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."

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