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Style: The future looks white

What will you be wearing in 1998? For those who want to be at the cutting edge, Tamsin Blanchard makes a fashion forecast. Photographs by Ben Elwes and

Niall McInerney.

What's in the wardrobe for the year ahead? It will be bright or white, pleated, backless, held together by sporty drawstrings, top-heavy, with exaggerated shoulders, or simply plain and luxurious.

Making such predictions does not require the help of a crystal ball - just a flick through the catwalk pictures from the shows that took place in Paris, Milan, London and New York last autumn.

Those clothes will begin to filter into the shops in February, while the high street will have already been inspired to "interpret" some trends as they hit the designer rails of Bond Street and Sloane Street. Come autumn, the trends that were set on the catwalks last October and November will have completely entered the mainstream and - the retailers hope - you will be wearing many of them.

Part of a fashion designer's role is to be a bit of a clairvoyant, to look into the future and give the consumer what she wants before she knows it herself. The fashion world is always at least six months ahead of itself; right now, most designers will have completed their collections for autumn/ winter '98, and will be thinking seriously about spring/ summer '99. Before they know it, they'll be working on ideas for spring/ summer 2000.

Strangely, self-consciously futuristic collections seem to have passed us by; the hi-tech, synthetic fabrics that were dominant in the mid-Nineties have been replaced by natural fibres, the more luxurious the better. If designers could have their absolutely fabulously Utopian way, the world would be dressed in cashmere instead of wool, silk instead of cotton, and kid leather instead of PVC. And with advances in fabric technology - a touch of Tencel here, a whisper of Tactel there, the odd measure of Lycra - our clothes will stretch and breathe as we do, making them the ultimate in both luxury and comfort. They may even be machine-washable, too.

Looking to the near future, however, and the next six months, the fashion forecast looks bright and sunny - it had better be, or we'll all be left to freeze to death in fine and floaty fabrics, and dresses without backs.

The only storm clouds will appear in a flurry of fur, a material that is increasingly being used, even for the warmer months, by the youngest and hippest designers, including Marc Jacobs in New York, who has made simple pieces out of what he calls "cashmink" - a mixture of cashmere and mink - and John Galliano in Paris, who is also partial to a touch of mink or fox. As fur regains acceptance in the fashion world, so, too, it will creep back into mainstream fashion, on to trims for coats and hats, and not just for winter. It is all part of the focus on luxury fabrics; the only hope is that the ever-fickle fashion world will eventually react against it, and by the year 2000 the anti-fur movement will win out, if only because fashion designers have seen it, done it and become bored with it.

The prevailing winds for spring will blow minimalist designs on to maximalist fabrics. As usual, Calvin Klein in New York has hit the nail on the head with simple sportswear made out of cloth that is the closest some people will ever get to heaven. Double-faced cashmere tracksuit tops and lighter- than-air dresses of billowing parachute silk are all any woman needs this spring to make her mark comfortably and efficiently. Trouble is, she also needs to take out a bank loan to do so, and unless you are in the know, or happen to be invited to stroke the sleeve, you would be forgiven for thinking she had shopped at Gap and bought the entire outfit for around pounds 50 instead of pounds 500.