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From Clueless to Kirchoff: Our love-hate 90s redux

When a brigade of scruffy platinum blonde girls in baby doll dresses strutted down the catwalk at LFW, undeniably channeling Miss World-era Courtney Love, it was yet another nod to a rather unexpected trend.

Could the 90s, so unchic compared to previous decades, so recent that most of us are still trying to forget the vanilla Rachel haircut and the embroidered, faded jeans, really be making a comeback?

If Meadham Kirchhoff, the designer duo synonymous with London’s sharpest and boldest trends, chose an army of Love lookalikes to open their S/S 2012 show, then who are we to disagree?

Think about it. Minimalism is back on the fashion agenda thanks to Phoebe Philo at Celine and her high street counterparts at Cos. McQueen, the darling of Cool Britannia, has never been more influential as we celebrate his legacy as well as his acutely British reinvention in the hands of Sarah Burton.

Once you start to dig a little deeper, other parallels in popular culture, music and even politics start to appear. Perhaps 2012 owes more to the decade of bad taste than most of us would like to admit.

Grunge

The 90s was all about icons, and grunge was the most iconic look of them all. Courtney Love, still iconic, championed a look – cutesy sailor dresses, long socks and hair ribbons, all with a dirty, sexy slant – that has come to encapsulate an ethos that we don’t even question any more – a refusal to let your style pigeon-hole you. Courtney could wear a pretty dress whilst screaming the F-word, and the attitude still held strong.

Gaga, Rihanna, the Olsen twins…today, grunge is all around us without being labeled as such. Marc Jacobs’ 1992 Grunge Collection has pretty much become the uniform for the music community. Topshop is currently devoting a whole line to 90s grunge, and their floral maxi dresses and pastel denim waistcoats are becoming ubiquitous. Pretty, girly, edgy, tough: these are the adjectives for how most of us dress now.

“The mood is right for grunge. As world economies struggle to put themselves to rights, grunge suits the grimly realistic vibe of the times,” Roger Tredre, managing editor of Stylus explains, ‘I remember writing about grunge back in the 90s and it was far more closely linked to music and to a Seattle scene, while this time round it’s got broader connotations.’

Girl power

Alt rock wasn’t the only scene opening the fashion world to feminist role models in the 90s. Ginger, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh all helped too, with their unique brand of girl power and Britishness. And they’re still influencing us, albeit in a slightly more grown-up way. Victoria Beckham’s main label is all cool, controlled woman power and her Victoria diffusion line was influenced this season by Emily Strange – the cartoon queen of grunge femininity. And remember Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress from the 1997 Brit Awards? A similar version designed by the lady herself, is now on sale at Next.

In the music industry, girl bands may be all but gone (Little Mix? Seriously?) but the utter domination of strong female singer/songwriters are, in their way, reaping the benefits of the Spice spirit. After the noughties in which indie rock boy bands laid owned the Top 20, the popularity of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lana del Rey feels like a return to their loud, playful, pop-culture female provocateurism. These women both embrace and subvert society’s prescribed ideas of what a female role model should be. And that feels very 90s indeed.

Minimalism

Most decades embrace two almost directly opposing aesthetics and the 90s were no different. The Antwerp Six headed up by Ann Demeulemeester made simple neutral layers into a uniform of chicness that still holds strong today.

Jil Sander, who has recently returned to her eponymous label, was at the top of her game in the 90s: ‘It feels like coming home after a brief journey… Paradigms change and evolve from season to season, but the heart of a brand doesn’t alter.’

The obvious parallel here is with Phoebe Philo, whose cool colours and strong, streamlined shape has made Celine a critical and popular success. This is minimalism reimagined now for a different consumer, one who demands pieces that are easier to wear, luxurious but geared to become a versatile and sensible investment as well. But whether she is ethereal, severe or androgynous, the 90s minimalist still stalks the catwalks this year.

Olympic Britannia

But the most persuasive feature of this decade-linking is our renewed sense of patriotism. It’s the year of the London Olympics, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and we just had a seriously popular royal wedding. Did somebody whisper Cool Britannia?

Vanity Fair’s seminal photo shoot, featuring Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, announced the arrival of Cool Britannia in the mid 90s – a time when we were fervently, passionately proud to be British. Tony Blair was our young, hip Prime Minister, Kate Moss was the biggest model on the planet, and Brit Pop dominated the music scene on both sides of the Atlantic.

Reimagining this sense of British pride is exactly what the Olympics encourages. Sarah Burton has put McQueen at the heart of it once again thanks to her runaway success with the royal wedding frock. London Fashion Week has never been so highly hyped and praised as it has been in recent years. Many young designers are using local materials and craftsmen, brandishing their national as well as ecological credentials. Burberry is exporting a proud and modern Britishness around the world.

Phoebe Frangoul, fashion and beauty editor of XOJane UK certainly thinks so. “There definitely is a confidence around British fashion which has been growing over the past few seasons, with names like McQueen, Burberry, Mulberry and Christopher Kane at the heart of it. They’re bringing a professionalism and commercial edge to what has always been a creative, chaotic fashion scene. Sam Cam and Michelle Obama have drawn attention to newer British labels but Sarah Burton’s breathtaking dress for the royal wedding was the ultimate British fashion moment for me.”

Editor-in-chief Rebecca Holman agrees. ‘You only have to look at the seriously A-list crowds that shows like Burberry draw in every year, plus the fact that the likes of Stella McCartney are now showing at London Fashion Week (albeit tentatively), to see that the UK is enjoying a very stylish moment. Once the grungy younger sister of Paris, Milan, and New York, London is a fashion powerhouse in its own right now, and it shows.’

Of course, alongside this positivity we have the lingering doom and gloom of the recession a decidedly shaky coalition government, a struggling NHS and a sense that the developing economies of China and India are imminently going to squash our humble island into the ground.

But that’s the whole point of cultural references. The 90s reminds us of what we do well but also of how we’ve changed. Looking back has always been a way of examining the present and calibrating the future. It just so happens that we’re going to do that looking like a demented Barbie – because, thanks to the 90s, we can.

– Rebecca Cope

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