Nineties fashion looms large on the runways

Designers at New York and London fashion weeks drew deeply on the decade’s styles in their latest collections. Maya Singer takes a closer look.

In the late nineties, I lived for a time off Portobello Road in West London. I have particularly fond memories of the girls clustered around the pubs in the evenings in slip dresses, shrugged-on neon anoraks, and bright silver Nike Air Max ‘97s, or perhaps, if the weather was fine, a midriff-baring halter top, low-slung raw denim jeans and striped Adidas shower slides (backless, open-toed slippers), worn either with or without socks. Those looks were formative to my sense of style, and I was reminded of them yet again as I made the rounds of New York and London fashion weeks.

And that’s because the nineties are back. Not the grunge nineties, but something more particular–that late decade, rave and Britpop-inflected moment when street style got very sporty. The muse, both then and now, was the model Stella Tennant. The poetic photographs Mark Borthwick took of her back in ’97, looking tomboyishly cool in camisoles and slouchy pants, undoubtedly featured on many a brand’s mood board for Spring 2014.

In New York, for instance, the number one item for spring was probably the slip dress, exemplified nicely at Rag & Bone and Band of Outsiders, and possibly perfected for all time by Olivier Theyskens, who seemed to come into his own at Theyskens’ Theory this season. His finale looks, all gossamer slips and camisoles layered against each other  had an almost moving loveliness. The Band of Outsiders show had passages of real beauty, as well, and got there via an unexpected angle. Designer Scott Sternberg was really pushing the sporty thing this season; somehow, his parka and anorak riffs got at something dreamy. My favourite look from his show may have been the floral printed windbreaker, worn loose over a long skirt.   

Slide away

There were more slips and camisoles in London. The key piece here, though, had to be the shower slide. A version of the shoe turned up everywhere from Whistles to JW Anderson. Elsewhere, memories of the late nineties, West London pub girls re-emerged at Topshop Unique, where umpteen backless slip dresses and tops came down the catwalk, alongside one statement-making, super-boxy pair of raw-look jeans, shown deeply cuffed. The typical Topshop customer isn’t old enough to recall the glory days of Japanese demin label Evisu, but I am, and to them I say: beware the cuff. That was never a look I could make work for myself, though I must admit, there was a pair of sheer, celluloid silk trousers, cuffed that way, in the British retailer Joseph’s store label collection for spring, and they looked very tempting. And very Stella Tennant-ish, indeed.

This was a good season for London. Nineties references aside, the takeaway here was a real sense of optimism for fashion’s future. There were strong collections from Erdem, Jonathan Saunders, Meadham Kirchhoff and  JW Anderson. That’s a murderer’s row of emerging talent.  Peter Pilotto’s collection was a masterclass in print and construction, and that brand has just announced it will be doing a collection with the American retailer Target.

Body of evidence

Meanwhile, Christopher Kane’s collection was just extraordinary:. The designer seems to pull from a bottomless well of ideas, and his work is refreshingly non-referential. (Though it must be noted, there were slip dresses.) This was one of his collections where his wit came through, notably in the passages riffing on florals. His take on the theme was simultaneously literal and metaphorical, with his botany textbook lasercuts, and his analogies to the female anatomy.

Sex also seemed a big theme for Simone Rocha, a young designer who just keeps getting better. Rocha is worth calling out not least because she’s a woman, and her clothes speak from female experience. This season, her frothy slashed dresses conjured an atmosphere of romantic despair; you got the impression of a woman done badly wrong, and all too prepared to be done wrong again. Another way Rocha’s female point-of-view expresses itself is in the cut of her clothes. Her take on the slip dress, for example, was quite a bit less intimidating than the backless wonders at Topshop Unique. Come spring, they’ll look fantastic with a pair of shower slides.

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