LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Sporting giant cherries on their heads or hats festooned with red blinking lights, models wearing some of the quirkiest creations from British milliners kicked off London Fashion Week on Friday. London has produced some of fashion's biggest names, including Stella McCartney and John Galliano of Dior, and its designers are regarded as among the world's most avant garde.
But the city's fashion week -- celebrating its 25th anniversary this year -- has struggled to maintain a global profile on a par with Milan, Paris or New York, and without the backing of big design houses many emerging talents have decamped elsewhere to nurture their careers.
Last February, the catwalk schedule was cut owing to a conflict with New York.
"London was always famous, and rightly so, for being at the cutting edge of avant garde creativity, way beyond what Paris and Milan do," Simon Collins, dean of fashion at design school Parsons in New York, told Reuters by telephone.
"There never seems to be that raw edge of almost guerrilla creativity that you get in London," he said. "The sad fact is that we English are not very good running business in the fashion world."
The five milliners, including Noel Stewart and Piers Atkinson, who showed their creations at the opening demonstrated the London penchant for challenging convention.
One model wore a beaded, cream-colored veil that covered her face fully, while another had what looked like antlers in black fur wrapped around her head.
But not all greeted fashion week enthusiastically.
A handful of people hoping to petition British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to combat sweatshop labor were stationed in front of Somerset House, the venue for many of the shows.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists used the start of London Fashion Week as an occasion to lash out at websites which promote anorexia and bulimia, diseases which often make the news alongside pictures of skinny models on the catwalks.
Visitors to England often perceive hats as being quintessentially British, recalling women at Royal Ascot horse races and other high society occasions in the pages of celebrity magazines. But Collins said daily life inspired designers.
"The streets of London aren't held by any convention," he said. "That's what's giving rise to the kind of designers London is producing. They simply haven't learned the rules so they don't need to know how to break 'em."
Model Erin O'Connor, wearing a banana-shaped pink and black hat, agreed about British creativity. "The only thing we have in common are our differences," O'Connor told Reuters.
But translating innovation into orders can be difficult, Marigay McKee, head buyer at luxury department store Harrods, said in an interview last month.
"Sometimes for a store like us... some of the London designers are quite avant garde. So in terms of designs its fabulously amazing," she said. "Obviously, I'm also looking at the commerciality, and sometimes for us that's quite hard."
To generate commissions, about 40,000 pounds ($65,400) in public money is being spent to invite buyers from the United States, China, and other countries, according to a spokesman for the London Development Agency.
"It's that willingness to be heterodox in the face of orthodoxy that (puts) London at the cutting edge of fashion," London Mayor Boris Johnson said, mocking his own lack of style.
"I was deservedly condemned not too long ago as being one of the worst-dressed people."
Additional reporting by Basmah Fahim; editing by Paul Casciato