STYLE POLICE: Conquer your cape fear

So you swore you'd never wear a poncho? Well, you may have to eat your words, says JAMES SHERWOOD
Your past has a habit of catching up on you. Ask Michael Portillo. While attending the Style Police Academy in the early Nineties, we recall a gorgeous young fashion maverick called Columbine Strickland. She was wont to wear purple velvet thigh boots, sari silk shifts and the definitive Mexican bandito fringed poncho. In short, she was doing autumn/winter 99 almost a decade before fashion finally caught up. It was said at the time that Columbine's poncho cum horse blanket wiped the floor with Portobello Market as a local point of interest.

This season, Columbine's poncho rides again. There were variations on the horse blanket, like Michael Kors's camel cashmere wrap and Donna Karan's Nineties Nomad asymmetric capes. Anna Molinari got away from the True Grit poncho with sublime sugar pastel tiny shrugs inspired by Arnold Scaasi's Sixties capes. Xuly Bet and Roberto Cavalli gave us ridiculous rough crochet hippie knits in psychedelic stripes. The poncho, in all its incarnations, demands a double take. The look-no-hands - or arms - shape seems as alien to Nineties eyes as a Geisha girl's bound feet. The shrug, a tiny shoulder- covering mini poncho, looks cute as a baby kitten.

One of the Style Police 10 commandments tells you to wait two seasons before a "difficult" shape goes mainstream. Looking at our files, we recall the rebirth of the shrug last autumn/ winter. This suggests the shrug will be major this season while the poncho may need time to mature.

So is the poncho a no-no this season? Not necessarily. Fashion addicts should always greet a "new" shape like a Valentine's gift from a secret admirer. Fashion throws down the gauntlet and you've got to rise to the challenge. The Seventies slightly flared boot-cut hipster pant didn't look too hot a couple of seasons ago but it will be the trouser shape of 2000. The mini skirt still looks utterly wrong now, but give fashion six months and that old Eighties throw-back will be looking fresher than ever.

The poncho is not Gap Corduroy. We aren't going to see "everyone in ponchos". But the cape shape is fashion's foie gras, not a Big Mac and fries. It isn't for everyone. But if you do go there, Style Police promises a great, problem-solving piece of design. You don't always want to cocoon in a winter coat. The poncho is a streamlined, easy way of covering up without shrouding the entire silhouette in ankle-length cashmere.

How to wear it

"The poncho is only a difficult shape because we've seen nothing like it since the Seventies," says Angela Buttolph, presenter of She's Gotta Have It. "Obviously, space capes in fabrics that look like tarpaulin and completely hide your arms aren't going to work. But Stella McCartney's crochet shrugs for Chloe - which are totally Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm - look cool with a pair of jeans and mid-calf boots. Chloe also showed sequinned Elvis-in-Vegas capes which work with the rock chick feeling this season. I haven't bought my poncho this season but I think it's going to be something sheepskin with exposed seaming."

As a ground rule, you want fairly fitted without being straightjacket tight. Poncho fabrics should be fine tactile knits: mohair, cashmere and angora. Style Police has no truck with all the Peruvian peasant knit patterned ponchos. They are way too literal a take on the trend. People will wonder where you left the mule.

The skirt length for ponchos should be mid-calf and slightly A-line. Short skirts with ponchos are too twee. Long make you look as if you're in purdah. If you're going for decoration, then think fine embroidery and beaded fringe, not crochet that looks as if it's been knitted with a meat hook.

Where to buy it

Problem: the poncho makes you feel like you're about to audition for a bit part in Don't Look Now.

Solution: Top Shop's creamy, mohair-fringed poncho (pounds 25). The knit is so fine it is practically transparent and weightless so you can actually see there's a body beneath it. Karen Millen's black wool mix shrug (pounds 69.99) is a subtle way of taking on the trend. It doesn't scream "victim" because it is so streamlined and unassuming. The slightly frayed polo neck detail also nods to this season's Gucci funnel neck.

If you're loving the peasant vibe this season but don't want to go de trop, H&M has spun a loose-knit oatmeal wool poncho (pounds 19.99) which looks rough but feels as smooth as a mink's underbelly. If you're really not so sure about ponchos then think a little laterally. Essentially a poncho is a hands-free wrap. Does pashmina mean anything to you? Precisely. The man who squared the circle for Style Police this season is John Rocha. Rocha showed a hybrid of the shawl and the poncho in cream Mongolian lamb. This little piece of genius is basically a stole with a tiny ribbon tie which transforms the piece into a shrug. He's made these pieces in pink or black wool angora, embellished with his signature sharp embroidery. It is this, not the poncho, which will be the shape that survives.

Address book

H&M: 0171 323 2211

Karen Millen: 01622 664 032

John Rocha: 0171 838 0017

Top Shop: 0800 731 8284