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Spring 2003 New York Collections

Brits, by Fashion

Many of London's designers are bypassing their hometown and bringing their flamboyant and dramatic lines straight to New York


NEW YORK — It's been more than 200 years since we sent them packing, but the Brits managed to colonize a corner of fashion week here this season. Animal lover Stella McCartney opened her first store, in the Meat Packing District, oddly enough, with a party that boasted the week's longest stretch of red carpet. At an art gallery on West 27th Street, London interior-turned-fashion designer Allegra Hicks hosted an informal show of her upmarket caftans for the uptown social set, while handbag designer Lulu Guinness held court at a Seventh Avenue showroom. And was that really Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders clinking champagne glasses with Graham Norton at the Harper's Bazaar party? Indeed, the Brit wits were in town filming scenes for a new season of the BBC fashion spoof "Absolutely Fabulous."

At the Bryant Park tents, designers Matthew Williamson and Luella Bartley were the Brits to watch--both are at the stage in their careers when they are ready for a large, international backer. Bartley's collection married the casual sensibility of American sportswear with the color and energy of the London street, while Williamson showed Miami-inspired muumuus to an audience that included none other than Britney Spears and her entourage of eight security guards.

London has long been a farming ground for fashion designers including Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and McCartney, all of whom moved on to Paris as soon as they got a whiff of international recognition. But lately, British designers have been bucking that trend, choosing to build their businesses by showing in New York instead.

"It's money, money, money," said Edward Aydin, who develops fashion-related TV programming in Britain. "New York is where the business is. London and Paris are not trading cities. You can't even set up a bagel store on the street in London. They'd arrest you. In New York, people are working everywhere, all the time."

Williamson, 30, launched his line five years ago in London. He presented in New York for the first time last season, and the show more than paid for itself when his Guatemalan-stripe jackets and pink paisley velvet coats (in stores now) were a hit with buyers from Henri Bendel and Fred Segal, as well as with American magazine editors.

"London is a nurturing city where talent is born, but in New York, people take fashion more seriously.... Commercialism is not a bad word here like it is in the U.K.," said Williamson, who knew he wanted to be a fashion designer at age 11 and who now counts Sophie Dahl and Jade Jagger among his muses.

Bartley, 29, a former fashion journalist, has been showing here for three seasons now. "I feel very looked-after here. People treat me the same as they would a really big designer," said the freshly scrubbed blond, whose collection was inspired by a newfound love (fashion photographer David Sims) and a newfound love of sports. Chic athletic wear came in the form of a pink denim motocross-inspired jumpsuit, a black knit tank top and boy short ensemble trimmed in pale pink that resembled a man's 1930s bathing costume, and an ice-cream stripe jacket of the sort cricket players sport, all worn by models made up to look like they had a post-workout flush.

While it's difficult to define any one British aesthetic, many fashion watchers agree that despite their reputation for being plain and dowdy, the English are really quite flamboyant dressers. After all, London was the birthplace of the dandies, mods and punks. And Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, Westwood, McQueen and Galliano are all known for their dramatic, if sometimes over-the-top, clothing. Many of them also graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which has what is regarded as one of the world's best fashion schools.

"All eccentrics come from England," said Hicks, who is married to Ashley Hicks, also an interior designer. "Nothing is too much. You can walk around in strange attire and no one looks at you."

For spring, many American fashion designers responded to the shaky economy by filling their collections with basics. But they may have done better with more peacockish pieces, according to Glenda Bailey, British expat and editor in chief of American Harper's Bazaar. "Now, women want things that are special and unique to complement their existing wardrobe, pieces they can grow old with. And that's what British designers excel at," she said.

Whether Williamson does well enough to pay for another New York trip remains to be seen. There's a fine line in fashion design between being provocative and being salable. L.A. boutique owner Tracey Ross was unsure about the collection of muumuus (on Britney?), halter dresses and wrap blouses trimmed in a pastel-colored Aztec pattern that looked as if they had been lifted straight from the curtain rod of a low-budget Miami Beach motel room.

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