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Junya Watanabe: A delicate subject

He is not the only designer to use lace this spring – but his modern take defies expectations, says Susannah Frankel

The fact that haute couture – from fabric and trim to fabrication – is the single most prevalent reference of the spring season might seem somewhat perverse given the economic climate. This, after all, is fashion at its most elevated – and, it almost goes without saying, expensive – for which each and every garment is hand-cut, sewn, embroidered, over-embroidered then hand-fitted to suit madam's every curve.

The simplest piece may cost upwards of £10,000. For more elaborate designs, meanwhile, the sky's the limit. And who, in their right mind, and in this day and age, is prepared to invest in that? On the other hand, one might not unreasonably argue that, given the circumstances, such attention to detail is just the thing the discerning fashion follower is looking for: garments that can be worn and loved season after season, year in year out, and then passed down to a daughter or grand-daughter like a fashion heirloom.

Haute couture equals quality, the story goes, and there is no arguing with that, which is why, presumably, so many ready-to-wear designers have turned to it for inspiration. Despite the fact that their fashions are for the most part machine-made, the spirit of hand-craftsmanship has been reinvigorated and, in at least some cases, the finishing touches executed by hand.

Junya Watanabe's treatment of lace – the most classic and resonant of all the haute couture fabrics – is far from predictable or banal. Lace, of course, carries with it a symbolism that is unparalleled – lace for christenings, lace for weddings, funereal black lace. It is an important addition, then, to any woman's wardrobe and even life.

Conventionally, however, lace is frilled and stereotypically feminine, sewn in delicate pale colours and fit for a fairytale princess. Watanabe is not one for conservative treatments of heritage clothing. In fact, if there is a single unifying feature to his brilliantly diverse body of work it is his combination of a profound respect for timeless fashions coupled with an inventiveness, imagination and technical expertise that is second to none.

The designer has in the past applied this to everything from tartans, tweeds and bouclé wool – another haute couture stalwart, incidentally, thanks to Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel. He has worked frequently with denim – patch-worked, fused with vibrant African inspired prints – and collaborated with Levi's, in the first instance, to make jeans under a joint imprint and now under his own name.

In Watanabe's hands, the trench coat becomes a thing of great beauty and any trace of fustiness is overthrown. As for Savile Row inspired suiting... Suffice it to say that Watanabe is probably the most inspiring tailor of the ear – particularly where taking menswear and adapting it to fit the female form is concerned.

Watanabe's lace dresses are cut in the type of slightly stiffened and proudly acrylic threads that is also an integral part of his handwriting, and that would doubtless make the lacemakers at Chantilly, say, drop their thimbles in horror. For the most part following a sportswear-inspired line, with not a flounce or furbelow to be seen, in some instances black opaque panels and more intricate patterns make an appearance, although there is nothing trussed-up or old-fashioned to be seen.

This is lace, then, that retains all the sweet romance of the original but with a freshness and ease that is all new. It has also been vibrantly recoloured: there's not a cliched Miss Havisham shade of ivory or cream to be seen. Instead, choose from gunmetal grey, leaf green and rose and, pictured here, very slightly hyped-up violet, lilac and candyfloss.

The woman who wears these clothes won't be accessorising her lace dress with talon heels. That would be too obvious – too jolie madame – by far. Watanabe's signature take on footwear is, almost invariably, studiously heavy and flat, and this season's robust handling of the archetypal schoolgirl Mary Jane is no exception. Under-cutting any trace of woman as trophy still further, meanwhile, the powers that be at Junya Watanabe insist that all dresses be photographed with accompanying and decidedly demure cotton slips worn beneath them. No flashing of flesh required.

While other designers' takes on lace have been less extreme, and simpler to boot, Miuccia Prada's ultra-cute A-line dresses for Miu Miu are similarly stiff – even stiffer – and cast in strong block hues not normally associated with the fabric – plum and tomato layered over pale yellow and beige included. For Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs' lace designs are more retro in their unabashed pastel coloured prettiness and the attention to embroideries and finish are nothing short of extraordinary. Given that this remains the wealthiest designer brand of the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) stable, Jacobs has all the skills of the Paris ateliers which execute haute couture proper at his fingertips and that shows.

There is, by contrast, a slightly distressed look to Peter Copping's patch-worked treatment of lace at Nina Ricci, which embraces the haute couture tradition wholeheartedly while subtly subverting it. Finally, the great Roman couturier, Valentino Garavani, was always a lace lover par excellence and throughout his long and grand career was known for his relatively restrained handling of this delicately beautiful material. His successors – Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri – are similarly enamoured but there is a clean-cut modernity to their no-frills variation on an age-old theme that will suit a younger customer in search of some of the most exclusive ready-to-wear available down to the ground.