"I've always wanted a captive audience," London designer Murray Arbeid joked about his recent mid-air fashion show on a Continental Airlines flight from London to Houston. En route to the United States for a seven-week tour, Arbeid showed his 70-dress collection, to the surprise and delight of his fellow transatlantic passengers. After distributing invitations, the cabin crew served champagne as four models showed the dresses.

But after the plane landed, the models were sent back to London. "Bringing models to the U.S. is like bringing coals to Newcastle," Arbeid said at Saks Fifth Avenue last week. "I'm mad about American girls. They are the best, the tops, they're in love with the clothes and so professional. They're not there to show themselves, which is a European trait."

Evening wear is Arbeid's specialty. "I don't really make anything to wear before 6 o'clock at night. Other designers are much better at daytime clothes, so I leave it to them . . .

"My clothes are made for drifting around on glamorous evenings. Everybody does dress up here more than in Europe. There are so many gala charity events. People abroad have the false idea of the rich who wear these dresses and attend these events. They watch 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas' and see these horrendously wonderful people," said Arbeid.

Arbeid's designs define the waist and highlight the top half of the dress. The sleeves of a black velvet dress are embroidered with gold sequins, silver bugle beads are hand sewn on bright red crepe satin, and yards of silk taffeta drape the bodice of a strapless gown. "When you are seated at dinner, who wants the best part of the dress to be under the table?" asks Arbeid. Low-cut backs are also common among the dresses. "It's one thing to make an entrance. It's another to make an exit."

In recent years, Arbeid has called attention to London's role in the fashion industry and in seeking government recognition. "People act as though London fashion just popped up yesterday. I've been around for 30 years. But it's taken British designers a long time to shake the '60s image." One of his favorite customers, Diana, Princess of Wales, who wears only British designs and is constantly in the media, "has done a great deal for London fashion. Now our star is very much on the ascendant. London will be exciting for at least the next six years."