A mere three days away from his 19th runway show, amid a flurry of model castings, Ashley Isham is the epitome of cool and charm on the phone from London. But Isham is hardly a stranger to the limelight. Aged just 24 and fresh from fashion school, he secured a studio in the heart of London's fashion and media central, Old Street in Clerkenwell, bagged a PR agency to spread the word, boldly created a 20-dress, self-titled collection, then showed to London's notoriously critical fashion press. 'There I was sitting in the heart of fashion central, big names all around me, with an opportunity to show what I was about. Why not, really?' asks Isham.
He must have had an inkling of the interest in his work, as the well-known fashion correspondent Hilary Alexander from the UK's Telegraph newspaper turned up, alongside other curious sorts. Seeing pieces from his sophomore collection featured alongside McQueen and Westwood in the respected How To Spend It section of the Financial Times really hit it all home, however. 'That was my 'woah' moment. I just wanted to work even harder after that.'
The dots began to connect thereafter. A royal stamp of approval garnered both British and global attention when, in 2002, Zara Phillips, 12th in line to the British throne, wore her specially designed Ashley Isham dove-grey herringbone tweed dress and coat with leather trim to Royal Ascot. In 2003, Isham roared out of the starting blocks with his first show at London Fashion Week, to international acclaim.
Today, the front row of an Ashley Isham show is peppered with It girls, supermodels, princesses from the Middle East and assorted celebrities. He's part and parcel of London's yearly Fashion Week timetable, and, these days, his pieces are featured just about everywhere. But look past the quick rise to the top, the superlatives and the fabulous front row, and you find clothes made with genuine precision - rare for a designer of his generation. From drape and fall to cut and fit, Isham makes the kind of clothes that devotees describes as 'confidence builders'. They feature the old-fashioned tailoring that comes from a grounding in the art of pattern-making and stand-draping - now practically a dying art - and a deep understanding of fabric; in Isham's case, a long love affair with jersey. 'A creator has to know exactly how something needs to be made,' says Isham, a Gres and Vionnet fan who looks up to McQueen's sharp tailoring and Galliano's sense of the theatrical. Isham also has his eye on upcoming London New Generation design wunderkinds Emilio de la Morena and Pam Hogg.
As a relatively young talent, Isham is fortunate to have found his signature look early on, alongside his direction, which he describes as creating 'works of desire that women can actually wear.' It's hardly surprising that his customer base, whether in London, Singapore, or among his burgeoning fan club in the Middle East, consists of supremely confident types who like to wear something astute.
For all the success Isham has enjoyed, he acknowledges that defining himself on home turf has been one of his biggest challenges, after years spent in London, fashion's experimental capital. Despite the pressures of playing to a home crowd, Isham's elegant boutique now sits within the glamorous heritage confines of the Fullerton Hotel, and AI by Ashley Isham, his diffusion line collaboration with local retail giants FJ Benjamin, is set to open at the reinvented Mandarin Shopping Gallery on Orchard Road.
Isham's recently launched spring/summer 2010 collection was inspired by the Ottoman empire, 'the longest running empire in the history of the world.' Characterised by Klein blue and fuchsia, handwork and detailing, his exploration is apt and maybe even karmic. In fashion's fickle, cyclical world, it is individuality that grows an evolutionary, lasting empire.