Denim comes of age this season. British designers are breathing new life into a classic fabric, expanding the boundaries of the possible in the best traditions of British fashion design.

So Katharine Hamnett gives a new twist to the hard-wearing cloth once considered the epitome of rugged masculinity by reworking it in baby pink. John Richmond replaces the fly buttons on his Destroy jeans with lacing and injects a strong dose of Seventies flare. And Helen Storey produces two-in-one jeans - a patchwork of denim in front stitched to leather-look stretch satin for the behind.

The best thing about this trend is that it makes designer clothes affordable. As Hamnett puts it: 'Denim is certainly the cheapest way you can do fashion - and it's great for clothes to be cheap.'

Quite so, particularly at a time when designers are under pressure to justify their very existence. 'Designer' denim is the British designers' response to a Nineties generation that treats high-priced clothing with suspicion.

The beauty of denim is its durability. Denim positively improves with age and regular washing as the fabric softens and moulds to the body. A well-made pair of jeans can comfortably last a decade. Second-hand clothing shops on both sides of the Atlantic do big business in vin-

tage Levi's jeans from the Sixties and Seventies.

Most designers have worked with denim at some stage in their careers. The first designer jeans boom is usually reckoned to have begun in 1977. For five years, the young and the not-so-young enthusiastically squeezed into any pair of jeans with a designer label. In truth, many of the original labels were launched by celebrities rather than fashion designers: Gloria Vanderbilt, the American socialite; Vidal Sassoon, the hairdresser; even Joan Collins in her pre- Dynasty days.

None of these collections had quite the impact, however, of Calvin Klein's designer denim line, famously launched in the United States by a pre-pubescent Brooke Shields mouthing in a prime-time commercial break: 'Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.'

At the core of the original boom were well-made women's jeans in stretch fabrics. The new wave of denim fashion puts a similar emphasis on stretch. Although many women will always prefer wearing baggy men's jeans cinched in with a belt, the priority this year in fashion terms is very much fit - jeans, waistcoats and jackets that hug the contours of the body and leave nothing to the imagination.

The big difference between then and now is in the variety of denim garments on the market. The designers have to be rather more imaginative in 1993 because fewer people these days are automatically impressed by a name for a name's sake.

Storey likes to do the unpredictable with fabrics. 'Denim is exceptionally versatile. You can rework it any way you want.' She used denim in her first collection of A-line smocks and flares back in 1984, and believes the fabric has overcome its functional-workwear connotations. The point is best illustrated in her new collection, which includes denim shirts containing a new fibre called Tencel. The fabric is a veritable cashmere of denim - super-soft to the touch and, says Storey, just right for evening wear.

She says she will not necessarily include denim in all her collections henceforth, but both Hamnett and Richmond have adopted denim clothing as integral parts of their


The former pioneered the way in the mid-Eighties: washing, dyeing, printing, ripping and stretching denim, utilising all sorts of innovative techniques for which she has not received sufficient credit. Richmond is a relative newcomer, introducing denim last year in his lower-priced Destroy collection. The new collection includes full denim skirts and fitted jackets, and denim details such as patch pockets and hems on stretch jersey dresses.

Richmond calls denim 'the most universal fabric of all, breaking all class, creed and age boundaries'. The way forward, he believes, is for designers to treat denim as a versatile fashion fabric rather than as a traditional jeans fabric. 'It is no longer limited by pre-determined boundaries.' Which sums up the attitude of all three designers. In 1993, denim goes with everything.

(Photograph omitted)