Real people: Rip it up and start again

Forget off-the-peg designs, customising your own clothes is back in fashion. Albert Hill grabs his sewing kit
Just when fashion seemed to be hurtling forward to the future, using hi-tech fabrics and even higher-tech techniques, there's been a cry from the back for a return to the crafts. Alexander McQueen has cited this season's inspiration the William Morris-led Arts and Crafts Movement, the 19th-century brethren who lusted after all things mediaeval.

While no one's suggesting we should go out and swathe ourselves in sackcloth and horsehair, McQueen's comments that "people now yearn for individual, hand-made pieces" reflects a move towards fashion DIY. Cutting, doodling, patchwork, dyeing, embroidering and ripping are all making a comeback. Of course, not everyone has to do it for themselves. Although Kate Moss proved her street credentials by recently wearing a self-slashed shirt, Tom Ford at Gucci is selling his moneyed minions ready-ripped, frayed and feathered jeans, and Paul Smith and Daryl K both showed "deconstructed" and "distressed" denim for their spring/summer collections. Even nightclubs are at it - super-hip London club 333 recently held a "Custom Culture" weekend.

Naturally, it goes against the customising ethic to buy the look pre- packaged. "It's a contradiction in itself," says Fraser Moss of London label You Must Create, "but I suppose if you are rich, lazy and unimaginative you will love it." "It's just big fashion companies jumping on the bandwagon," says JJ, of label Noki, who's been customising for years and sells his creations - mostly cut and torn T-shirts - at hip boutique The Pineal Eye. JJ uses second-hand branded clothes "to confuse and camouflage" the power of the logo. So that an old Nike Air Jordan T-shirt is reworked into a religious-referenced anagram, Ark-Ordained, and a little critique of brand loyalty is born.

Of course, there's nothing inherently new about picking at your clothes. Patches on arms, frantically Biro-ed jeans and school bags disguised under a thousand stickers have been the norm since the Seventies. But now, with fashion long since an off-the-peg mass-market phenomenon, the resurgence of customisation has more than a whiff of independence and rebellion about it. "Ten years ago, you had to shop and create a look for yourself," says Colin White, who customises trainers. "Now you can go somewhere like Urban Outfitters and spend pounds 200 and leave the shop completely ready- styled."

Colin White works on a very small-scale, as each pair of trainers takes about eight hours to customise, and he only takes commissions from Browns Focus, an exclusive London store. Trainers have always been a way of asserting individuality, but now that middle-aged housewives are catching on to urban footwear, the old-school shoes have come back in - and the felt tips or paint brush to "improve" them have come out. Nike, for one, has recognised this shift. Aware that their perceived image as a corporate giant has negatively impacted on its sales, it is now developing a new, low-key sports range.

"I think there's been a shift towards individuality as a reaction against lazy dressing," Fraser Moss observes, "a reaction against a play-safe and sheeplike attitude towards clothes." Clearly, judging by the name of his label, You Must Create, it's a philosophy he endorses.

It's a trend well exemplified by Paris design duo, Bless, who are becoming increasingly infamous for blurring the boundaries between buyer and maker. Earlier examples of their wares include a bag that, with a little helping hand, becomes a pair of trousers, while their most recent footwear offering is a large square of material attached to two Charles Jourdan and two New Balance shoe soles. The piece asks the purchaser to wield their own scissors and cut and stitch the shoes for themselves.

Jeremy Scott, fashion's enfant terrible, played a similar game when he burst onto the scene brandishing three-armed T-shirts. Martin Margiela, considered to be one of fashion's strongest driving forces, has also made experiments into the placing of arm, leg and neckholes. Fashion, it seems, is upping the ante, and asking questions where it once merely answered them.