FASHION / Hanging Loose

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The Independent Culture
THE QUESTION is not so much 'Is Seventies style back with us?' as 'Why?' Designers are saying that they didn't set out to do consciously retro collections. They say that current clothes, designed as loose and fluid individual pieces, can instead be put together in a way reminiscent of Seventies style only if the wearer chooses. But the easing up, the floaty shapes, the layers over layers, are the first real change of direction in fashion since the early Eighties. The new clothes stress that freedom of expression is more important than dressing for success - and in that, the clothes are similar to those of 20 years ago.

This new departure is causing aficionados to call up memories of the last time fashion was fantastical. Again and again this coming season, the return to layered separates,, to skinny shapes and doe-eye make-up, will recall the most influential of Seventies designers - Barbara Hulaniki, and Biba. Though these are clothes that will be in the shops this summer, the thrust of the 'new' look is an unreserved exercise in deja-vu.

In the days before the craze for designer labels, Biba was a retailing miracle - cheap fashion with strong identity sold in jumble-sale piles from a succession of Deco boutiques in Kensington. The look was moody, languid and skinny; colours were pastel pretty or rich and dark and worn one inexpensive piece over the other. Fluid shirts and dresses over tiny tops were central to a look which didn't rely on the tailored jacket - the structure at the basis of Eighties fashion.

The Seventies/Biba girl had been fragile and individual until her skinny silhouette was pushed aside by the get-physical culture of the Eighties. Now, the waif look is centre-stage again, as fashion designers project their ideas on to tiny girl-women, nothing like the Amazonian supermodels we've grown used to.

In an economic and political climate which is serious enough, the loosening up of fashion is part of a search for joy against the odds - just as it was back then. As the milliner Stephen Jones, puts it: 'Seventies styles were a logical expression of the way people wanted to feel. The actuality of the Seventies wasn't carefree, but the clothes picked up the ideal of the time, which was personal freedom.' But the clothes here are current. The cut, often on the bias, is more sophisticated. Technological advance has meant big changes in fabrics. Flared trousers made of Lycra/viscose mixes are fluid, and - as they don't flap into your stride and trip you up - safer to wear.

Jones designed his squashy, blush-pink hat because he 'just felt the time was right to do something soft, romantic, pretty'. Lucille Lewin, the owner of Whistles, explains that she, too, is not consciously looking back. 'We were moving towards more hand work, clothes which have a sense that a real person created them.' Monica Zipper of Monix believes there's no such thing as originality in fashion, only re-interpretation: 'But you never saw chiffon flares like the ones I'm doing now in the Seventies.' Marina Avram, who designed the widest flares shown here, believes the 'fluidity of current clothes ties in with the attitudes of the Seventies, when women were hanging loose,' but she is too young to remember.

Giorgio Armani, whose aquamarine sequined vest and see-through chiffon trousers are perfect for re- creating the languid Biba look, doesn't believe in retro: 'I am against reviving per se . . . when I look at fashion of the past few decades, I try to take a certain concept or influence and evolve it in a way that is modern. My client who is 40 or over has already lived and dressed (through the) Seventies and will not go back to that, and my younger client is too modern to want to dress like her mother did.'

Gianni Versace has always felt free to express himself, whether the fashion world liked it or not. But will the wealthy Versace customer, who has latterly teetered along in spike heels and buttock- grazing dresses, be ready to risk looking like Alison Steadman in Abigail's Party? Gianni thinks so.

(Photographs omitted)