Profile: Clinton Silver - Grey suit on the catwalk Patron saint of fashion

Jojo Moyes on the 67-year-old company man who has put young London back at the cutting edge
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The Independent Online
A grey-suited chainstore executive of pensionable age is an unlikely champion of high fashion. Yet such a man has transformed the ailing London Fashion Week into a springboard for the rediscovery of swinging London. He persuaded celebrated British designers like John Rocha and Vivienne Westwood to show in London again, and is the champion of some of the most successful and innovative young clothes designers of today. If this weren't enough, he also invented the chicken tikka sandwich.

Clinton Silver, former deputy chairman of Marks & Spencer, today presides over the opening of the biggest, most internationally heralded London Fashion Week. Lasting longer than ever - six days in all - it involves 48 shows featuring, among others, Alexander McQueen who recently made his mark at Givenchy, hot young thing Julien Macdonald, and Miu Miu, the more accessible line by Miuccia Prada. This is seen by the fashion glitterati as confirmation that London's position as "the most fashionable city in the world" is, perhaps, no longer just hype to sell glossy monthlies.

Four years ago the situation was very different. London Fashion Week almost didn't happen. Milan and Paris had wooed away many of Britain's best designers, and then delivered a near-death blow by bumping London from its traditional place at the centre of the fashion-show schedule. The Department of Trade and Industry had to step in just to keep the event afloat.

After 41 years at Marks & Spencer, Silver was approached to take over from Ralph Halpern as chairman of the British Fashion Council and its showpiece event. "I was six months from retirement. I said yes," he says. "I don't like being bored. I don't sit around."

The changes he made were swift and dramatic. First, Silver secured sponsorship with Vidal Sassoon, raising some pounds 500,000 to underwrite the cost of staging the shows for three years, making it possible for small companies to show a collection. He also introduced a showcase of six designers called the New Generation, sponsored by Marks & Spencer. He helped ensure the presence of the Princess of Wales at a government reception for visiting press and buyers. In three years, his energetic, hands-on approach has transformed the event and with it, many claim, the fortunes of the fashion industry.

DESIGNER Bruce Oldfield observes that British fashion has an unprecedented profile, and feels it is "impossible" to estimate the importance of Silver's input. "He's achieved things. He gets down, meets people, talks to designers. He's not been patronising, and he's sought to understand what designers and the industry need."

This is reiterated by award-winning designer John Rocha, whom Silver persuaded to show in Britain after three seasons in Paris.

"We went out to lunch with Michael Heseltine at Wiltons in Jermyn Street. He had me believe that there's a great future in British fashion and convinced me to come back and be part of the new movement." Silver, he says with hindsight, was right. But then wooing designers of Rocha's status made him right.

Silver's appointment did not initially prompt such accolades. One fashion journalist wrote a lengthy article condemning the introduction of a "mass merchandising" man into the innovative world of cutting-edge fashion. Silver remembers it vividly, describing the piece as "nasty" and "salutary". According to the designers themselves, the author was wrong. One of the reasons why London Fashion Week has flourished under him, they say, is his ability to marry 40 years of commercial understanding with an appreciation that high fashion often isn't remotely commercial. He has nothing but praise for the role of the DTI in its success, despite widespread criticisms that the government failed for years to promote one of Britain's most successful exports. Silver, diplomatically, will only say that the funding was "modest" when he arrived.

"He has this understanding of the industry. Sometimes people have the enthusiasm but don't understand," says Rocha. "He has patience, too, with the younger generation which I think is very important because they are the foundation of the future."

One example of this is Antonio Berardi, one of the most watched young British designers. Priyesh Shah, the designer's 26-year-old business partner, says that, after graduating in 1994, they boldly asked for a meeting with Silver and, having been granted three-quarters of an hour, stayed for four.

"It's unusual for someone at his level to give new designers that much time, and it definitely gave us confidence." Since then Silver has stayed in touch. "He sends us letters, monitors our progress, answers calls. He put us on to his accountants and made an appointment with the director. He sits there at his big desk, looks through his roller thing and makes the calls. He calls me Mr Shah."

Shah adds that Silver "will sit row C, rather than row A if need be" at shows - a statement that says more about fashion's curious status symbols than Silver's man-of-the-people credentials.

Not all young British designers are so unequivocal in their praise. The council's decision to hand a key slot in Fashion Week to the American designer Tommy Hilfiger last year caused dissent. Hilfiger, accompanied by various supermodels, swallowed yards of newsprint. The event gained publicity but lost the goodwill of some young designers who felt that the slot should have been given to a Briton, especially as Silver sits on Hilfiger's board.

Silver replies: "I'm very clear on this. It was just a slot. And we're trying to build up our international status. You can be critical of [Hilfiger] coming, but my answer was that the logical alternative is to say 'No foreigners'." No one, Silver points out, has complained about this week's appearance by Italian line Miu Miu.

Clinton Silver claims his is "the most boring cv in the world". Born in London in 1929, he was educated at temporary war-time schools in Hackney before getting an economics degree at Southampton University. After two years of national service, he began work at Marks & Spencer and stayed for 41 years, a tenure that seems unthinkable in today's job market but is unremarkable in Marks & Spencer. "I'm passionate about the company. You could cut me anywhere on my skin and find the words St Michael."

Although he is at pains to stress "teamwork", Silver presided over two developments that changed the way much of Britain eats: the introduction of the "recipe dish" - the chicken kievs and lasagnes that have saved a million commuter dinner parties - and the packaged gourmet sandwich with its delicatessen-style breads and fillings that are aeons away from the traditional curly British doorstep.

While Silver disclaims personal credit for those discoveries, he says his strength has always been as a facilitator. "Who first breathed the word sandwich God alone knows, but it needed technology to make it safe and it needed suppliers to think how to do a sandwich by hundreds and thousands and all that is such an enormous piece of work," he says.

Silver may be modest about his achievements, but he is no retiring hero. According to one designer he is, "How shall I say it? Passionate in his arguments. You have to hear his views." He is not a man who backs down easily and, like many powerful figures used to being heard, has a tendency to talk over you in order to pursue his own train of thought. He is described by colleagues as having a deceptively "bumbling old man" image, but with hidden steel and legendary levels of energy. After hearing that he was being profiled this week, he was quick to oblige with his cv and a "chat" - to ensure there were no inaccuracies.

SILVER'S mentor was the late Simon Marks, former chairman of Marks & Spencer. "If I'm in a difficult position I always think what Simon would say. He must be the most remarkable man I ever met," Silver says. "What made him exceptional for me is that you're involved in all the detail, and no part of the business bores you, whether it's packaging, labelling, fabric; it's all something which is exciting." It's an approach he says he has taken with London Fashion Week.

Silver, now CBE and heading for 70, thinks this may be his last. He believes someone should bring in new ideas. "I feel that it's secure and thriving, where it was doing the opposite, but I also believe that nothing is invulnerable," Silver says, citing Woolworths, once "king of the high street" as a salutary example. Designers such as Rocha and Oldfield say he will be sorely missed.

In the meantime, he has four non-executive directorships and a number of charitable interests, including his chairmanship of the Jewish Association for Business Ethics, to keep him occupied, and says his family knows he will not be settling into carpet slippers. Neither his son, an artist, nor his daughter, currently taking a year off, will follow him into the trade. "I don't want them to be in my mould," he says, proudly. "But you'd better not mention my family. They get very cross with me."

Despite the praise that his biggest (and possibly final) London Fashion Week is likely to bring, Silver does not appear to treat it as his greatest success. He is, as he says, a Marks & Spencer man through and through and it is to this he refers when talking of his career.

He tells of how he happened to be standing near Simon Marks at a store dance in the early Sixties, in the days when jersey dresses were in fashion. Marks, looking at the young women on the dance floor, said: "Once upon a time the term 'shopgirl' was a pejorative, it meant a girl in a shabby black skirt and a white blouse. Now, you tell me, are they shopgirls or the daughters of dukes?"

It's a long way from the exotic creations of Westwood and McQueen, but Silver thinks on this with some satisfaction. "We have enabled people of modest means to dress themselves with quality," he says. "I've been part of that."