LONDON -- Lord Young, secretary of state for trade and industry, remembers well the first time he saw a miniskirt here. "I was driving down Baker Street, and I almost went off the road," he said Monday night after four days of designer shows of styles for next spring.
Short skirts are certainly a popular theme in the current collections, but the new clothes are not about to drive anyone off the road. In fact, other than giving raves for Rifat Ozbek, Jean Muir and John Galliano, who was presented the Designer of the Year Award by Young, many buyers fear the new clothes are not fresh and appealing enough to attract customers, particularly at the current high prices.
"It is a static moment here. Designers are doing what they have done before or imitating styles that are not inherently English," says Barbara Weiser, whose familystores, Charivari in New York, have nurtured and boosted the best of the English clan. "I look for fresh ideas and quality like the Marian Foale sweaters or the creative genius of a Vivienne Westwood," she said. "What's in between is not interesting anymore."
"They are trying to be commercial and playing it safe," complained Ellin Saltzman of Saks Fifth Avenue before the Workers for Freedom show.
Clinching the down spirit of the fashion week here are the price tags. "I used to be able to come over to London and buy bags full of clothes from Kensington Market and elsewhere and take them back to the store. Now it is less interesting, and the prices are high because of the weak dollar," said Terry Melville, vice president of Macy's.
It's not that the organizers haven't put on a good show here. In fact, it is the best-organized fashion presentation in the world: Most of the shows are held in or adjacent to the huge Olympia exhibition area, where more than 300 designers and manufacturers have set up stalls to show and sell their wares.
The British government has gone all out to promote fashion, the country's third-largest manufacturing industry. Unlike the United States, where an interest in fashion by politicians and even some political wives is frowned on, the government here gives a financial and morale boost to the fashion business.
The biggest booster is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who found time on the one day between her return from a meeting of the Conservative Party and a trip to Canada to spend an hour and 15 minutes touring the three floors of the exhibition, checking the "frocks on the rails" (clothes on the racks), asking questions and giving advice. She clearly enjoyed the whole adventure.
"Whose fabric is this?" Thatcher asked designer Murray Arbeid as she fingered one of his evening dresses, the kind favored by the princess of Wales. "Abraham from Switzerland," he replied. Arbeid says he was stunned by her next comment. "I thought it might be from Jacob Schlaepfer." According to Arbeid, Schlaepfer is a prestigious old Swiss textile firm that could well have made the fabric. "How could she have known that?" he asked.
At another booth, Thatcher said her favorite color was aquamarine, and to a cashmere knitter she admitted she had the problem many others have with cashmere skirts: "They always sag." To a designer of party dresses she said: "Your clothes remind me of the show 'Follies,' " the popular Stephen Sondheim revival on stage here.
Asked if she was planning to wear a miniskirt this spring, Thatcher said firmly, "I don't think that short skirts are for anyone over 40."
Miniskirts, which unquestionably had their start in London 25 years ago with Mary Quant and others, are not a big issue here, perhaps because they once were. It's not that there aren't superminis in the collections -- Vivienne Westwood, in a collection she called "England Goes Pagan," showed bands of fabric not much wider than a belt, under which models wore knee-length jersey "panties," as she called them, that looked like bike shorts.
"Since the '60s spirit in fashion went out, we thought not to do the miniskirt again," designer Helen Storey said. "But it really is a strong, dramatic statement. It makes a new season." Storey says it is only because Yves Saint Laurent did it that English designers had the courage to even play with the idea. "Saint Laurent gives us security."
Using mostly short skirts, Storey keys her new collection to a South American theme with flowers and fringe. The South of the Border spirit highlights a lot of the collections. "Spanish and Cuban women show strong femininity and sexuality about themselves. Think of Carmen Miranda," Storey said.
For Bruce Oldfield, the collection was pegged to a Tex-Mex spirit with bolo ties and cowboy shirts as a way to introduce color. "We've had so much black. I wanted to introduce bright colors and this is a way for me to do it," said Oldfield after his show, called "Couture Cowgirl."
Rifat Ozbek, the Turkish-born, London-based designer, spent his summer vacation in Mexico, and his sophisticated collection showed Mexican blanket colors, silk raffia trims, rhumba ruffles, silver coin trims and much more.
Ozbek was the first designer to show here, and his message was immediately clear as the crowd found seats in the Gamble room of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Propped up by the far door of this embellished baroque room was a huge cactus and behind it a setting with a mirror framed in Mexican silver and an elaborate painted table.
For some designers, such as Alistair Blair and Katharine Hamnett, the Hispanic influence was less obvious. Hamnett moved back to her spiritual home in the 1960s, complete with bell bottoms, bare midriffs, long black wigs and pop art prints. For evening she showed washable taffeta dresses.
For many stores, the value of a trip to London is not in the collections per se, but in the easy access to hundreds of resources at Olympia. "Just the shoes alone," said Bernie Ozer of Associated Merchandising Corp.; "from the longstanding cobbler tradition here, there are wonderful shoes with an elongated last that is right for the shorter skirts."
Although his pet customers, the royals, have been ordering short skirts, Murray Arbeid agrees they aren't for everyone. "If you have a plain face, seeing your knees does not improve the situation," he said. "However if the short length suits you -- if you are comfortable in it and are not wearing it like a fashion victim -- then why not?