Rough and ready talent showcased on London fashion fringe

In an industrial space accessed through a Soho record shop, three young designers style their models in a cramped cubicle before sending them out to a cheering crowd sipping bottled beers.


One of the looks presented at the On Off catwalk yesterday in London. - onoff.tv


Away from the polish of London Fashion Week's main schedule, up-and-coming designers star in a host of rough and ready shows -- and for many, they are what the week is all about.

"It's about the raw talent, and giving raw talent an opportunity to be seen," said Lee Lapthorne, who picked the three designers to show as part of his On|Off initiative.

Like many off-schedule events, his show was put together on a shoestring budget with spartan sets and limited collections -- but with undeniable energy, aided by the sounds of a live punk band.

On|Off has been showcasing alternative designers since 2002 and gave an early helping hand to now established British names such as Gareth Pugh, J.W. Anderson and Roksanda.

Among this season's picks is Timothy Bouyez-Forge, who showed a collection of vacuum-formed tunics and dresses sprayed with brightly coloured car paint, held together with industrial straps and rivets and with motorbike parts as bags.

Lapthorne believes programmes such as his are vital to London's creative reputation, as a counterbalance to the big names like Burberry and Topshop on the official schedule.

"What London for me is lacking at the moment is what London was known for --- that edgy, almost punk-esque energy that London had, that McQueen brought, which Galliano had," he told AFP.

"London has had to become a major city of fashion, and had to get more business-minded, rightly so. But I think at the same time, it's lacking that freedom of creative expression."

He added: "I get the vibe from a lot of people I talk to that people are bored of fashion week. Is there anyone pushing the envelope out there?"

- 'Excited to see the new' -

On|Off is one of a number of initiatives to support emerging talent, many of them helped by the British Fashion Council (BFC) -- and, in the case of the Fashion East and NewGen sponsorship programmes, funded by high street giant Topshop.

"London Fashion Week and British fashion is known as the birthplace for emerging talent," said BFC chief executive Caroline Rush.

"It's great that we have successful businesses, it's great that we have brands that are building their businesses internationally. But a lot of people of course are also excited to see the new."

- 'Shun main schedule' -

A short walk from the On|Off venue, the Painting Rooms Presentations, held in a century-old gallery near Covent Garden, is in its third season.

Designers include China's Xiao Li, who has made a name for herself with voluminous garments, and Canadian Steven Tai, who showed a tomboy look on models styled as gawky teenage girls.

The initiative of The Wolves PR agency shows two designers at one time, one named on the official schedule, the other not.

"That helps bring an audience to people who might not get it otherwise. And viceversa -- there's a lot of people who really like to look at the off-schedule and shun the main schedule," said PR manager Stephen Lawton.

Diverting the fashion pack from an already gruelling official schedule is not easy, and many "off" venues are close to the main BFC hub in Soho.

Not all the designers showing off schedule will migrate to the big league -- but any showcase during fashion week helps.

Bouyez-Forge, a boyish figure in a T-shirt and baseball cap, says he hopes his show will be successful enough to allow him to keep designing.

Will he aim for on schedule? "That's decided by people much higher up, but I can definitely try!" he said.By Alice RITCHIE

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