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Flouncy, slinky, just plain hot: Dresses steal the spotlight at London Fashion Week

Paul Costelloe_london Fashion week

September 17: Designer Paul Costelloe is seen at the end of his show at London Fashion Week. (AP)

LONDON (AP) — Short, flouncy and sexy dresses took center stage at the opening of London Fashion Week Friday — except the collection of designer Maria Grachvogel, whose dresses were long, severe, and sexy too.

It was a day for celebrating female beauty as designers envisioned the spring and summer collections of 2011 in a playful way, short on orthodoxy, long on color and whimsy.

The majority of the fashionistas in the audience wore their customary black outfits, but the designers turned to a soft palette of summery shades, with some even embracing canary yellow and metallic silver.

"It's off to a very good start," said Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council that organizes the twice-a-year fashion extravaganza.

Prince Charles made his presence felt as well, offering the courtyard of St. James Palace for a catwalk show featuring "sustainable" fashions in line with his devotion to environmental causes. Many of the chic clothes on display at the historic location were made from organic material.

The prince did not attend, but the show did have the royal stamp of approval, said Jane Boardman, chief of the Talk PR agency that helped organize the event.

The sustainable show featured a rare catwalk appearance by the statuesque model Erin O'Connor, who seemed to enjoy a brief return to the spotlight even if she started to giggle a few times. London Mayor Boris Johnson sat in the front row, near Jo Wood, the model and former wife of Rolling Stone bad boy Ronnie Wood.

Designer Paul Costelloe kicked off fashion week by breaking with his old-school traditions, offering a brash, eye-catching show filled with short, flouncy dresses in soft colors.

Abstract checks and some diamond-shaped art deco styles completed the look, which represented a sharp change in direction for Costelloe.

Costelloe usually opens fashion week with a somewhat sedate show emphasizing cut and quality, but on Friday he displayed racy dresses described as "Tinkerbell-turned-party girl."

The short dresses included metallic weaves and twills that indeed twinkled in the spotlights, many featuring high waists and subtle pleats. A handful of floor-length dresses were topped by silvery metallic-style jackets with a space age look.

His playful mood was highlighted by his own outfit — Costelloe wore a jacket and tie with dark slacks, accented by white Converse sneakers.

His menswear was fanciful — few will opt for the sports jackets, pressed shorts and black patent leather shoes with dark socks a few models were wearing — but the crowd enjoyed the six young men in well-cut suits who strutted out near the end of the show.

Still ahead are a host of London favorites including Vivienne Westwood, who usually uses her Red Label show to push her environmental concerns; Christopher Bailey of Burberry, Stella McCartney, Paul Smith and others as the fashion focus shifts from New York to London.

The weekend will be marked by late-night parties for the fashion faithful, but the mood will turn solemn Monday when a memorial service will be held for Alexander McQueen, the celebrated designer who took his own life earlier this year.

The gatherings reflect the importance of London fashion. A new report by consultancy Oxford Economics, commissioned by the British Fashion Council, said fashion is Britain's 15th largest industry, employing more than 800,000 people and contributing 21 billion pounds ($33 billion) a year to the economy.

London Fashion Week, according to the council, generates orders worth around 100 million pounds ($156 million).

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CAROLINE CHARLES

Caroline Charles turned back the clock when she unveiled her spring and summer collection.

Her 1950s-style floral prints in silk and other fabrics were worn by models with their hair in tight buns and lips in bright red lipstick to capture the glamor of that era. Some of the evening wear used sequins and beads to dazzling effect.

The final long, swirling dress she presented was the most dramatic, suggesting cocktail parties and late night soirees. A pale leopard skin print dress with black gloves and a narrow black belt also caught the eye.

Many outfits included matching or contrasting gloves, some extending above the elbow, others cut very short. One floral dress had aqua colored gloves, and a retro black jacket was offset by long red gloves.

The collection also included Capri pants and boxy jackets.

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BORA AKSU

Bora Aksu broke out the ruffles, frills, bows and drapery in a "more is more" avalanche of chiffon, mesh, brocade and satin. The color palette was muted with rich grays, navy and black, which was highlighted with sparkling metallics and a splash of raspberry red.

A loose sequin neck tie and a bow tie were the only masculine part of a collection made up mostly of mini-dresses and skirts.

"The collection had a new age feel about it. The graphic leggings and the patterns reminded me of a space ship," said Kimberly Mansfield of Lushique.com.

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MARIA GRACHVOGEL

Maria Grachvogel's spring and summer collection was a minimalist celebration, with long, unadorned dresses and models wearing naturally styled hair and very little makeup.

The pared-down silhouette had a fresh look as Grachvogel experimented with silver crepe catsuits and vivid prints. Some dresses in unusual colors like canary yellow and pale silver gave the collection a faraway feel set off by the jungle drums prominent on the soundtrack.

Many of the evening wear pieces were cut from a single piece of fabric that draped naturally over the body with a minimum of seams and decoration for deceptively simple, sensual look.

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Associated Press Writer Eleanor Stephens contributed to this report.