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London Boat Show: Fashion - Marine inspired fashion goes major

LOOK COOL, stay warm. And dry. One of the buzz words in fashion has, for some time now, been functionality and sailing clothes have been at the forefront of that trend, which has also seen sports clothes move from specialist shops and outlets to the rails of the high street majors.

It was British designers who took the European catwalks by storm and now, as the function angle begins to be picked up in Europe, so are British manufacturers like Henri Lloyd, Musto and Douglas Gill have been finding a ready market for clothes born out of a marine background. Nor, for once, is their any bleating about exports being rocked by the high exchange rate value of the pound. Daniel White, of Henri Lloyd, and Nigel Musto agree when they say that price and the pound are not the defining factors, but style and quality.

Musto also points to the integrity of the clothes on offer. "You cannot design and innovate new sports clothes from behind a desk," says Musto, who took to the sharp end in 1998 by completing, with Andy Hindley the two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race in a 60-footer.

And this means, much more quickly than in motor racing or much more relevantly than buying an off-road vehicle, that the technical developments for specialist applications filter down to the average user much more quickly.

One of those is in the choice of fabrics, where materials that both breathe, so reducing condensation on the inside, but which also keep the water out are in much more general use. "These fabrics are now beginning to have a much greater impact on a market where not only is there a lot of repeat business, but a tendency to replace a much-loved jacket with the same again," says White. "But these new materials are now coming in at mid-price and we hope people will begin to choose the new thing. But, as the Italians say, every year is a new painting, it's a real roller coaster out there. Hit it right and you are the golden boy; hit it wrong and you are history." He also knows he is, to some extent, in competition with other sports who want to persuade non-participants to buy their clothes and so look part of the scene.

As Musto points out, however, the clothes he is producing have to perform in the environment for which they are designed. The same clothes which must keep you warm when sitting doing nothing and dry when great dollops of water are being thrown over the bow of a yacht have also to allow you to work hard and unfettered. The trick has been to find the path between the bulk which would normally be associated with the first two and the light freedom preferable for the second.

For Musto that has meant incorporating some of the techniques developed for ocean racing into clothes for inshore racing. And those include making a smock, with seals at neck and wrists, instead of jackets, which needed all sorts of flaps and closures to keep those nasty rivulets of water trickling down the back of the neck. Gill, too, have produced a similar garment after using the American Whitbread Race entry Chessie Racing as a test bed.

That racing heritage continues for Musto with the launch at the Boat Show of the Pete Goss range. The link goes further than just clothes as Musto are major sponsors of Goss's entry in The Race, a no holds barred, non-stop dash around the world in boats of unlimited size and design and scheduled to start on 31 December 2000.

And Gill continues to back and provide the clothes for Britain's Olympic squad. All of which, says Liz Rushall, helps to reinforce the credibility of those clothes to High Street buyers. As she says, even someone walking the dog in the park wants to know that the technical features which led them to choose the clothes in the first place are genuine.

But there is still a steady market for a good set of oilies, trousers and jacket, with safety features that are not just harnesses, but colours and reflective patches that mean you should first stay aboard but second be more visible in the water if you go overboard. But for those who want really high fashion there is always Prada.