Fashion: Welcome pleats back into the fold

Designers have gone back to the drawing board (the one in school) to update the once dreaded pleated skirt. By Tamsin Blanchard
FOR most women, pleated skirts have thoroughly nasty connotations. They bring back painful memories of the box pleat school pinafore and the tennis skirt that was so short your regulation navy blue knickers were permanently on show. Box pleats, you see, do not suit everyone.

The girl who still had to lose her puppy fat would end up having her pleats stretched out like a concertina over her wobbly hips while the skinny girl in the class - the one who refused to drink her milk at break- time - always looked like she was drowning in an excess of grey polyester. And that was just box pleats. Schools with a more liberated outlook on uniform would allow a kick pleat or an A-line skirt with an inverted pleat. Both variations were usually made of something akin to cardboard and would sit stiffly on the hips. The pleat meant that pencil skirts with splits were strictly not allowed.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, pleats have become the fashion designer's new best friend. Now we have not just box, knife, sunray or kick pleats; we have the conceptual pleat, a pleat that is uncompromisingly wrapped around the body like softly corrugated iron, courtesy of the most innovative and cerebral of designers, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons. Such artful pleatings are only for the committed however (insane or otherwise). For the rest of us, it's back to the old school pleats of our youth.

The great turn of the century couturier Fortuny was the first designer to be bitten by the pleating bug. Where the Comme des Garcons pleats are stiff and rough, Mariano Fortuny's were fluid and fragile. In 1909, Fortuny, who crossed the worlds of art, textiles and fashion, patented his pleating process inspired by Grecian robes. His Delphos dress, a long tube of impossibly tightly-pleated silk, was designed to be worn with a silk cord tied around the waist. It was the simplest but most effective of garments and is one of the great classics of twentieth century design.

Occasionally Fortuny pleats come up for auction, but the process has been updated by the Japanese designer Issey Miyake who has dedicated a whole collection to his stretchy synthetic pleats. He first introduced them to his collections in 1989 and they were so popular that he launched a separate line called Pleats Please in 1993, designed to be light, comfortable and to shape to the contours of the body. Each wearer gives the pleats their own unique shape. The Pleats Please range is relatively affordable (from pounds 70 for a scarf up to pounds 260 for a long coat) and is Miyake's idea of a Utopian way of dressing. The simplicity of the pleated fabric allows the clothes to cross boundaries of age and size, to be crumpled into a small bag when travelling and to be layered according to the temperature.

While Mr Miyake might believe that pleats are for everyone, other designers are not so optimistic. Marc Jacobs used sunray and box pleats in his collection, leaving fashion editors walking away from his New York show shaking their heads despondently. If Kate Moss looks like a frump in bulky pleats, then what hope for the rest of us?

Jacobs himself agrees that pleats are not for every woman. But as his and other designers' collections give us little option this summer, (and the high street will follow in the autumn) we have chosen five different pleats for you to consider. Just remember one simple rule: the bigger your hips are, the tighter the pleats should be. And never, ever be tempted to wear socks (or navy knickers) with your box pleats.

Main picture: purple vest, pounds 90 and grey tube skirt, pounds 135, by Issey Miyake Pleats Please, 20 Brook Street, W1 (enq. 0171 351 0903). Liberty, Regent Street, London W1

Top left: white cotton crumpled shirt/jacket, pounds 179, from Homma, at Liberty, Regent Street, London, W1; aqua pleat skirt, pounds 195, by Katharine Hamnett, 20 Sloane Street, London SW1 (enq. 0171 287 6767.)

Bottom left: pink cotton shirt, pounds 58, from Jigsaw branches nationwide (enq. 0171 491 4484); black pleat skirt pounds 110, from Whistles, 12 St Christophers Place, London, W1 and 9 High Street, Oxford (enq. 0171 487 4484); black shoes, pounds 46.95 by Birkenstocks, 37 Neal Street, London, WC2. (mail order and enq. 0800 132 194)

Above: black cotton vest, pounds 15, from Jigsaw branches nationwide (enq. 0171 491 4484); white pleat skirt, pounds 229, by Helmut Lang from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1, (enq. 0171 730 1234)

Below: black backless vest, pounds 150, by Ann Demeulemeester; beige pleat skirt, pounds 295, by Jean Paul Gaultier, both from Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (enq. 0171 235 5000.)