There is a scene in the classic 1960s film The Graduate in which a well-meaning family friend takes Dustin Hoffman's character aside at a cocktail party to tell him, with much gravity, that, "There's a great future in plastics." The exchange – and especially Hoffman's ill-disguised recoil – may well resonate with those who watched high-end designers march their model cohorts down the spring catwalks in an armoury of plastic pieces.
Perennial leader of the pack Miuccia Prada made the boldest statement with her use of polymeric materials, reworking handbags and shoes in transparent Plexiglas strung with crystals, and even treating her girls to a set of clear-plastic fake nails.
Elsewhere, designers either erred on the side of caution with Perspex bangles and heels (Burberry, Fendi, Michael Kors) or went all out: the never knowingly understated Donatella Versace layered printed plastic micro-minis and shifts over skimpy bikinis.
Presented amid a full camp-fire set-up, meanwhile, DSquared's "Glamping" collection was an unabashed riot of plasticised dresses, hot pants and studded PVC rain-hoods which proved that "waterproof" is by no means synonymous with "practical". Typically tongue-in-cheek, it managed to have a nice bit of sport with the two dominant, and dim, views of plastic in fashion – either pedestrian or soft porn.
But spring 2010 seems to be a season for rewriting the rule book. After all, if double-denim can be successfully rescued from the bowels of bad-taste hell, why not plastics? In many ways, it would seem an apposite moment. It's worth remembering that it was in Depression-era America that the commercial use of plastics really took off and they began to be seen not only as a means to drive costs down while upping the scale and efficiency of production, but also as desirable and modern materials in their own right.
However, the hefty price tags attached to the aforementioned catwalk pieces (Fendi's tulle-and-Perspex skyscraper heels come at a whopping £920, for instance) quickly dispel any notional links between plastic and democratic design. Perhaps, though, this is the point – our negative perceptions of plastic stem, after all, from the irresponsible way in which it has since been marketed as a cheap and cheerful resource for making ultra-disposable everyday items; the landfill of tomorrow.
Seen in the arena of luxe fashion, however, we are reminded of the material's potential nobility. Prada's "chandelier" shoes are really rather beautiful, at once romantic and modern, and the transparent handbags bring a little humour to the mix. Add to that the mindless – but possibly, in this case, useful – designer-seal-of-approval effect, and suddenly plastics are commanding a little more respect. Those Fendi sandals are unlikely to be languishing on a rubbish tip any time soon. Which, as products derived largely from oil, is exactly as it should be.
Interestingly, off the catwalk, the use of plastics is more discreet. You'd be hard pressed to have deduced that the pretty floral pieces from high-street chain H&M's recent Garden Collection were made with polyester derived from old plastic bottles. But both are sides of the same coin when it comes to our ongoing relationship with the synthetic stuff – if we are going to use it, it had better be for something that's beautiful, useful and durable enough for keeps. And if it's not, recyclage is going to have to be the new black. Perhaps there really could be a great future in plastics, then. Are you listening, Dustin?