LONDON — They’re darlings at Barneys, Courtney Love has fallen in love with them and now they have American Express on their side.

Zowie Broach and Brian Kirkby hit a fashion jackpot this summer when American Express chose them to replace Alexander McQueen as part of a long-term sponsorship deal aimed at promoting the U.K. fashion industry.

The design duo, partners in business and life, who work under the Boudicca label, said the sponsorship could not have come at a better time. “It’s reduced our anxiety levels and improved our mental health,” said Broach with a laugh. Kirkby added, “Not having security is one of the worst emotions you can suffer.”

Both agree that one of the biggest benefits of the American Express sponsorship is stability.

“This is not a huge windfall, but a phenomenal opportunity. Sponsorship by American Express has put a magnifying glass on our name,” said Broach. “And we now have a stable, constant source of support, and it’s important that our clients know that. This industry is so fragile. You need to be strong constantly.”

Boudicca is named for the queen of the Iceni, or native Britons, who, during the first century A.D., raised all of southeast England in revolt against the Roman armies and burned down London. Her fighting spirit, they said, is a source of inspiration.

Their collections are often quirky, thoughtful and cerebral. They quote Goethe on one of their latest press releases, while one of their biker-shaped jackets bears the crooner Morrissey’s words: “How soon is now?”

Broach and Kirkby see the act of dressing as a means of expressing a silent opinion. “We both grew up in provincial towns and used clothing as means of expression,” said Kirkby, who is a Manchester native. Broach is from the south coast of England.

Both designers graduated from Middlesex University in London, but at different times. Kirkby went on to get his master’s degree from the Royal College of Art and won Graduate Collection of the Year in 1994. Broach and Kirkby later met in Italy, where both were working, and started showing Boudicca as part of London’s off-schedule shows in 1997.Two years ago, they joined the official schedule and began selling to commercial clients in addition to private ones. Although they would not reveal annual sales figures, design houses of their size generate sales of $1 million to $2 million annually.

Boudicca’s fashion is a study in contrasts. The fall 2003 collection was mostly black — with a few dollops of hot pink. It featured sensual, draped dresses, structured jackets, leather and lace. The collection is also known for its tailoring.

Julie Gilhart, vice president, fashion director at Barneys, said the clothes are “beautifully tailored whether they are soft or structured. Zowie and Brian really follow their own design path. These are clothes that a New York girl wants — the quality is good, the design is strong and you don’t see them everywhere.” Gilhart said one of her recent favorites is a black leather bomber, which Barneys recently put in its mailer. Boudicca has seven accounts in the U.S., which generate most of the company’s sales.

Setting up the label has so far been slow and labor intensive — the couple hasn’t been on vacation for about seven years — but Broach and Kirkby are taking the long view. They are not using the money to invest in splashy runway shows, instead going for quirkier, more intimate presentations. “Of course, every designer dreams of showing on a mile-long, ice-white catwalk. And the day will come when we can focus more on performance,” Broach said.

Instead, they’ll spend the money on fabrics and invest in nurturing craftsmen. “The heart of this company is tailoring and construction,” added Kirby. “And on the weekends, we’ve been working with an Algerian tailor who is so passionate about what he does. The money will allow us to find more people like him.”

Clearly, the relationship works both ways. McQueen — who still works with the U.K. branch of American Express on special projects — designed taxi advertising, credit cards and did general brainstorming during his American Express-backed years. Debra Davies, vice president, head of consumer products at American Express, said it will be working on a variety of joint projects with Boudicca — including a perfume launch at the beginning of next year and an exhibition that marries fashion with art.American Express launched its designer initiative in 1997 with McQueen. “At the time, we were looking around for sponsorship opportunities and we knew first that our customers were interested in fashion and, second, that we have very important relationships with Harvey Nichols and Harrods,” said Davies. “We also know the industry is very undersupported here, so sponsoring designers was a natural choice.”

American Express would not reveal any financial figures regarding the sponsorship.

While the very corporate world of American Express may not appear to gel with Boudicca, which is based in a old warehouse in London’s gritty, formerly industrial East End, Davies said Broach and Kirkby were the perfect choice.

“At the time, McQueen didn’t seem like an obvious choice for us — he had only just gotten the contract at Givenchy. But sometimes the obvious choices are not the best ones. Zowie and Brian are supremely talented and creative, and now they’re free to concentrate on their work,” Davies said.

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