THOSE of you who read glossy magazines will have seen the words Clements Ribeiro popping out of recent features with the regularity of a Union Jack at a handover ceremony before midnight. The fashion label is everywhere. The latest cover of British Elle, in fact, has Naomi Campbell swathed in a Union Jack outfit, courtesy of Clements Ribeiro. The look, like the name, is distinctive. Most captions attempt to convey the overall effect by favouring the same words - eclectic, avant-garde, irreverent - while giving no clue as to whether the camel-hair shift dress or the gold brocade pants are the work of a man or a peculiarly-titled woman. Actually, they're both.
Suzanne Clements - British, 32 - is married to Inacio Ribeiro - Brazilian, 36 - and the pair of them are currently the Absolutely Fabulous duo of the London set. As London has been officially designated the hottest city on the face of the globe (okay, the British sun may be setting in this part of the world but it's pretty scorching over there), this gives them practically iconic status. Earlier this year, British Vogue anointed what it called fashion's Magnificent Seven. These were Tom Ford at Gucci, Miuccia Prada, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Yohji Yamamoto, Karl Lagerfeld - and Clements Ribeiro. Now that's excellent company in which to be seen.
The couple passed through Hong Kong a few weeks ago, on their way back from Tokyo where discerning Japanese consumers have taken to them with great fervour. The Hong Kong public can now do likewise: Joyce purchased some of last season's collection as a taster, but a more representative selection from their much-admired autumn/winter show will appear here in late July. 'Buyers are always cautious at first, aren't they?' remarks Clements. 'But now they're looking with confidence and have bought comprehensively,' says her husband, with quiet satisfaction.
The title of this latest collection - Punk Trousseau - gives some clue to the Clements Ribeiro style which, as they blithely admit, is not yet established enough to be easily defined. 'We're not at the stage where our image is so polished that we have a corporate line to give you,' they say, refreshingly. Punk Trousseau, however, with its liberal use of embroidery, tattooed tights, unexpected juxtapositions of beautiful fabrics (tartan with handmade lace) and a general air of expensive irreverence is a pretty good synopsis of the house style. When the collection was shown in London in February, the backdrop was swathed in black PVC while exquisitely fragile chandeliers tinkled over the catwalk.
As it happened, the opening and closing music was Siouxsie and the Banshees singing Hong Kong Gardens. 'We wanted crystal sounds to match the chandeliers and there are Chinese bells on that track which also pointed to the Oriental trimmings,' explains Ribeiro. Everyone loved it. As usual.
How do two young designers find the secret map to journey so far? Their rise seems to have been as sudden as this spring's appearance of the Halle-Bopp comet but they say that it doesn't feel quite like that from the inside. The only reason they set up their own company in 1993 was because they had no other job prospects. 'So I decided to invent jobs for both of us,' says Ribeiro. 'And it was very scary.' He comes from Belo Horizonte in Brazil where he spent 10 years as a fashion designer for a high-quality sportswear company. 'Brazil is very informal, so that's the main market. I had no training but I became chief fashion designer. I had a stable career far too early, it was far too comfortable. And Brazil, then, was always one season behind. Now fashion information is so agile but then ... it felt very sterile. And so I thought 'I can't have this' and I gave it all up.' In 1988, he came to London. 'Because I could speak English, because it's one of the main centres for fashion education - and because, a little cynically, I knew that London was in dire straits and the competition wouldn't be as fierce as in Paris or Milan.' Clements, meanwhile, had been taking a year off ('Well, three, really, I tried to drag it out as much as possible') and backpacking her way round Asia. As a child, she'd hated such girlie pursuits as dressing up dolls ('horrible') but when she returned to England, she did an art foundation course and then opted to study fashion, more because of its fun bits than anything else. 'I'd thought of textiles but the fashion world is so exciting and you can't really say that there's a glamorous, exciting textile world, can you? The design aspect is there but there's also a package with it, all that travel and meeting people.' This, indeed, came to pass. On her first day at St Martin's, London's prestigious fashion college, she saw a young man leaning up against a radiator. 'Somebody said 'Oh that guy's from Brazil' and I thought 'That's interesting' so I went up to talk to him. And I'd made myself a pair of leather trousers which I was wearing and he liked them. So that was good.' 'She'd developed a taste for the exotic after three years in Asia,' Ribeiro grins. 'And I liked her because she was the only British person in college who ever smiled. I suppose Brazil had no fashion appeal for anyone else.' They married in 1992 and immediately fell into a mild trough of despond at the lack of suitable employment. They did unsatisfactory bits and pieces in a number of countries, including some freelance work in Brazil, but nothing solidified. Their reactions to this scenario shed some light on their different personalities.
Ribeiro: I felt paranoid. I was used to working - in Brazil you're defined by your job - and I was panicking, I realised that we had to stabilise. I felt we couldn't be picky.
Clements: Come on, it wasn't scary at all. I was hanging out for the perfect job. My family had had a business so I thought, Great, let's do that.
R: She's born to be a boss, she's an entrepreneur.
C: And he hates it.
R: (Long pause) Yes, that's true. The responsibilities are enormous, stifling. I look with envy at designers who do a good job and then, when they're finished, they go home. But I knew it was great for her and she'd be in her element.' They started small, with savings and borrowed money from friends, and worked out of their flat in Notting Hill Gate. The British Fashion Council backed them and, in 1994, the British Department of Trade and Industry sponsored a successful trip to Japan. Harvey Nichols and Marks & Spencer quickly sponsored their shows, and the British high-street chain Dorothy Perkins contracted them for two seasons to design a less luxurious but just as desirably distinctive collection. Last October, they were nominated for the British Designer of the Year Award (which was won by fellow Magnificence, Alexander McQueen). They now have a three-storey studio in London's South Molton Street, employ three people full-time - 16 during collections - and sell to at least 15 countries.
From the outset, the pair knew what they wanted and have never deviated from a determination to use the best fabrics in the most unlikely ways: mohair T-shirts, pique suits, camel-hair shifts. 'We want to subvert luxury fibres,' Ribeiro says. 'And we want to follow our instincts and be free. Suzanne is so elusive, she hates being pigeonholed. She'll say 'That's enough florals, now I'll do a whole collection in cheesecloth'.' Cashmere is their main thing at the moment, however, as are those multi-coloured striped jumpers which have been extensively copied this season. (Clements is threatening to write a letter to one famous designer who has taken flattering imitation to its cheeky limit.) But how do they work together on collections which are so fundamentally unquantifiable? 'Yes, I can imagine being as mystified as you are . . . how the hell do we do it?' muses Clements. 'Because we have to,' replies her husband. 'Like any good marriage, it's learning to compromise and respect one another.' 'Hmm, but we have to make it up as we go along because otherwise we'd never agree,' Clements continues. 'If we went off and designed separately both results would be quite different. If you're designing together, you confine it more.' They know what they don't want. 'Definitely not to be the next Armani or Calvin Klein,' they agree. 'We hate the omnipresence of those designers. When you see a designer all over the place, the magic goes.' That the glitter of magic might be hanging around their own offerings is something of which they seem genuinely unaware. In Hong Kong, they pottered about the streets in their Birkenstocks, looking as unassuming a pair of travellers as one could hope to meet, and completely open to all experiences. They treated the Trappist Monastery milk bottles with as much design enthusiasm ('We'll use them as milk-jugs!') as a Tang figurine. Back at home, meanwhile, they view the increasing media attention as a slightly surreal thing which is happening to that separate business entity known as Clements Ribeiro. They seem taken aback when the two encroach.
'It's almost surprising when you say that about the Magnificent Seven feature,' confesses Clements. 'I flicked through that piece and didn't give it a second's thought. And now, when you tell me about it, I'm really impressed.' Kate Moss wears Clements Ribeiro, Helena Christensen models in their shows for free as does Naomi Campbell, who specifically rang up before the last one to ask if she could donate her services. Ribeiro becomes very nervous about the shows; his wife, of course, loves them. 'We practically kill ourselves beforehand and then you think you can't do any more. So I get into the whole thing, cruising around, drinking champagne, it's like being let out for the day. I think, My god, if I can't enjoy this, then what's the point?' 'We're totally against being self-conscious,' Ribeiro adds quietly. 'We remain what we are. There are no masks.'