Russell Sage opened London fashion week for spring 2003 by invoking the name of fellow Brit Charles Frederick Worth, the Victorian gentleman who set up the very first haute couture house in Paris. Seeking to restore pride in the grand, almost-lost tradition of English craftsmanship, Sage enlisted the help of centuries-old U.K. businesses, from tailors Davies & Son and shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser to Lobb & Co. (shoes) and the Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company (brocades).

Though there’s no doubting Sage’s wish to support his country’s heritage, he seemed to be at a loss in terms of how to harness all that history. Reverting to his own background as a dealer in antique furnishing fabrics, he added fragments of precious Chinese silks, taffetas and velvets—all intrinsically beautiful in dusty, time-faded colors—to the mix. But he struggled to find a silhouette on which to pin all these marvelous materials. His conceptual thread wandered from vaguely 1960s black dresses to obis fastened with vast padded bows in back to 1950s swimsuit shapes made in brocade.

The designer’s best moment was a series of high-waisted dresses, in a rainbow of coral, pistachio, sky blue and violet, detailed with inserts of reclaimed crushed velvet. For some in the audience, though, the only place to look was forward—to his next project, the interior design of a château belonging to the cognac house Hine (a commission from LVMH). Dressing walls, windows and furniture instead of girls just might be the best use of Sage’s talents.