inspiration, it also enabled him to meet wealthy potential customers; Chinese art collectors have a voracious appetite for Western designers.

'I work in an unusual way compared to traditional couturiers. I use big shapes, bias cutting, I love togas and caftans and since the trip to China the kimono has influenced my cutting - some designs are now based on a large basic 'T' shape.' Genuine old-time couture was practised on the body of the customer.

Knightly, who calls his work 'neo-couture', works in a much less formal way. The outfits he produces do not require a lifetime of fittings - none at all if it is his diaphanous 'wild pleat dress' in silk-slipper satin, precariously suspended from ribbons as fine as cheese wires.

Detail - for which you pay - lies in the intricate embroidery which he commissions from Spurgin and Hunting, who also work for the French designer Thierry Mugler. This comparative lack of man-hours spent on each frock means that price tags do not quite resemble telephone numbers - they start at pounds 1,000, one zero fewer than a Paris price tag.

(Photograph omitted)