Joe Casely-Hayford has looked into the future and conjured up a soft, romantic vision of spring fashion, concentrating on simplicity of line and hand-crafted detail. Here she is, the new Casely-Hayford woman, pretty as a picture in a long layer of transparent yellow silk, hand-painted with sunflowers, over a long velvet cream dress.

I asked him whether he was inspired by the Seventies revival. 'No, not the Seventies. It's more about the romance of the Thirties and the craftsmanship of an earlier age. I think there is a big backlash against the manufactured look. There's a yearning for a return to simple, beautiful clothes, to traditional values of design. I call it the New Couture.'

Casely-Hayford's new silhouette leads from narrow shoulders, descending to wide, full-cut skirts and trousers. 'They're not flares,' he says, looking down at his own deep blue, wide trousers. 'They're parallels, falling straight from the waist. I'm not too keen on flares, especially at my age.'

He smiles ruefully. In truth, he is a youthful-looking 37, but in the fashion world you feel the passing of the years quickly. Fashion is resolutely young, and more so than ever this spring.

The designer is emerging from a long period of introspection and financial hardship. Last summer, it seemed he had reached the end of the road when cash-flow problems forced his business into receivership. Within months, however, he was making a comeback, albeit unpublicised.

Casely-Hayford was helped most notably by a stream of orders from the music business: he dresses U2, Brand New Heavies, Cathy Dennis and Betty Boo. When Vogue did a rock-fashion special in December, it put U2's Bono on the cover, his arm round a supermodel, and dressed head to toe in Casely-Hayford leather.

Dozens of talented designers, young and not so young, are struggling to make an impact in the dire marketplace of the early Nineties. But Casely-Hayford is special: he is a genuine innovator who sometimes gets it wrong but always has a point worth making.

The British-born son of a Ghanaian lawyer, he is not merely a standard bearer for black designers in Britain, but also a representative of a cross-cultural kind of fashion that matches the mood of the times.

He has consistently made the point that the best of modern fashion design should reflect the cultural and racial mix of contemporary society, or else it becomes sterile and worthless. He calls for greater recognition of the black contribution to fashion design and music in the Western world, arguing persuasively that mainstream white culture has plundered black popular culture since the turn of the century.

All well and good, but Casely- Hayford has no wish to be perceived as a specifically black designer, because he draws his

inspiration from a variety of influences. Witness the soft, romantic Thirties feel of the new collection. He describes his role like this: 'Most designers reflect their own socio-cultural backgrounds. I try to reflect a cross-cultural experience, because I've lived it.'

He is a mix of insider and outsider, of traditionalist and rebel, who comes from a distinguished family. His sister became a lawyer, but he chose to study tailoring. As a young man, he was equally at home visiting his sister at Oxford University and hanging out at heavy reggae clubs in Brixton.

He has never really worked within the mainstream fashion establishment, and he is proud of his non-conformist credentials. But there is another side to him which would like greater recognition from his contemporaries.

These conflicting impulses are illustrated again in the menswear collection he has devised for autumn, using classic country fabrics such as corduroy, moleskin and oilskin, but doing things with them that would mystify the Austin Reed customer.

Maybe it is this tension that keeps the creative juices flowing. Casely-Hayford has been designing his heart out since the early Eighties, when he turned a bulk buy of Second World War army tents into a collection of safari-inspired clothes, pre-dating the 'out of Africa' look. Since then, he has often been a season or two ahead of his peers: he showed the Seventies skinny-rib look on the catwalks two years ago.

In fashion, however, designers who are ahead of their time rarely reap the benefits in financial terms. Instead, they are copied, as Casely-Hayford and some of his British counterparts know to their cost.

Casely-Hayford's strengths as a designer have also contained his weaknesses. His versatility and eagerness to keep experimenting have made him a difficult character to pin down. How can the work of a designer who changes his looks so sharply from season to season be categorised and sold?

He acknowledges the problem, which is why he is now prepared to recycle some of his best-selling

designs; and why he has launched Hayford, a lower-priced collection of menswear, in 40 shops throughout Britain.

If designers are to remain fresh (and young), however, they need to keep moving. Casely-Hayford has gone all soft for spring, but it is anyone's guess how long he will stay that way.

'Designers reflect the times they're living in,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)

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