Style police: Warning: fashion disaster ahead

The shell suit, blight of the Eighties, is cool in the Nineties? Surely some mistake. Dead right there is. Do not try this at home, not even in the name of irony

CROSS YOURSELF three times and read on. Even medicinal marijuana won't prepare you for the shock. The shell suit is, according to Paula Reed in Conde Nast Traveller magazine, making a comeback. US designer Richard Tyler was apparently responsible for reviving microfibre pants with elasticated waists, gathered trackie hems and the sheen of new nylon. "And it looked good. Really!", says Reed. Really.

It's a dangerous mission, but someone has to find the origin of the shell- suit species. Sportswear guru Jack Gordon, PR for Sergio Tacchini, says, "It all started with the big names in Eighties tennis: the big Mac, Jimmy Connors, Agassi and Pete Sampras. The microfibre track suit was meant to keep you warm while practising. It was lightweight, water-resistant and made anyone other than a professional sportsman look like a prat."

For a microsecond in the mid Eighties, Harrods was mobbed by fashionables panting for a white Sergio Tacchini or Diadora shell, as worn by Andre Agassi. Before we knew it, every four-unit family north of Watford had matching designer shell suit knock-offs.

"It was an example of technology pushing fashion in the absence of design," says Gordon." Shell suits weren't made for schlepping round a shopping mall in mid-America. Being water-resistant, they worked like pressure cookers when worn by sweaty, overweight shoppers. The shell suit's popularity was a genuine surprise to sportswear designers. It was the people's choice. God knows why."

We've ascertained that the shell suit was never actually in fashion. So how could it be revived? Fashion consultant and former owner of Sign of the Times, Fiona Cartledge says, "I can remember three years ago, a group who used to play the London club Smashing who wore shell suits. It was ironic fashion: the kind you'd find shot by Dazed & Confused. But you've got to be careful when a trend is not too far away, like the shell suit. It isn't far enough from our memories to be cool. And it never was cool in its first incarnation. I think shell suits are back in the magazines because there are too many ironic stylists styling for each other and not the fashion consumer. It's a game of who can make the worst taste good."

To be fair to Paula Reed, she did point out that the shell suit fabric is not being used by the designers; just the silhouette. At Ralph Lauren, the track pant is cut in parachute silk. Man-made fibres like metallic nylon are treated to look like liquid silk, not tatty old, cracked-egg- shell polyester. A designer like Calvin Klein wouldn't know what a shopping mall looked like; let alone be inspired by the shell-suited Tellytubbies who frequent them. Apart from Tyler, the designers like Klein and Donna Karan have eschewed the elasticated ankle of the sports pant and stuck to leather-look PVC or 100 per cent silk.

"I have to say there has been a fresh interest in shell suit sportswear," says Gordon. "Men's Health magazine and Loaded have both taken Sergio shell tops and sports pants on location this week. But it is back to its original sportswear context rather than fashion". So it may be acceptable to wear the real thing on the tennis court or football pitch again. But on the High Street? A-hem.

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