Two weeks ago, the Topshop boss Philip Green made a promise that he would ban "waif" models from his catwalk show, which opened London Fashion Week yesterday. The trouble with public pledges is that one then has to stick to them.
And whether the models in his show, staged in the basement of a disused bar in Covent Garden, were "waifs" or not is, to a certain extent, in the eye of the beholder. Underneath the layers of stylish Seventies-style maxi-cardigans, it was hard to tell. Although on Saturday the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, said models should undergo medical checks before taking to the catwalk, Green had refused to allow doctors backstage to measure his models as proof of his stance.
The organisers of London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council (BFC), have stopped short of regulation or the introduction of a minimum BMI (body mass index, a measure of body fat that is based on both height and weight) rule, as fashion authorities in Madrid did in September after the deaths of two South American models. Instead, the BFC has requested designers use only "healthy" models over the age of 16.
The BFC also plans to set up a task force to address the issues raised by the debate. But with intense media scrutiny focused on their catwalks, the question for London designers was how to stage a fashion show without using models who could not be described as "skinny" by anybody's standards.
Some insiders say that the thinnest girls would be unlikely to make a catwalk appearance in London this season. "I think there are some girls that the agencies are pulling out of London this season. We're not seeing the really thin ones," said the studio head of an independent London label. "The models might gradually get a bit bigger, but it's not going to happen overnight." Another young designer agreed, saying, "We've seen about 30 girls so far, and, with a couple of exceptions, they're not too small this season, they're quite well-proportioned." He said this marked a change from last year. "They're not as skinny, yes."
The chief executive of the BFC, Hilary Riva, said she was satisfied with the models she saw in the Paul Costelloe show, also yesterday. "What I think we saw there were great models. Very tall, and there wasn't one of them which I thought looked very young or excessively thin."
Topshop's models might not have included the more obviously thin girls - those who might measure the notorious dress size zero, or a UK size four - but curvaceous they were not. Without hard and fast guidelines, designers are simply trying to guess what might not cause offence, ad hoc - a situation that is resulting in confusion.
One fashion PR, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "When they see girls on castings, fashion designers are now thinking, actually her arm is a bit thin, even though she could just be a 17-year-old who's naturally very slim. But if she looks like she's on the cusp, she's out. They might think, 'I know she's healthy but for this season I won't use her because I don't want to get into trouble.' Everybody's being more careful about who they're casting now - and that's not such a bad thing."
Meanwhile, others, including model agents and the Vogue editor and member of the BFC Alexandra Shulman, have pointed out that banning skinny models from working might amount to illegal discrimination. "We would not be allowed to discriminate in that way," Shulman is reported to have said yesterday. "It would be like saying you can't have black or white models. By imposing new rules on models' size, you would be trying to prove whether someone was ill or well."
And if any catwalk models this week appear larger, that might be a sleight of hand. Several stylists - the behind-the-scenes fashion experts who help choose the models and decide how each outfit should be assembled - privately admitted that during an autumn/winter fashion show season, layers of warm, baggy clothing would neatly serve to cover up any thinness that would risk bad press.
At Topshop's Unique show yesterday, there were thick knitted cardigans and roll-neck sweaters in claret and tobacco-brown, but there were also waist-enhancing1970s and 1930s style tailored palazzo trousers in velvet and wool. Printed tea dresses, silk jumpsuits and a crepe dress in loden green that recalled the designs of the late Jean Muir were among the most appealing, if heavily vintage-inspired, pieces. Introduced in 2001, Unique is the chain's most cutting-edge collection and is designed entirely by Topshop's in-house design team, led by design director Nick Passmore. Proving it can turn out good tailoring as well as girlie dresses is a big step forward for the brand.
The size zero debate threatens to overshadow the autumn/winter 2007 collections that designers are showing at London Fashion Week. Ms Riva was among those who called for temperance in the run-up to the event: "It is a good debate to be having and has certainly wakened awareness about eating disorders generally in the UK. What I don't like is the way it is fixated on models.
"I think it is unrealistic to expect changing behaviours and attitudes after a short space of time in something like this. We have to raise awareness and debate about the subject. This is the start of a process, not the end of it."
More outspoken was the veteran British designer Katharine Hamnett, who branded the issue as a "frivolous" distraction from more important issues about the ethical and environmental impact of the fashion industry. She said more focus should be concentrated on the impact of rich, world cotton subsidies, undermining the livelihood of poor farmers in the developing world.
Asked about the calls for skinny models to be kept off the catwalk, Hamnett told ITV1's The Sunday Edition: "This is so frivolous ... Obviously it's tragic for families of anorexics. My bone of contention is that the industry should be ethical and environmental. Clothes look good on thin people and they always have. We weren't having this size zero debate when Twiggy was around.
"Clothes look better on thin people and rubbish clothes look good on thin people. Thin people look good in anything. Don't you think that it is an indictment of an obese society? That's what it is, because we are all fat and think somebody thin is special. It's what's wrong with our society. It isn't just the fashion industry."
London Fashion Week is to include shows by Paul Smith, Giles Deacon, Betty Jackson and Nicole Farhi. Of the younger labels, for which London is famed, those most hotly anticipated include Christopher Kane, Todd Lynn and Gareth Pugh. The American designer and creative director of Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, joins the schedule for the first time when he shows his less expensive line Marc by Marc Jacobs in a slot that closes the event on Friday night.