Why your old classics could be fashion's future

In the hands of today's designers, wardrobe staples like the trench, the loafer and the blazer are getting a radical 21st-century makeover. Iain R Webb reports

All the recent noise in the press has been about the antics of the neon-bright young things on the Hoxton club scene, in London. However, a more subtle shift has also been at work in fashion -and, while not as instantly headline-grabbing, this trend promises to have a more lasting effect.

In an effort to move fashion forward, designers from both the establishment and the avant-garde are looking again to the classics for inspiration, revisiting, re-examining and reworking iconic imagery with an almost fetishistic fervour. In design studios around the globe, precious items of clothing and accessories are being ripped apart and reassembled to produce a host of new hybrid styles, such as the jodhpur jeans seen at Balenciaga and Tod's, or the jersey motorcycle jacket with the ease of a cardigan at Junya Watanabe.

Often jarring on the eye at first sighting - Bernhard Willhelm's two-tone chain bootie is like some weird cartoon parody of a Chanel pump - such designs encourage a new way of looking at things.

"Fashion lives by putting classics in a different light or context," says Willhelm, who explains that the concept of "Coco on Acid" inspired his new design. "Let's not be sentimental about iconic pieces. We love to mess things up."

Sometimes, it is simply the way in which the clothes are put together or styled in an unpredictable combination. "Fashion is just as much about recontextualising things as about creating new cuts in an individual garment," explains Karen Walker, the New Zealand-based designer who shows her collections in New York. "The new ideas now are often in recontextualisation, just as musicians create new music by sampling something old in a surprising environment. It's about surprise and seeing new possibilities for existing items."

In Walker's autumn/winter 2007/8 catwalk show, that can mean a Lurex army-issue sweater with de rigueur epaulettes that is decorated with prim party frills (this look also comes elongated as a dress), or a sober black cocktail dress that sprouts eccentric-looking, luminescent angel-wing sleeves, accessorised with heavy Dr Martens-style boots. "Our work has always been about throwing opposites together," she says, as if to explain another outfit that mixes an electric-blue anorak with a classic camel knit and print silk trousers tucked into those same tough boots.

"One of the main things I continue to do with all of my collections is to play with opposites," says Paul Smith. "I love a black tuxedo suit, but with a cable-knit polo neck." Another of Smith's grey schoolboy-style sweaters (intended for girls) gets a pearl-encrusted collar, while in his men's collection, black leather motorcycle jackets are worn with creamy silk opera scarves.

These kind of seemingly random juxtapositions have long been the stuff of counter-culture, be it the Dada idea of taking the mundane, placing it in an unlikely setting (a gallery) and renaming it Art (Marcel Duchamp's urinal, for example), or the writer William Burroughs' brand of cut-up literature (where sentences are literally cut up and haphazardly repositioned).

For the Danish-born designer Jens Laugesen, the essence of modern design comes from grafting together something established and well known with something unexpected. He calls this Hybrid Reconstruction. "I love the design process of analysing by deconstruction and then reassembling the fragments by a process of morphing. Everything has kind of been made in fashion and art, and today, the good designer or artist is more about reinterpreting known generic items or ideas in a personal way. I love doing hybrids, half this and half that."

A perfect example of this technique is a slice-cut tuxedo jacket that Laugesen showed for spring /summer 2005, inspired by a film he made with the photographer Nick Knight, depicting "a model spinning around, fragmented by the pixel winds". He says: "I found the film very inspiring and it still influences my work."

In his latest collection, Laugesen spliced together two little black dresses down the side seams: from the front, the model appeared to be wearing a swingy strapless baby-doll dress, while from the back she revealed a tight-fitting corset dress.

"I realised that underneath this cocktail dress there is inevitably a structure of construction, remaining from an earlier period," he says. "I love corsets because they are genius pieces of construction and architecture, reminding us about where, culturally, we come from."

Never having been the kind of designer who floats from one inspiration to another, Laugesen has a more thoughtful methodology that embraces the slow-burn evolution of honing a signature look to create your own vocabulary of new classics. "By staying true to my design philosophy, I'm doing something a bit more important than just selling frocks," he says. "Fashion for me was never about the rag trade, but more an industry where you can express your ideas on a mass-consumable scale."

"The essence of modern design is the ability to combine traditional craftsmanship, high quality and functionality," says Diego Della Valle, the man behind the Tod's label, highlighting one of the crucial elements inherent in any design classic: function. Della Valle acknowledges that this same hybrid approach has been instrumental in the development of his brand. "In the 1970s, I saw the driving shoe made exclusively for racing drivers, and the deck shoe made exclusively for sailing, and I wanted to make them available and adaptable for everyday wear and, indeed, eveningwear."

The resulting hybrid loafer, with its 133 rubber pebbles on the sole, is now a classic in its own right; there is even a deluxe version cut in satin. Della Valle notes that consumer choice is now key, and agrees with Walker that how they are worn together is as important as the actual clothes themselves. The Tod's ready-to-wear line, he explains, was born from this sensibility. "We create beautiful 'iconic pieces', as opposed to 'a collection' - a coat, a cashmere sweater, a glove-soft leather jacket - that can be worn by the individual in a unique way."

For Karen Walker, "a classic is something that works every time, no matter what other stuff is going on around it, it still works. Classics always transcend fashion." Hence much of the inspiration for modern classics is appropriated from menswear, which tends to be less trend-led and faddish. Often there is a link with the military that again highlights functionality.

"My current women's collection has a strong influence from my men's clothes," explains Paul Smith. "I love the idea of mixing your boyfriend's or grandfather's jackets, overcoats and especially knitwear with feminine pieces you already have in your wardrobe." On Smith's catwalk, a man's pique bib-front shirt becomes a dress, and schoolboy shorts are teamed with an officer's mess jacket as alternative eveningwear.

"I always return to the black tuxedo jacket, the white tuxedo shirt, the straight-cut men's trouser, the tank top and the T-shirt," says Laugesen, "but over the last couple of seasons, this vocabulary has extended to also include specific female designs such as the corset, the cocktail dress and the tutu."

The trench coat is one of the most coveted all-time classics, an article of clothing synonymous with the Burberry label. Designer Christopher Bailey's phenomenal resurrection of the brand has been well documented. "The approach I take to make Burberry relevant today is to respect the history but not restrict it," he says.

Bailey believes that, right now, there are two opposing forces informing fashion: the fast-lane future of high-speed communications, and the romanticised idealism of the past. Could it be a fear of the unknown that has prompted designers to rediscover the classics?

"Familiarity is comforting, the past as a kind of security blanket," says Bailey. "Roots are important - with everyone flying about, you need something with real meaning."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
All British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

    £30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

    Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

    £40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

    £30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

    Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

    £35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game