Fashion Year: Did anyone get fashion right this year? Cayte Williams looks back on the few successes and a lot of missed marks

Millennial minimalism

As a fashion year, 1998 came in with a bang and went out with a whimper. For the first six months, the fashion world couldn't have been more optimistic. No expense was spared on couture shows and Prada, Gucci and Versace sold out in boutiques throughout Britain and beyond. But by the end of the year it was going to be a different story.

John Galliano's couture shows for Dior were as opulent as ever and were broadly heralded as further proof of genius. But there were a few voices of dissension. What we were seeing at the house of Dior was more costume than contemporary design. Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of fashion journalism, was among the first to speak up. She had grown weary of "the overriding impression that Galliano is living in the wrong century."

This was sacrilege to the majority of the British press, who saw Galliano and Alexander McQueen (head designer at Givenchy) at the vanguard of British talent. But back home there was talent to spare. London Fashion Week in March was one of the most successful ever, with designers like Matthew Williamson and Seraph's Sherald Lamden proving that the British had business nous as well as imagination.

Even Paul Smith, who had never been a bedfellow of the British Fashion Council, launched his womenswear range at London Fashion Week. If anyone could pull in the buyers he could. At last London was a significant port of call for the international fashion elite. The British fashion business had tripled in size since 1990, growing from pounds 185m to a pounds 600m industry. "Designers are more organised and they are running more successful businesses," said Smith in the Guardian, and the buyers were arriving in their droves. According to the Times, Bergdorf Goodman, the Manhattan mecca of fashion, had sent no fewer than 13 buyers to London.

Meanwhile, we got smug about New York. American designers might have business acumen sussed, but creativity on the catwalk seemed to be victim to a Zero Tolerance policy. "Fashion in New York," wrote Tamsin Blanchard in The Independent, "has very little to do with new ideas, experimentation with colour, shape or pattern, and everything to do with corporate design."

But the Americans were to have the last laugh. By the summer, the industry was seriously feeling the effect of the economic crisis in Asia. Gucci saw their shares fall, mainly because the label-mad of Japan and Malaysia had lost their money. The future was looking uncertain, but the party in Paris continued regardless.

This time, however, many knew that Galliano was out of step. Quirkiness and understatement, not spectacle and flamboyance, were quickly emerging as major trends. His autumn/winter 1998 show was more Cecil B DeMille than the Coen brothers, and a blockbuster it wasn't.

The pounds 2m Dior extravaganza was staged at the Gare d'Austerliz where platforms 20 and 21 were turned into a Moroccan souk. Naomi Campbell rocked up looking like Pocahontas wearing her entire wardrobe and several models turned up as topless Henry VIIIs. This train wasn't going anywhere. "Spectacle aside..." said Susannah Frankel in the Guardian, "where were the clothes?... [The show] was the stuff of particularly ornate pantomime."

If Paris was a pantomime then New York was a slickly run show - with a perfect sense of timing. In September, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan decided to show their spring/summer 1999 collections six weeks earlier - and before any European fashion week. It was a brave decision, but it paid off. London, Paris or Milan were no match for the must-have and fresh qualities of the New York clothes.

Milan was boring. London lost its edge and Paris had its thunder stolen by non-European designers who had caught the new mood of millennium modernism. Issey Miyake hit the button with DIY clothes: you buy the fabric and cut them out yourself. "Hidden within each rectangular tube of stretch nylon," explained one fashion writer, "is a dress, a shirt, a pair of pants, a jumpsuit, socks underwear, a cap, bags and a belt." Nothing could be simpler, and not since the deconstructionists of the early Nineties had Spartan design been cool.

The days of luxury have gone and fashion has ushered in a new era of simplicity and commercialism. Galliano, who had previously wooed the grandes dames of fashion with orchids, now sent them each a single rose for the spring/summer 1999 shows. He even sent barefoot models down the catwalk in simple white dresses.

The new frugalism can only be a good thing for Galliano. The British designer may have previously blown the budget, and his attention to costume- drama detail may have masked his talent, but put him in a darkened room with some calico and a machinist and he'd produce something you'd kill for. He loves a challenge. And this new age of posed-modernism should prove just that.

WHO SHOT WHAT

Cover Girls:

Debbie Harry on Dazed & Confused, Linda Evangelista on Vogue, Meg Ryan on Harper's Bazaar, Gwyneth Paltrow on W, Calista Flockhart on Tatler and Esther Canadas (heard of bee sting lips? This girl stuck her head in a hive) on Frank (left).

Underwear as Outerwear: pyjamas went bananas in The Face, vests and the rest in Elle and basques and corsets peep from beneath luxurious coats in Marie Claire.

Cold Comfort: the fashion pages headed for chillier climes: Lapland in The Face; Southend in Dazed and Confused (of course it's freezing); Scotland in Marie Claire; while Vogue doesn't mind where you are as long as it's pouring ("the wet look equals high fashion") and you can get your Burberry out.

Pure Fabrication: textiles got all touchy-feely with cashmere and silk in ES magazine; denim and sheepskin in Scene; denim in Frank and mohair and angora in Marie Claire.

Party Gear: Christmas just isn't Christmas without a sparkly frock. The Sunday Times loved bugle beads and feathers featured almost everywhere else.

Utility Chic: it's back to basics at Frank, which went all practical with sport-inspired separates; Elle went for a fleecy "street chic"; W, the Stateside fashion magazine, went for the work ethic (sort of catwalk meets Village People); Tatler chose good old-fashioned skiwear and Marie Claire explained cruisewear. However, Alberta Ferretti, Donatella Versace and Giorgio Armani voted minimalism as the worst look for 1998 in Vogue.

Feet of Clay: flat Manolo ballet pumps in Frank; Chanel suede plimsolls at Chanel and thigh-length boots in Marie Claire.

Bags of Style: Frank went for the "hands-free utility bag" a la Prada - a sort of deluxe version of what German tourists wear underneath their shirts; W decided that neutral-toned linen bags should be the only thing to carry. Meanwhile, that self-appointed denizen of style, Meg Mathews, told the Sunday Times that she just had to have the ergonomically-designed Chanel 2005 bag for Christmas. Yes, but will it be a turkey?

Colours: bright shots of pink in Harper's Bazaar; black in the Guardian; grey in Tatler; cream in Marie Claire; white is the big colour for 1999, so said the Evening Standard. Bibel, the magazine of choice for the discerning Swede, Vogue and Elle all said that white was right.

In Profile: Julien Macdonald in the Guardian; Helen Storey (and her Primitive Streak fashion-and-science exhibition) in Vogue and Ozwald Boateng (above) and his house in the Evening Standard.

BITS AND BOBS

WILL MCQUEEN LEAVE LONDON?

According to The Independent, Alexander (right) is thinking of deserting London because of poor turn-out of international press and buyers. "Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, does not consider the London shows to be important enough to be graced with her presence and, until she does, London will not be in the same league as other fashion capitals," reported one writer.

AND WHO WILL FOLLOW?

Antonio Berardi is also seriously considering showing in Milan and Hussein Chalayan may head for New York. Berardi manufactures in Italy while Chalayan designs for TSE New York. With the Big Apple set to show before London at the next collections, top designers are worried that the British capital will become small fry to fashion's power elite.

POOR LITTLE

RICH GIRL

Stella McCartney hit out at critics who claim she succeeded in the fashion business only because of her parents. "Everything I do is put down to my dad's fame. What do I do?" she wailed in W. It's to her credit that she's doing well at Chloe. But spare a thought for all those talented Central St Martin's graduates (where Stella performed unremarkably) who will spend years at the grindstone before getting anywhere near her success. All because their dads aren't world-renowned Pop Gods. Life's tough, innit?

WONKY LOOKS WIN THE DAY

Erin O'Connar won the "She's strange but I like her" Face award for the most unusual but successful appearance in a model.

FROM THE CATWALK TO THE SILVER SCREEN

While actresses want to be models, models want to be actresses. Claudia Schiffer is to star with Robert Downey Jr and Ben Stiller in a new movie, Two Guys and a Girl, while Esther Canadas is set to play Pierce Brosnan's girlfriend in a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

WHO NEEDS TO BUY PRESENTS?

The glossies spoilt us this month: free gifts all round. Elle gave us a make-up bag with its nifty logo, Marie Claire a lovely new diary and Options scented sticks.

TROUBLE FOR KATE...

Miss Moss got a bit hot this month. The poor thing can't do anything right, but can you believe what you read? According to the Evening Standard, five fire engines rocked up to the Priory Hospital in Roehampton (where the model was treated for "exhaustion") because of a small fire in her room. Apparently, pyrotechnic Kate lit a candle which set fire to a scarf on her bedside table, setting off the alarm. The blazette caused "minimal damage and was quickly put out". By how many firemen?

...AND FOR NAOMI

The supermodel (left) denied allegations that she threatened to throw a former assistant from a moving car and has asked a New York court to dismiss the complaint against her, made by a former employee Georgia Galanis. Ms Galanis is seeking an $8m settlement in a civil suit and alleges that Naomi hit her on the head with a phone, and slammed her against a wall.

TOO SPORTY FOR THEIR OWN GOOD

According to W, Nike is cutting back on its famous swoosh logo due to over-exposure. Instead it's going for a new "five-dot logo" and greater use of the NikeTown name. Consider it a good ticking off.

OXYGEN

"People with such standing as Prince Charles, Mohammed Al Fayed and, er, David Beckham have had facts revealed about them in the tabloids that no amount of money, position or power seemed able to cover up. Yet nobody is willing to dish the dirt on the current troubles of Kate Moss. The industry she stars in is too powerful, and she is too important an asset."

Laura Craik on the mysterious Miss Moss, The Face (right)

"Consider the skirt. I know I championed the midcalf skirt in my last letter; however, here are my final, final thoughts on current hemlines: If it's down to a choice of one, the directional buy is ... on the knee or just below."

Liz Tilberis, editor of Harper's Bazaar, and her obsession with skirt lengths

"Unless they change the BFC, I will leave London. I've put so much money and energy into my work and that elevates London. But they still don't get the press and buyers here. Their job is to bring commerce into London and they're really pitiful."

Alexander McQueen berates the British Fashion Council, The Independent

"I only wear what I want to wear. It's not pressure. I've had an association with Calvin Klein for a long time. And I do feel a certain loyalty to them, because they were the first people who said they liked my work and offered to lend me clothes - before I was famous or going out with anyone famous."

Gwyneth Paltrow explains her dress-sense, W

"I'm not against fashion houses supporting art as philanthropists, but I am sceptical when it becomes part of the marketing. Fashion has a commercial sub-text, and art doesn't. It's wrong to confuse the boundaries between them."

Luigi Marmotti, chairman of MaxMara, argues against the fashion for art in fashion, Vogue

"I confess I have been a frock luvvie in the past ... but, at the same time, my relationship to the ones up there under the lights was only ever as a professional observer, while clothes were divided into ones I might actually buy and the ones I merely admired. I might write at length, hyperbolically, about the beauty of a designer's sheer shift, for example, or a swathe of glistening evening gown, but the idea of actually wearing them never crossed my mind."

Former fashion journalist Kathryn Flett, Elle

"The world is becoming more spiritual. Much of fashion's inspiration is coming from that. The silver jewellery Jade Jagger showed at Matthew Williamson resembled talismans and sacred amulets. I'm the most practical person and even I won't be parted from my tribal bracelets."

Browns Focus buyer Monserrat Mukherjee on the new folksy fashion, Scene

"I'm never going to be one of those trendy actresses who lives in Primrose Hill and shops in Voyage... I'd much rather sit in front of the telly eating McDonald's than be seen down the Met Bar, looking six stone."

Patsy Palmer, aka EastEnders' Bianca, Elle (right)

"I can't tell you the price of it until you tell me how much it cost."

Calvin Klein Accessories press office on the phone to RL's fashion assistant.

"Where safari outfits once patrolled the summer collections, there are now SAS-style uniforms; where flimsy tea-party dresses held sway, there are A-line shapes inspired by tent designs."

Frank's rather alarming forecast for spring/summer trends.

"It's indigenous to an urban way of life, and like any tribal colour it has meaning behind it. It's secure and safe and represents a creative canvas open to imagination and expression. When I see someone wearing black, especially in a city, I recognise them as one of my own."

Donna Karan on her favourite colour, Scene

"I felt very isolated at first. A lot of white Americans would say, `Oh, you must be mixed with white.' Needless to say I am all Somalian and I don't look any different from any other Somali girl. Then African- Americans also had this gripe about me because they didn't think I looked African enough and I was a token black model. I ended up feeling insulted by both."

Supermodel Iman to fellow African model Alek Wek about making it in America, Scene

"The most important details, agency bookers say, are a sharply defined nose and a full, sculpted-looking upper lip. It is at the inverted T-shape formed by these features that they look first. If the nose is `blobby' ... or the upper lip is too thin, then it's hasta la vista, baby, no matter how gorgeous the rest.

ES magazine on the science of potential model-spotting

"Each time I see the October cover I cringe. Our culture is going through a real trashy spell."

A letter to W on a cover featuring a model in knickers

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