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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - London took over the fashion week baton on Friday, kicking off six days of catwalk shows in a British capital known for its verve and creativity. Royal bride Kate Middleton, who will marry Britain's Prince William on April 29, brings a new level of interest to the city's catwalks as she cements her status as a style role model and speculation about who will make THE dress for the royal wedding of the year at Westminster Abbey is on everyone's lips.
London is best-known as a showcase for cutting edge talent and avant-garde trends, mixing up-and-coming names like Erdem with established designers like Vivienne Westwood. Middleton is expected to choose a British-designed wedding dress.
One of the big four catwalk fixtures alongside Paris, New York and Milan, London Fashion Week will run until February 23 with both British and international designers showing their autumn/winter 2011 womenswear to an expected audience of 5,000. One day will also be dedicated to menswear.
The direct value of the fashion industry to the British economy is nearly 21 billion pounds ($33.88 billion).
It is estimated that orders of more than 100 million pounds are placed during fashion week each season, but the months ahead are set to be tough as Prime Minister David Cameron's government implements the harshest austerity measures in decades.
"We feel very upbeat and excited about the week ahead," British Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman said at the opening on Friday, which was attended by Cameron's wife Samantha, in her new role as an ambassador for the council.
"But no doubt this year will be difficult as we are all suffering alongside many other organizations from the cuts the government have made."
Friday's shows began with Irish-born Paul Costelloe, who has just announced a new backer for his womenswear label as well as Caroline Charles and Orla Kiely. Looking ahead, one of the week's most sought-after tickets is for the Issa London show on Saturday after Middleton wore a blue Issa gown when she and William appeared before the world's media to announce their engagement.
American Tom Ford will make a high-profile appearance too, however only select fashionistas will be allowed to view his designs as he will hold private appointments with the editors of glossy magazines.
Other high-profile shows include Burberry, which will stream its show live on a digital screen in central London's Piccadilly Circus, as well as Mulberry, Vivienne Westwood and Matthew Williamson.
However some industry figures have criticised the fashion world's obsession with perfection on the eve of the event.
"At a certain period in time, the fashion industry was portraying this image of a totally unrealistic woman, women who are not allowed to be themselves," designer Giles Deacon told The Sunday Telegraph newspaper this week.
"It's just all a bit wrong," Deacon, who is the creative director of Parisian fashion house Emanuel Ungaro, said.
Model Erin O'Connor joined others in calling for industry regulation to end digital manipulation of images of models.
(Additional reporting by Cindy Martin, editing by Paul Casciato)