Ever since the Labour Party won the general election a year ago, the British press has taken to referring to their country as Cool Britannia. There has been a certain flashy quality about some of this coverage and an unfortunate tendency to concentrate on those who have left - John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney being obvious examples - rather than those who have remained. Amid this hype, the British Council in Hong Kong is mounting an exhibition called Designing Tomorrow which will run from May 18-25. It will focus not on the glitz but on the unique characteristics of the British design education system, and so the British Council is bringing out Sheilagh Brown, head of women's wear design at Marks & Spencer and a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art. Ms Brown will be giving seminars and tutorials to both students and businessmen here. Her credentials are second-to-none: she has been through every permutation of the fashion design business. She started as a fashion illustrator in the 1960s, was briefly a television costume design consultant, founded her own company, worked in knitwear with Jeffrey Rogers, was head of fashion at the highly influential St Martins College of Art where she taught, among others, John Galliano, and joined Marks & Spencer eight years ago. Ms Brown passed through Hong Kong last Saturday night on her way to the Philippines for a quick trip before the exhibition. She sat in the lobby of the Regent Hotel, looking at least a decade younger than her 51 years, and calmly discussed her love of design while a spectacular thunderstorm showed off all around her. This proved to be an appropriate backdrop because she gives the impression of being the strong, dependable centre of an industry noted for its dazzle, its crowd-pleasing histrionics and - occasional washouts. In her position at Marks & Spencer, she is head of an in-house team of eight people (who are responsible for GBP3 billion [HK$38.7 billion] worth of turnover) but also the person who gently encourages creative free spirits to come on board. 'Marks & Spencer is not a design-led organisation but it believes in bringing in designers,' she says. 'Historically, it's technology-led because it's always been about quality, and quality means developing fabrics so that they last, offer value for money and meet certain standards. So there's a scientific basis.' But aren't these chilly words for creative souls to hear? Ms Brown, who was once quoted as saying that Marks & Spencer policy is 'not done on emotion', shakes her head. 'It's much more intelligent than that. If you add design innovation to a base of technology, it's fantastic. The dynamics can be profitable. That's what I'll say to the business community here - that long-term investments do reap benefits. It's about longevity.' Marks & Spencer has a long history of sponsoring young designers such as Antonio Berardi, the current darling of the British fashion press. There is a wry aside to be made: Berardi's latest own-label collection was stolen by two men who simply wheeled it into a van on a London street. The British media speculated its next destination was Southeast Asia, along with two other designer collections which disappeared in the same week. When Ms Brown is asked what advice she will be passing on to students in Hong Kong, she answers succinctly: 'Originality. They've got to start doing it for themselves.' Yet why would any designer opt to work for Marks & Spencer which is certainly not renowned for its cutting-edge clothes? 'Julien MacDonald is the current fave rave. His dresses for Chanel cost GBP10,000, maybe more, but we're now selling a dress designed by him for about GBP90 - I'm going to wear one to a British Council seminar. He's getting his things to the masses, and he'll earn a lot from that. We said to him, 'We want it to have your handwriting, leave it to us to worry about the price range.' So he went to our manufacturers and he tweaked the machinery to make it work for his designs, which is what he did in Italy for Karl Lagerfeld.' But isn't MacDonald cheapened by the association? 'Not so far. We don't over-publicise the connection. We want people to come and buy Marks & Spencer, and quite honestly a lot of our customer base wouldn't know who he was. Not everybody's right, it's not just a quick fix. It's long term.' In the same spirit, Ms Brown has just signed up Matthew Williamson whose first show last year, although it consisted of exactly 11 outfits, was an extraordinary success. His designs for the chain will appear next spring. Ms Brown talks through the courting process: 'I cover the shows in London, it's part of my job. And with Matthew, you just knew. I thought 'What a clever boy', and what a brave thing of him to do a show like that. So I approached him. We worked on a brief, met the buyers, discussed his talents. 'For me, what the designers do for us has got to be the equivalent of a diffusion line. It has to be as good as that. They're not asked to design down for M & S or to give us last year's ideas.' In any case, commercial necessity dictates the seasons are designed two years in advance. 'You have to do that because the fabric and yarn people need to know. That's what's important and that takes time. And you have to be commercial. Nothing is there just for the sake of it. 'Our customer profile is from 16 to 80, and it's about making a clear statement so they won't be confused.' During her career, Ms Brown has been at the top-end of fashion, selling to a sliver of well-heeled women. Now she is responsible for dressing thousands of women around the world. She is adamant about which she prefers. 'It's incredibly satisfying when you know you're selling to everybody. It's very powerful. And that's what the business community needs to know - that it's possible to have a beautiful design which sells oodles and makes a profit.'