Forget mis-shapen vegetables: everything from shampoo to shirts is now being described as organic. CAYTE WILLIAMS reports
If you thought that organic just meant knobbly vegetables, then think again. The O-word has become common in fashion, beauty, interior design and architecture. And it's creeping into everyday speech like lab genes into a GM apple.

Social commentator, Peter York, definitely thinks it's linked with fin- de-siecle angst. "It is a fashionable word to use," he explains, "and all that swirly-whirly, art-as-nature stuff is counter-metropolitan. If you look at the end of the 19th century it's there in Art Nouveau."

Ghost, the fashion label, has subtitled its Autumn/Winter 1999/00 collection Organic Retro; Shelley Fox, winner of the Jerwood fashion prize, attributes "an organic feel" to her frocks; product designer Michael Sodeau, who originally made his name in blow-up plastics with the company Inflate, has moved onto organic forms for the wholefood home; young blade architects Future Systems work with "organic" forms, and The Hempel hotel in London - that temple of pretension - is apparently "organic like a living being". Even Organics shampoo and conditioner is getting an au naturel makeover, presumably to cash in on the O-word buzz.

Architecture's been using the term for years to describe buildings which look like half-eaten potatoes. "For me it means anything that is not a geometrically known shape like a circle or a square," explains Future Systems partner, Amanda Levete, who co-designed the curvaceous and earthy Media Centre which opens next month at Lords' Cricket Ground.

Patagonia, the eco-friendly sportswear label loved by supermodels like Erin O'Connor, have introduced a range of organic blue jeans while the Designers Guild describe their latest unbleached linen range as "natural, antique, organic."

The O-word appeals to all those ladies in W11 who shop in Planet Organic or pop into The Organic Cafe for a cuppa.

"I suppose I like to think that the kind of woman who buys Ghost would eat organic food, but it's deeper than that," says Tanya Sarne, creative director and founder of Ghost and the inventor of "organic retro".

The meaning of organic has gone beyond tasty food and anything pod-shaped, and now it's a free-for-all with words like "philosophy" thrown in for good measure. "Organic means almost a philosophy now, as opposed to a food which is grown naturally," explains Sarne. "It's about natural evolution, natural progression. The Autumn/ Winter collection is organic in the sense that it is modern and natural. The clothes are influenced by Victoriana, but the fabrics allow the body to breathe which they didn't in Victorian times."

Meanwhile Shelley Fox defines organic as something which starts out as one thing and develops into something else. "I've designed a pod skirt which falls around the body like a circle full of water so that parts of it drop lower than others and it looks different on each person," says the designer who scorches felt wool and burns cotton bandaging to great effect. Ditch that tailored two-piece: it's the sartorial equivalent of a dodgy soya bean.

Fox's clothes would go down a storm at The Hempel. The hotel which prides itself on its ambience is apparently one big organic being. "We describe it as having an organic atmosphere," says The Hempel's general manager Henry Chebaane.

"The architecture is organic. It's made from five connected Georgian buildings. In its centre is an atrium which is the beating heart of the hotel and channels the energy and light throughout the building. It is like a living organism."

It's a wonder that people come out alive. So why are we lapping up organic? Perhaps in an age of unease about genetically modified foods, organic means something you can trust. Or perhaps it represents a need for all things natural in this hi-tech age.

Perhaps Shelley Fox has the most compelling explanation. "I think it is quite a subversive word," she says. "Everything, especially in fashion, is so slick and well-marketed. People want something a bit more natural and individual."

Cynics on the other hand may say that "organic" is just the latest in marketing buzzwords, guaranteed to send punters flocking to the tills. If our tomatoes must have fish genes, we'll make as sure as hell our clothes, pots, shampoo and hotel rooms are pure as the driven snow. Or at least, so we'd like to believe.