Fashion: Nothing twee about tweed

Once the dowdy fabric worn by frumpy school teachers, tweed has had a make-over. The gurus of fashion have pinned their labels to the woven cloth and it's now the sexy stuff that pencil-slim, hip-hugging trousers are made of. By Rebecca Lowthorpe
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It's official. Tweed is back. It's all new, all trendy, all singing and dancing and ... oh, please. Tweed has been around since the year dot. Well, the mid-19th century to be more precise, when it became all the rage in Scotland, particularly with the locals of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The islanders have been weaving and exporting Harris, the king of tweeds, since the 1840s.

In its time, this dense woven cloth has been as integral to country life as sheep and manure, sported by country squires and poachers alike. It has, and always will be, the farmer's uniform along with green wellies, Barbours and flat cloth caps.

Humble tweed has even played its part on the silver screen, lending its good, old, honest image to our favourite fictional sleuths. Actress Margaret Rutherford would have been far less plausible as Miss Marple without her matronly tweed suits and jaunty trilby. It was her frumpy, country-bumpkin image that provided the perfect foil to her laser-sharp mind. As for Basil Rathbone, it's probably fair to say his Sherlock Holmes, seen swishing across the moors in that Harris tweed caped trench coat and deerstalker hat in the first of The Hound of the Baskervilles films, is the image we all know of the great detective.

In more recent years, tweed has been consigned to the classroom - think well-worn jackets with leather elbow patches, favoured by geography teachers. And then there was the unfortunate incidence in the Seventies when the material leant its name to the sickly-sweet perfume, Tweed. Mind you, the manufacturers Lentheric, could hardly bottle the real, earthy fragrance and call it Eau de Mouton.

Not the most glamorous, or indeed the most scintillating of backgrounds, tweed. But that's because it's the meat and two veg of cloths. It's durable, warm and lasts an age. It's practical, low-key and does the job. So, why then, if it doesn't scream Fashion, did it appear on virtually every designer's autumn/winter catwalk?

Models, obscured by a fug of tweed, were made to break into a sweat on each and every catwalk. OK, so it didn't make it on to the Versace runway, but Donatella only deals in high-impact glamour wear and, frankly, the likes of Liz Hurley aren't going to touch rough-and-ready tweed, even if it is cut into a siren dress and split to the knicker line.

Nevertheless, it swept the rest of the Milanese runways. Tweed this and tweed that soon rolled into a bigger story called, banally enough, Texture. MaxMara and its younger sister line Sportmax (both offer some of the best and most affordable designer tweed) sent out elegant wide trousers, neat, sporty jackets and low-slung, slouchy skirts, but refused to stop with the knubbly weaves, piling on the bibbly-bobbly tank-tops, frizzy wool trims, mohair and giant cable knit sweaters. Tweed's glorious moment in the limelight turned into flash-bulb-filled hours and then days, as the fashion caravan moved on to Paris. There, it graced John Galliano's rarefied stage in the form of grand opera coats, swinging with all the usual over-elaborate trimmings: woollen fringes, rabbit feet and bird of paradise feathers.

Over at Chanel, tweed was cut into pencil slim, hip-hugging trousers and, with a nod to futurism, it even covered the House's ergonomically designed year 2000 bag. At Chloe, trench coats with capes a la Sherlock Holmes (Ms McCartney had obviously been doing her tweed homework), were in evidence along with homburgs and natty suits. With the Big Texture Story beating down the door, Stella threw some crochet blankets or lace table cloths around the models' necks for good measure.

Then came the grand crescendo. Comme des Garcons and Yves Saint Laurent - leaders of style and the sine qua non of catwalk statements - stamped their authority on the look. Where Rei Kawakubo corrupted Dior's New Look by binding models' shoulders with chunky obi-style bows, Alber Elbaz had squirrelled through the Saint Laurent archives and came up with re-runs of Seventies tweedy knickerbockers.

And that, dear readers, is why you find yourselves being told - no, shouted at - from every glossy magazine, every weekend supplement and daily broadsheet, that tweed is back in fashion.

However, not all designers picked up tweedy looks this winter only to inevitably drop them the next. Among those who have had a longer and more meaningful relationship with the woven cloth, is designer Bella Freud. "Tweed used to be as thick as a board. Now it's much softer especially the ones made from Scottish lambs wool. With those, you can see the body move through the cloth. And the colour is incredible. Subtle lines of colour criss-crossing the body distills into something quite mesmerising. No one can weave colourful tweed as well as the Scots. The French and Italians have tried, but it's so wishy-washy in comparison," says Freud.

Freud has succeeded where many others have failed, in making tweed both satisfyingly modern and sensuous. Tweed turns her on. "It can take real vamping! When you put tweed with really high shoes, sheer tights or stockings, it's really sexy. Looking at someone wearing a beautiful tweed makes you want to linger over them," she extols.

Check out her natty mini skirt featured here and see if anyone's eyes linger over you. Alternatively, if the price isn't right, get down to French Connection where a whole batch of contemporary tweedy togs (the double-breasted coat is brilliant value at pounds 190) can be yours for a snip.