HERE'S the million dollar question. If you could save one prize possession from a burning building, would it be your Damien Hirst art work, Philippe Starck chair or Gucci crystal-encrusted kitten heels? Our advice is to grab the Guccis (so much more portable). Contemporary fashion is now as collectable as fine art and design. For design snobs, art and architecture are the President and First Lady of twentieth-century culture and fashion the Monica Lewinsky. Fashion is a perishable, ephemeral commodity; a designer collection lives and dies in a season and is chronicled by magazines and MTV. But it's the very accessibility of fashion that makes it so appealing to the new generation of Nineties collector.
Nobody expects to find a discarded Mondrian painting from the New York series in a second-hand shop on the King's Road. But there is every possibility that a fashion collector will find Yves Saint Laurent's 1965 Mondrian dress in the London fashion treasure house Steinberg & Tolkein.
"There are two schools of thought: collect to wear and collect as art, to look at," says Christie's creative director Meredith Etherington-Smith. Once fabric touches flesh, a fashion piece will start to erode. The museums preserve antique couture in acid-free paper and a carefully-controlled temperature. But the new breed of collector would equate this with locking a masterpiece in a safe. US Vogue's Hamish Bowles, an avid collector of Balenciaga, was wont to wear the master's Fifties ballgowns at London club Kinky Gerlinky in the Eighties. Etherington-Smith also collects to wear - until a piece becomes too fragile, when she donates it to the Costume Institute of New York's Metropolitan Museum.
But fashion is also being collected by a generation who aren't even aware of its history. "When fashion became international showbusiness in the Eighties, it attracted a huge new fashion-literate audience," says Etherington- Smith. "Young collectors can still buy good pieces from Christie's South Kensington for relatively little money". But auctions are really for die- hard fashion epicures. A visionary looking for millennial collectables has to focus on the here and now: the high street. History is as fickle as fashion, but you can make educated guesses about future show pieces. Gucci will continue when head designer Tom Ford has gone, but the designer has made this label eminently collectable. With Ford at the driving seat, Gucci has transformed from a vintage car to the latest BMW 3 series. Now is prime time to buy. This season, the key piece is Gucci's crystal kitten heel. It is featured in the ad campaign which makes the image internationally recognised and easy to date; and at pounds 680, it is priced safely out of ubiquitous status. Gucci's ruby-encrusted bikini will also be significant because the face of the Nineties, Kate Moss, modelled it on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. Very few women will pay pounds 1,250 for an itsy-bitsy bikini, thus ensuring its rarity value, and the piece features Gucci's '98 signature leather hipster strap and logo.
Hype is the enemy of the collector. Fashion editors may have spoken too soon about "New Kids" Antonio Berardi, Matthew Williamson and Julien Macdonald. It's a lottery as to who will survive. You have to sift through the sequins and look for staying power. Andrew Groves has three things in his favour as a future mega-name: he cuts cloth exquisitely, his last collection "Ourselves Alone" was genius and the British Fashion Council refused him a slot at last season's London Fashion Week - always an indication of anti-establishment kudos.
Stephen Sprouse is a name fashion's trainspotters will remember from the Eighties. His new, comeback collection of Andy Warhol silk screen printed dresses at Browns Focus have "cult item" stitched into every seam. Design duo Pearce Fionda are worth watching too: younger, hipper designers have eclipsed them temporarily, but their autumn/winter collection for '98 is practically couture quality. The smart money is also on Alexander McQueen menswear. There's not much of it but that will increase its appeal compared to the avalanche of Givenchy merchandise McQueen currently designs.
Second-hand buying is a separate proposition altogether. The chances of picking-up a piece of Twenties Chanel for pounds 5, as Etherington-Smith did in 1962, are slim. But that's not the point if you're collecting for tomorrow. Steinberg & Tolkein heaves under the weight of original Chanel, Balenciaga, Courreges, Halston and Yves Saint Laurent. Owner Mark Steinberg calls it a "hands-on museum where the exhibits are not behind glass". This month Steinberg made a list of the contemporary names who would join his Hall of Fame. "John Galliano is a given. McQueen, Stella McCartney, Manolo Blahnik and Philip Treacy definites. But mark my words, the Lulu Guinness bag is the one to watch. She's big in Japan. International recognition is vital. Stateside, they think Dolce e Gabbana is a cleaning fluid whereas Versace is a household name - although the sheer quantity of Versace merchandise may mean that only the couture remains truly collectable."
Couture, of course, is usually out of the reach of the new generation of collectors (we're talking pounds 35,000 for a Galliano dress). But the international stamp of approval can translate to street style. Jeans labels Evisu and G-Star will pin-point the late Nineties fashion moment. This season, the cult label is Carhartt. In the States, it's still sold in hardware stores and bought as workwear. In London, however, it is the only tag to flaunt on your butt. Carhartts cost pounds 42 today but tomorrow, who knows? In 2008 a vintage pair with the signature belt (a mere pounds 10) could match the four- figure sum old Levi's are fetching at auction today.
Scene editor Deborah Bee advises, "You look to exclusivity and limited- edition pieces if you're forecasting. That doesn't have to mean couture. Street labels say more about Nineties fashion anyway." Instant classics include Japanese cult label Hysteric Glamour's limited-edition skate board (one of three in the UK) and their fleece cushion. Fleece says 1998. So does Hysteric Glamour. So you multiply the cultural cache by two. Likewise, Reebok's "Jackie Chan" trainers have already doubled in value to pounds 300. Proud owner Mandi Lennard admits, "I'm not even going to wear them. The packaging will be as valuable as the trainer." Nike are overexposed. Acupuncture, however, are very London and very exclusive; particularly their Union Jack-emblazoned "Mad Jack" trainer. We may be sick of "Cool Britannia" but you can be sure that the phrase and its symbols will pass into the history books - and the V&A's collection.
1. STEPHEN SPROUSE pink and blue A-line Warhol print dress (pounds 375), exclusively at Browns Focus, 38-39 South Molton Street, London Wl, 0171 629 0666.
2. ANDREW GROVES black wool jacket (pounds 365) and pencil skirt (pounds 235) from Koh Samui, 65 Monmouth St, London WC2, 0171 240 4280. ALEXANDER MCQUEEN Menswear mesh tattoo top (pounds l15) from Brown's Men's Shop, 23-27 South Molton St, London Wl, 0171 514 0037. GUCCI crystal kitten heels (pounds 680) from Gucci, 18 Soane Street, London SWI, 0171 235 6707.
3. GUCCI ruby-beaded bikini (pounds 1250) from Gucci (as before).
4. JOHN ROCHA claret satin slip dress (pounds 247) worn under hand-painted organza sheath (pounds 470) from Liberty, 210-221 Regent St, London Wl, 0171 734 1234.
5. PEARCE FIONDA chocolate arid cream silk drape column dress (pounds 850), from Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1, 0171 629 1234. GUCCI bronze satin beaded kitten heels (pounds 650), from Gucci, as before.
6. MAHARISHI camouflage record bag (pounds 160), from Browns Focus, as before. EVISU women's classic jeans (pounds l20), from Selfridges, as before. CARHARTT belts (pounds 10), from Carhartt, 56 Neil Street, London WC2, 0171 836 5659. HYSTERIC GLAMOUR skateboard, to order; enquiries 0171 224 2656.
7. `Jackie Chan' REEBOKS (pounds 300), limited edition, sold out.
8. CARHARTT denim workpants (pounds 45), from Carhartt (as before). GUCCI black sheer knickers with diamante G (pounds 80), from Gucci, as beforeReuse content