Pillaging the past has run its course. This week Milan's designers unveiled a braver new world. Tamsin Blanchard was there
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The Milan collections for autumn/winter 1995/96 were not really about dressing in clothes your mother might have worn in the Sixties (Versus- Istante and Dolce e Gabbana), or in the Fifties (Sportmax and Versace). They were not really about the male go-go dancers in lilac Lycra hot pants who gyrated along the catwalk at Katharine Hamnett's show. Despite all the retro-styling and reworking of shapes from the past 50 years of fashion design, what Milan showed us this week was the way to the future.

The vision began with Law-rence Steele, a 31-year-old American designer in Milan, who previously designed for the much-discussed Prada label. For his third collection under his own name, Steele presented a collection that was a breath of fresh air, sweeping through the stultifying rut of all things retro.

The designer emphasises the importance of blending a sense of history with the search for something new. "At Prada, I always looked back to the Thirties, Forties and Fifties," he said after his collection was shown to a packed showroom. "For my own label, I'm trying to concentrate on being modern. We are at the end of this century, and there is a lot of looking back. I would like to look at what is coming. I'm trying to do something new for the next decade."

But Steele's vision of the future is not one of clichd plastic fabrics and Barbarella. It is pared down while remaining elegant and pretty.

Steele was born in 1964, in a decade that many designers have looked to this season, not just out of nostalgia for the past, but also because that was the time when space travel had become a reality, and designers such as Courrges were making futuristic, monochrome, symmetrical clothes. His influence was evident this week at Iceberg, where there were Sixties- style A-line dresses and skirts in shiny plastic and quilted nylon, and at both Versus and Versace, where simple shapes were printed with chequerboards in pastel shades.

One way of making progress is by using new and innovative fabrics, which Steele is always searching for. In the collection he used a matt nylon that was soft and drapy, as well as silk chiffon, and felted boucl that was made into sculpted jackets. Nylon and satin were quilted so they stood slightly away from the body and there were also beautifully crafted knitted dresses and wide, pearlised snowboarding trousers.

Thanks to Prada, nylon has become a luxury fabric. It appeared on the catwalks as often as fur, both fake and real. On the catwalk yesterday, it was used to make Sixties Modernist shapes with dome skirts, hipster belts and boxy jackets - Audrey Hepburn as space cadet. The bright whites and chocolate browns that dominated Milan were there, as well as bright coral red. The thoroughly modern Prada woman wears minimal make-up and no-fuss clothes.

Even Giorgio Armani succumbed to nylon's shiny, light qualities with a simple single-breasted jacket in grey and ecru at Emporio Armani. This was another collection imbued with the spirit of simplicity and modernity. Although the tailored jackets revealed a nostalgia for the Forties, the clothes would take any woman into 2001 without her looking dated or like an extra from a science-fiction movie.

So, too, would anything by the German designer Jil Sander, whose clothes are sometimes stark in their simplicity but always look to the future. Her long, slim evening dresses were made of six layers of weightless synthetic material that was spun like candy floss and wrapped the body like cotton- wool wadding. There were also luxurious coats, either tied with a thick belt, or tailored into the knee, in the softest wool and cashmere.

Thick, herringbone tweed appeared in many collections, including Ter et Bantine, where the designer Manuela Gherardi used the fabric in suits and coats as well as the plainest long-sleeved, knee-length dress which has become a classic shape. Jil Sander also used thick felt and brushed mohair in chocolate brown that looked like a blanket. Her skirt suits with concealed zips and immaculate seam details took the formal tailored look a step further. Shiny, liquid Lurex added shimmer to long, lean trouser suits where hi-tech fabric combined with classic tailoring in icy shades of blue, lime and vanilla.

The constant pillaging of the past by fashion designers serves a purpose - we gradually take what we want and make it modern. From the Forties and Fifties, we have taken elegance as well as the art of dressing up rather than down. But now is the time to move on, and in Milan this week it was inspiring to see collections by designers who are keeping one step ahead.