'There Are No Size Zeros on the London Catwalk' ; When Hilary Riva Took over the British Fashion Council, She Stepped into a Furious Debate about Underweight Models. Here She Explains Her Views on Anorexia and Why London Is the Centre of the Fashion World

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HILARY Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, is angry. Not just cross, or a bit fed up, but really, properly furious. She feels "got at", she says; as though she, personally, is "the cause of anorexia nervosa in the UK right now".

She is angry that the skinny models controversy - the size-zero debate - has focused on, and "abused", certain catwalk models who are unable publicly to defend themselves. She is angry, most of all, that the row threatens to overshadow the celebration of British talent that is London Fashion Week, which opened yesterday and which the BFC organises and helps fund. "This is really important," she says, "too important to be trivialised. I've got The Sun newspaper advertising for anorexic girls to go and present a petition [at LFW] and be paid Pounds 250 for it. Do you think that's good for them? We had the BBC delivering a skeleton here. They delivered a piece of cake. They turned up here at the reception [of the BFC] and started filming, wanting us to contribute to this balanced piece they were doingYes, I'm angry. I'm angry about the whole approach to it, the vilification of individuals, the bullying of models, which is outrageous. Yes, you can quote me on all of that."

Riva's assistant is looking nervous. I'm guessing, having spent an hour and a half with her, that Riva is not a woman to suffer fools gladly - or at all, ever - and that every London journalist, save a few senior fashion editors, is a fool in her opinion. I imagine groomed fashionistas quaking in her presence.

At one point, when I ask her whether her views on the size-zero debate might be different were she the mother of daughters - she has three sons - she narrows her eyes and offers a look of such contempt, I fear she will lean over and throw her glass of water at me.

"Why? Why would I feel that?" she replies. "If I had an anorexic daughter maybe, but I am part of a council which has examined this thoroughly and people who do have anorexic daughters say quite categorically that it is not brought on by the fashion industry.

"There are big issues of control and esteem and sexuality here and it's a very, very complex subject. And what we need to do with any complex subject is come up with complex solutions."

SHE is right, of course - about the complexity of anorexia, if not the fashion industry's alleged innocence. She is also right that London Fashion Week showcases some of the capital's most exciting creative talent, and that it is an economic boon to the city, worth Pounds 22 million as an event (the sum visitors to the two fashion weeks each year spend in London) and as much as Pounds 100 million in sales of UK designers' work generated as a result.

A multimillionaire, 50-year-old businesswoman with a background in highstreet retail, Riva joined the council a year ago at the request of Stuart Rose, the BFC's chairman and the chief executive of Marks Spencer.

"Can I just make something clear?"

she asks at one point. "I do this on a voluntary basis, I'm not paid to do this job The reason I agreed was because I was retired and in a financial position to do it, and I felt it was appropriate to put something back into an industry which has been good to me over the years and which I enjoyed so much."

She pauses and thinks. "Sometimes I wish I'd done landmines instead. But nobody rang me from the landmine organisation."

She has needed her body armour nevertheless. Last month, when the BFC refused to follow the organisers of Madrid's fashion week and institute an outright ban on models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of below 18 - the World Health Organisation's definition of the clinically underweight the outcry was heard across the capital.

Instead, the BFC merely " recommended" to designers that they "use only healthy models for their collections", and that they do not use girls under the age of 16. …