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Smokin’ hot and Prince Charles are two phrases rarely uttered in the same sentence, but all that changed Thursday night at St. James’s Palace in London.

The 63-year-old prince kicked off London’s first official men’s wear showcase with a cocktail gathering at the 16th century palace built by his ancestor Henry VIII.

This story first appeared in the June 15, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Guests including Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Sir Philip Green, Tinie Tempah, Christopher Bailey, Nicole Farhi, Anya Hindmarch, Stephen Webster, Richard Nicoll, Christopher Raeburn and a legion of magazine publishers, press and retailers were buzzing with expectation weeks before the big night.

“I’m not washin’ the hand,” yelped Ed Burstell after meeting the prince, who was dressed in an Anderson & Sheppard suit, Turnbull & Asser shirt and tie — and a pair of John Lobb shoes he’s had since he was 21 years old. “We talked about the importance of learning how to draw — he was so normal,” said Burstell.

Tempah was equally impressed: “Sometimes you don’t know what to say in these situations, and Prince Charles went for the ‘What are you wearing?’ line,” said the rapper and clothing designer. “I told him it was a Spencer Hart suit.”

Nicoll, however, wasn’t as starstruck. In fact, he hung back as the prince worked the crowd. “I’m exhausted, I’m shy and I would have made a fool of myself,” said the designer, who was wearing a gray cashmere cardigan from his men’s wear collection that will debut on Sunday. “It’s a luxury take on American Apparel and Uniqlo,” he said.

Prince Charles worked the room with aplomb, chatting with designers and other guests on the eve of the fashion showcase, which runs Friday through Sunday. He extolled the “quality and craftsmanship” of British-made products and said: “You can invest in a piece of British clothing, and it will last a lifetime.”

The trip to St. James’s Palace was not a first by any means for Hilfiger — he’d already attended a dinner there hosted by Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Before zipping off to his own party to celebrate the shows, Hilfiger talked about British style in its grander sense: “I love the architecture, the charm, and the flag is pretty cool, too. And I’m partial to Savile Row.”

Ford, too, waved the flag for London. “There’s a long history of eccentricity in dress, and it’s admired. There’s flamboyance, irreverence — it’s a very creative environment — and all the drinking doesn’t hurt either. It loosens everyone up.”

“There are no gray areas here,” said Webster, who was decked out in a Topman suit. “Look at Prince Charles — he sums up everything about British style. But then I remember when Vivienne Westwood and I were punks — and getting arrested. This country goes from one extreme to the other.”

The eccentricity is clearly contagious. Farhi turned up at the cocktail party dressed in black trousers and a jacket — with tens of sparkling, bejeweled bugs and creepy-crawlies pinned to her lapels.

“I thought, I’m not going to wear a fantastic dress tonight — let me cover myself in bugs! You should see my waistcoat — they’re all over the place.”

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