FASHION SPECIAL: Rain supreme

Once, its classic kit was worn by the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary and Margaret Thatcher. Now Aquascutum, the king of British rainwear, is chasing an altogether cooler clientele. Cat Callender hails the return of the mac

"I LOVE FRUIT gums."

"I love peanut butter."

"I love one can of beer."

Meet Graeme Fidler and Michael Herz, the designers behind Aquascutum's brand-new line, which will make its debut during the London collections beginning tomorrow. While the fruit-gum-munching and beer-swilling Geordie Fidler and the peanut-butter-loving, British Guyana-born Herz are refreshingly un-fashion (a good thing), so too is the brand they design for (a bad thing).

Still, this design duo is determined to alter that perception. In launching a new fashion-forward, press-worthy men's and women's collection, called simply Aquascutum (and not to be confused with the label's rather staid existing mainline collection, Aquascutum London), they hope to reposition the entire brand. To ensure their show on Tuesday oozes the type of kudos the label hopes soon to have accrued for itself, the designers have hired a crack catwalk team that is positively bristling with credentials. It includes the show producers behind Alexander McQueen's theatrical catwalk spectaculars, Gainsbury & Whiting; the casting supremo Russell Marsh (who casts both Prada and Miu Miu's runway shows and campaigns); and Nancy Rohde, show stylist for the Belgian designer Dries van Noten. But what of the clothes?

"The very first piece we made was a garment that had been in the Aquascutum London menswear collection for ever. We took a quite uninspiring size 40 men's coat, and put it on a girl. We then shortened the sleeves, chopped the bottom off the coat, left the pockets where they were, re-jigged the proportions and suddenly loved it," explains Herz, Aquascutum's head of design. He and Fidler, head of menswear, found that by unpicking the very fabric of the brand's foundations - namely its outerwear garments - they'd inadvertently hit upon a template for reworking the company's heritage for today. "Suddenly it was something that was really fresh but was still Aquascutum."

You see, for the past ooh, at least two decades, the 150-year-old British purveyor of ultra-conservative outerwear has languished pretty much off fashion's radar. Founded by the gentlemen's tailor John Emary in 1851 (who perfected the technique of waterproofing wool fabrics and re-named his company in 1853, joining together the Latin words for "water" and "shield"), the label supplied officers in the Crimean and First World Wars with rain-repellent trench coats and equipped Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tensing Norgay with their waterproof togs when they climbed Everest. During the 1970s, Aquascutum's classic trenchcoat became synonymous with Inspector Clouseau - Peter Sellers' buffoonish character wore it in all the Pink Panther films. By contrast, in the 1980s, the label's tailored suiting was adopted by Margaret Thatcher as her (very serious) battle dress of choice.

In spite of its exquisitely tailored suits, and hand-finished separates, the understated nature of the brand's rather conventional Aquascutum London mainline range has meant it has never really made its mark on fashion since the power-dressed decade. But all of that looks set to change thanks to the new 200-piece Aquascutum collection.

Having identified a means of creating a modern reversion of Aquascutum's heritage, Herz, 37, and Fidler, 31, set about performing the same deconstructive process with the brand's core traditional men's coats: the Filey (the basic raincoat), the Nelson (a wool coat) and the Kingsgate (the classic trench).

"We realised," Fidler says, "that we had a wealth of details within the craftsmanship of the garments that could be taken apart and used in other ways." So they increased the volume of the Filey to near bustle proportions for women, and shrunk it into a blouson-style jacket f for men. The Nelson has been turned into an oversized mannish jacket for women and shrunk down to a short coat for men. They morphed the Kingsgate trench into a paired-down dress coat for women and reduced it to a skinny-fit mac for men.

The upshot? Clothes for men and women that are inextricably linked and, at the same time, work in dramatic contrast with one another. Whether that's the effortlessness of a men's coat worn over a dress crafted out of a cloud-like confection of tulle; the modernity of a men's vest worn under a plunging lace flapper dress; the discreet elegance of a shrunken- proportioned, inside-out cashmere and acetate jacket paired with mannish slacks; or the dandyish appeal of a man wearing a sweatshirt with a pleat in the back and tailored Japanese selvedge denims.

"They've totally deconstructed things and re-worked them in quite a Martin Margiela way but more glamorous," drawls Aquascutum's catwalk show stylist, Nancy Rohde, grasping to define the collection's sophisticated aesthetic. "The thought process is quite Margiela, a weenie bit early Helmut Lang but it somehow ends up feeling quite Lanvin. They've really looked at Aquascutum's heritage and not just plucked an idea out of the blue."

The collection is the culmination of the brand's recent attempts to reposition itself. This began last year with the sparkling new shop fit of its 100- year-old flagship London store at 100 Regent Street and a collaboration with the Comme des Garcons designer, Junya Watanabe. In addition to customising a couple of women's red Aquascutum trenches exclusively for the 10 Corso Como Comme des Garcons boutique in Tokyo and deconstructing a handful of Aquascutum trenches to coincide with the London store re-launch, Watanabe is also working together with the brand on an offering for his namesake collection for winter 2005/6.

"One of the points of my menswear line is to collaborate with companies with history, that have concentrated on one thing for years and have perfected their skill," explains Watanabe, whose decision to work with Aquascutum speaks volumes about its competitors. "That way I can include something real in my collection and by doing this make basic clothing that displays a high level of craftsmanship."

Prestigious collaborations aside, Aquascutum could be forgiven for setting its sights on "doing a Burberry" (after its own f reinvention, the formerly deeply conservative clothing label is now the UK's most internationally successful designer brand). However, according to Herz, a certain pragmatism lies at the heart of Aquascutum's desire to reposition itself. "It's no longer enough to supply garments that cover you up. And if you are going to be in the fashion business, you have to move with the times," he points out. "Aquascutum is so proud of its heritage and of being 150 years old, but it also wants to be 300 years old. Unless Aquascutum does what it's doing now with this collection, it won't get to be that age."

Still, given the fact that Burberry and Aquascutum share a not dissimilar heritage (both kitted out officers in the war, both clothed explorers and both claim to have invented waterproof clothing), such comparisons are unavoidable. What's more, Aquascutum's decision to hand over the reins of the new collection to little-known designers makes it impossible not to draw parallels - Burberry's success is, in part, due to its creative director Christopher Bailey, who was also an almost entirely unknown entity when he took the helm. But perhaps it's a more canny move than even that.

Until recently, there has been a trend towards employing designers with celebrity-style auras to create superbrands out of practically defunct status labels (Tom Ford at Gucci, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, John Galliano at Dior). But Ford's departure at Gucci appears to have heralded a seismic shift; and if the goings-on at Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Jil Sander (and what's mooted to happen at Helmut Lang) are anything to go by, it's now the order of the day to promote the nameless talents who have for years been heading design teams behind the scenes.

"Both Michael and Graeme understand the Aquascutum brand inside out," says the managing director Minoru Nakamura of Herz and Fidler who, prior to their current employment, held positions as heads of design at Guy Laroche and Ralph Lauren's RLX collection respectively. "If the main line and the new line were to go in different directions, this would be of no benefit to the brand. I just believed that in order to improve and reinvigorate the brand, it was better for both designers to work both lines." In spite of the largely forgettable designs the two have been briefed to create for the mainline collection, Herz and Fidler would appear to have risen to the occasion.

However, certain detractors will no doubt be eager to point out the challenge that lies ahead for Aquascutum in attempting to escape its recent past. But Floriane De Saint Pierre, a headhunter who specialises in recruiting for the fashion and luxury industry, believes the slump period that follows a brand's heyday is key to its successful reinvention: "I think there is a cycle. A brand has to lie dormant for a period of time to make it possible for it to be great once again."

Theorising aside, the proof is surely in the pudding. Which is why on one visit to the design studio, I tried on what at first glance appeared to be a rather nondescript inky black jacket. It had started life as one of Aquascutum's traditional Farringdon men's coats - size 40. No sooner had I slipped it on than it fell from my shoulders in an asymmetric fashion, to form a slightly oversized, angular mannish jacket. Not in the slightest bit classic. However there were more surprises in store. Once buttoned up, the jacket suddenly morphed again into one that gripped my ribcage like a corset. As for the excess fabric, this had been rolled and stitched into the cutest side mini vents at the back of the garment that skimmed my hips to create a subtle hourglass silhouette.

"We've created this collection very three-dimensionally, working as sculptors, draping and pinning or fitting the fabric either on a body or a mannequin as opposed to working from a drawing," explains Herz. He firmly believes such a design methodology, coupled with the atelier environment in which they work alongside pattern cutters, seamstresses and tailors, has freed them to improvise and respond to garments as they come to life. It means they can decide on the spur of the moment to elongate a jacket into a coat because they simply love the proportions, or to unpick the elastic from a men's blouson jacket and attach it to the hem of a simple lace shift dress because it just looks cute, or to bead the makeshift elastic belts (originally used in the absence of proper belts) and include them in the final collection because there's something delightfully irreverent about them.

Of course, the collection is not all pure whimsy. "We've inherited certain fabrics that stem back almost to Sir Edmund Hillary. You know, windproof and water-repellent cotton nylons or shower-proof silks. Fabrics that were used as macs or trenches which we're now creating corsets or cocktail dresses out of," says Fidler of the company's functional heritage, which he takes so seriously he found himself compelled to pour a jug of water over the aforementioned frock to double check it was shower-proof. "For some reason I have a real nerdy passion for always needing to ask, `Does it work?'"

The answer, then, would appear to be yes - and on a number of levels. While Aquascutum might not be what Herz calls "all flash, bang, wallop", it's an effortlessly elegant collection whose irreverence lies in the subversive details that should be just enough to make people sit up and take note.

"I used to think they did fusty old raincoats," admits Rohde sheepishly. "So I didn't look at Aquascutum before I worked on this collection. I kind of regret that now." E

Right: dress, pounds 650, men's jacket, pounds 595, both by Aquascutum, 100 Regent Street, London W1, 020-7675 8200; shoes, from pounds 325, by Christian Louboutin, 23 Motcomb Street, London SW1, 020-7734 4505

Photographer Pete Drinkell

Stylist Beth Dadswell

Model Marla at IMG

Make-up Ayami using Shu Uemura

Hair Vas Karpetas at Phamous using Bumble & Bumble

Stylist's assistants Adele Woodthorpe and Gemma Hayward

THE WAY WE WORE

Back in time to the Aquascutum mac worn by Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther (above), and sensible suits so beloved of Margaret Thatcher (right)

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