So you want to be hip? Grab a duvet and start stitching

It's odd, it's impractical and it adds inches to your hips - but it's the look for the autumn. Nathalie Curry has seen the future - and it's padded

A girl has to suffer for fashion, but this time I think I've gone too far. Like many other women, I've worn those killer heels for hours on end, waxed my legs bringing tears to my eyes, and shrunk my jeans (with me in them) in an icy cold bath.

Now, I find myself standing in front of a mirror, wondering if I look like a meringue or some sort of albino alien. I am wearing a padded white "Fencing Style Jacket" and a "Foam Padded Long Futuristic skirt", two directional pieces from H&M's new autumn/winter collection.

Padding is the most-wanted look for this autumn - and I'm the first to road-test this millennium-inspired trend.

It adds inches to my hips, but I'm delighted to see that it also improves my bust. The outfit starts to grow on me, and after five anguished minutes, I decide it's really quite chic.

Colleagues who just don't get it suggest that I resemble a caterpillar or a sleeping-bag. I ignore them and head for the Dockland's Light Railway. Passengers in pin-stripes are puzzled by my ensemble. "What on earth is it?" asks the man sitting next to me. "I wouldn't smoke if I were you. You might go up in flames."

Another passenger, a banker, is disapproving. "Not fantastic at all," he says. "I'd have to take it off my girlfriend if she wore it."

Philistines. I admit that I look a bit like Bjork, but I am simply following a designer trend. The Vogue Autumn/Winter 99 Catwalk Report proclaims that padding is the way forward. Next season's must-have items include Gianfranco Ferre's snowy overcoat; Christian Dior's chunky silver tunic; Salvatore Ferragamo's magnolia judo jacket; Chanel's fuchsia dress; and Hussein Chalayan's sleek slip-dress with a pure white padded collar and front panel. And can you honestly say that you will make it through the autumn without a Jean Paul Gaultier padded skirt, made just like a quilt, with feather-stuffed chiffon, taffeta, nylon or velvet?

Cheapskates can just grab a duvet - Ghost took one from their new house collection and turned it into a skirt for their Winter 1999 show. Alex Barlow from Ghost says: "Women need winter warmth and are no longer willing to sacrifice style for comfort.

"Fashion everywhere is moving towards greater comfort with the introduction of pash-mina, fleece, sweatshirting and padded fabrics."

High street stores are already running up imitations. From September, Jigsaw, H&M and French Connection will stock padded coats, jackets, skirts and trousers.

I head to Soho and settle down with a cappuccino in Bar Italia. I feel more at home here. To my right is a girl with a towel on her head, and to my left is another wearing a snake-skin catsuit. I find it difficult to get constructive comments out of the waiters. "Oh yes, we like your outfit, but we prefer your blue eyes." That's Italians for you.

I have been wearing the outfit for two hours now, and I'm starting to melt. This is definitely an autumn/winter outfit and it's hard to look cool and sophisticated in 27C - still, that's the price you pay for being a style leader.

For ventilation I unzip the side splits on my skirt, which helps a bit. H&M suggest that I wear a black skinny rib polo neck under the jacket and describe my attire as suitable for clubbing. I doubt I'd make it to the dance floor before I passed out with serious heat exhaustion.

From my table I call up a friend who works round the corner for a bit of moral support. She bursts out laughing when she sees me. She is used to seeing me in black trousers and a T-shirt. "I can't decide whether you look more like an astronaut, a doctor, or someone in a straitjacket," she tells me.

In a further effort to cool down I leave the cafe and seek the shade of the narrow streets. My first admirers are two girls in tiny skirts and boob-tubes, working at the door of a peep-show. They vow to get quilted up in the autumn. Further down the street is Agnes, queuing for Mamma Mia! She loves it, but it turns out she thinks I am an extra for the production.

I pop into Janet Fitch for a bit of advice on accessories to go with my outfit. Martin Somerville suggests "nothing mumsy". He shows me a simple silver torque and an amber necklace.

I need a cold drink, so I make my way to the Lab Bar in Old Compton Street, an A-list celebrity hang-out, decorated in greens, oranges and browns. Michael, the doorman, is impressed: "Baby! It's excellent! It's a bit go-for-it, sweetheart."

I chat to one of the owners, Philip Goossens. He immediately says: apres- ski. In fact, French Connection's padded range is inspired by snowboarding.

"Go to St Moritz," Philip suggests, "Put on the jacket with a pair of jeans. Mmmm! White jacket and blue jeans. Perfect, thank you very much."

I ask the two most stylish girls in the bar if they'll be sporting this trend in the autumn? "Yes, definitely, I already have a padded waistcoat from last season", says Suzanna. "Maybe not the jacket and skirt together," hints Asha, "And I'd be worried about spilling my drink on it."

And what about commuter grime? Lionel Vermeil at Jean Paul Gaultier admits that there are drawbacks. "They are not enormously practical," he says, "but remember that not everyone takes the tube to work. Some women simply have to go from their limo to the restaurant."

H&M's padded range will be available in stores around the country from September. The skirt costs pounds 29.99 and the top is pounds 34.99.

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