Slacker chic: Why grunge is the trend that refuses to die

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The 1990s are taking over the catwalks again with elegant updates of the functional, minimalist street style embodied by grunge and the Riot Grrrls. And unlike the short-lived 1980s revival, this one looks set to last, says Harriet Walker

Can a moment happen twice? Fashion is certainly adept at repeating itself; it's a clever way of keeping the young 'uns interested without alienating the oldies. Though with trends from the catwalk now taking hold on the high street almost instantly, and always vigorously, you could be forgiven for thinking that there's no such thing as a "moment" any more. There can't be in a cultural climate where the style press tout shoulder pads as the next big thing one minute, and reviles them two weeks later when some character on the deeply unfashionable Emmerdale dons a pair.

That's why the smart money – indeed, the chic money – has begun to concentrate on the slow-burners. The spring trends for utility, minimalism and romance have long been in the offing and, when they subside, it won't be to the extent that you daren't even admit you ever bought into them.

The 1990s revival is gentler than the 1980s counterpart we saw a few seasons ago. Perhaps it's because 1990s clothes were less aggressive; the catty might even call them a bit "blah". But they would be wrong.

The spring collections all referenced the decade, and were full of softly structured tailoring, denim, purism, grunge and luxuriously utilitarian sportswear (that's fashion sportswear, not a Kappa tracksuit – some things are beyond reviving). And the mood continued at the autumn shows last month. It-boy Henry Holland, who has already been inspired by 1990s teen melodrama Beverly Hills, 90210, took none other than the plaid shirt-wearing Clare Danes in the cult series My So-Called Life as his muse. You couldn't get more 1990s if you had a party and invited only Nirvana, John Major and Helena Christensen.

It is a lack of conspicuous bad taste that gives the 1990s a reputation for dullness; the 1980s were shot through with it, which may have made the look more memorable and exciting, but is also why the trend hasn't really lasted second time round. Fashions that endure tend to be classic in some way, and the 1980s were too extroverted. It's easy to come up with dozens of power dressers and New Romantics that you wouldn't want to look like, but much harder to name their 1990s counterparts. Fine, Kriss Kross – but then not many people wanted to dress like them at the time, either.

Big labels such as Jil Sander, Prada and Armani created an enduring aesthetic on the catwalks, but movements and scenes such as grunge, street style, Riot Grrrl and Seattle sound influenced the 1990s in a much bigger way. And they're still relevant. They are the modes of dress that people embraced the last time the economy went to pot, and they continue to resonate.

One of the landmark collections in the evolution of 1990s style was the one that got Marc Jacobs fired. His spring/ summer 1993 show for American lifestyle brand Perry Ellis is known now as one of the seminal moment in 1990s fashion, if not modern fashion more generally. He took a fashion label better known for its blazers, chinos and loungewear and dressed models in skullcaps, plaid shirts and distressed denim. It now seems prescient; any one of them could be nipping out for milk in 21st-century Shore-ditch or enjoying a gig in Williamsburg, 2010. The functional slouch of loose knits, faded motif T-shirts and sloppy shirts thrown over ensembles is a perfect look for living in. It may not be a flamboyant Thierry Mugler-esque number, but who needs that at the supermarket?

The essentials of 1990s style – mannish blazers and trousers paired with fitted and more feminine pieces – have never really gone away. In a celebrity-driven market, fashion has given us body-con cocktail dresses and bare legs in winter, ' but the woman on the street rather than in the limo never strayed too far from her jeans.

London label Preen used plaid shirts in its autumn 2001 show, paired with simple but new-line jodhpur-esque tweed trousers; Helmut Lang, although better known as a minimalist or a deconstructionalist, also knew the power of androgynous black trousers and a slouchy tank. His spring 2003 collection is remarkably contemporary in a way that many more Zeitgeist-driven brands are not.

Plaid and lumberjack shirts, as worn near-religiously by grunge music scene figureheads such as Nirvana and Sleater-Kinney, were deliberately low-rent when styled as part of a nonchalant and capacious, layered look. Recently, the look was reinvented for the uptown set in pussybow blouses and smocked dresses for autumn 2008 by Luella Bartley, and pin-tucked girlish sundresses for spring 2009 by Parisian designer Isabel Marant.

Marc Jacobs referenced that Perry Ellis collection for autumn 2006, in both his mainline show and his Marc by Marc Jacobs diffusion line. In each, the look was tidy and well put together, but in a loose, unpremeditated and casual way. It was art student, rather than Lollapalooza.

The new version was heralded in the glossies as "glunge" – glam grunge. The fashion press may like a new word as much as dictionary compilers do, but fashion fans also like a tried-and-tested way of looking good while dressing down. Purveyeors of modern grunge include Rick Owens – whose gothic take gave it a new sleekness, with an elongated silhouette and more fitted styles – and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, whose collection was all rock with none of the grot. Hole frontwoman and 1990s icon Courtney Love testified in an interview that her signature coiffure was achieved simply by accidentally burning off various strands while lighting cigarettes. Today's grunge girl has shiny, rich hair but artfully musses it, no lighter fuel in sight.

Alexander Wang perfectly captured the vibe with his autumn 2008 collection of denim, oversized vests and beanie hats. It was Seattle all over again, but it took on a more bourgeois air – perfectly reinventing a look that had supposedly had its moment over a decade ago. Similarly, London duo Meadham Kirchhoff showed floaty dresses for spring/summer 2010, worn with low-maintenance hair and stompy boots. It was Bikini Kill all grown up.

Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back's autumn collection last month, meanwhile, was full of ripped denim, long skirts and crop tops. The 1990s revival continues apace, and part of its strength is that no one has really noticed. You could never say that about the 1980s. n

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