Women's Fashion

It’s all becoming clear

Transparency is the new mantra in business, in politics and now in fashion where it brings a fresh, futuristic and playful aesthetic, says Avril Groom.

March 17 2010
Avril Groom

Transparency is a word on everyone’s lips at present, from politicians, who won’t give us enough of it, to fashion designers, who could be in danger of giving us too much. Last summer, it was the mantra for clothes but of a misty, clouded sort – layers of tonal chiffon or muslin that veiled the body in an alluring and decorous way. Now, in the rush to simpler, utilitarian fashion, transparency means just that, and we are witnessing the re-emergence of polyurethane and plastic in high-designer places.

In the past, plastic was fashion shorthand for modern, as in the 1960s with Pierre Cardin’s Space Age belts and patent trims. Now, “clean” and “simple” are the words that every designer is using to explain their newfound love of this relatively humble material – very appropriate at a time when fashion, like society, is trying to cleanse itself of recent excesses and move on to a plainer reality.

Clear accessories are, says Paola de Luca of Italian trend forecasting firm TJF, “an expression of the desire for ultimate spirituality – though, this being the fashion world, it’s often done in an ironic, retro-contemporary way, such as Maison Martin Margiela’s surreal take on the old idea of drinking champagne from a stiletto – a glass slipper [£1,360 a pair] which no one would actually wear or, probably, drink out of.”

Nevertheless, she sees transparency as a continuing trend in coming seasons. Antonio Marras, who has designed a clear, coloured version of Kenzo’s classic Candy Box bag (£250), agrees: “People still consider bags as fun, playful accessories. The strong trend for clear bags is a sign of optimism to me.”

As far as clothes go, transparent plastic has a limited remit, only suitable for outerwear and eye-catching showpieces. The see-through trench coat makes a reappearance in several collections, notably at Sonia Rykiel (£1,440), whose heritage lies in the 1960s originals and who has returned to it several times since. More directional use of it is made by Donatella Versace, whose short A-line, polyurethane dresses and skirts (from £380) are printed with optical patterns inspired by her late brother Gianni’s designs, in hot colours that give an almost stained-glass effect.

Striking as these examples are, for most of us enduring summer in a plastic frock is suffering too far for fashion. Accessories are a different matter, and this is where transparency comes into its own. For several years, summer style has been all about light and airiness, and what could look lighter than a pair of Perspex heels?

“We wanted to create the illusion of walking on air,” says Kurt Geiger buying and creative director Rebecca Farrar-Hockley of KG’s clear-heeled ankle boot (£250). Shoes are one area where the barely-there look has really taken off. A Perspex platform or wedge gives an illusory height and elegance, and has you looking as if you’re balancing delicately on tiptoe. As Tamara Mellon, the power behind the Jimmy Choo brand, points out, “The lightness of this look is not only fresh and futuristic but also incredibly feminine.”

Fendi’s draped and pleated, blush-coloured fabric sandal (£920), for instance, wraps itself caressingly up a slender leg, while its clear platform allows a narrow heel of vertiginous proportions. The achingly trendy camel leather shoeboot (£405 at Matches) from Cacharel’s new designer Cédric Charlier has an elegantly cut, clear wedge that really does give a tiptoe stance, while tall Perspex heels and sheer back-straps on Sonia Rykiel’s classic 1940s-style platforms (from £302) give a feather-light jauntiness.

All these reflect the wider-strapped, more earthy look of this summer but, mixed with clear Perspex, achieve an appealing lightness. The star, however, is Miuccia Prada, who uses not only polyurethane but crystal “to reflect the summer light”. From a silk top hung about with chandelier drop-sized crystals (£6,070) to totally clear polyurethane sandals, based on the studded clog look but clustered with crystals on chains (£1,100) – more of a fantasy than anything Cinderella dreamed of – she works transparency to the max. Without the crystals (and perhaps more wearably) there are variants in all shapes, from a very modern-looking sandal – completely clear but for a white strap across the toe (£430) – to a transparent version of the new pointy-toed, 1950s-influenced kitten heel (£395).

Stuart Weitzman has also been particularly sharp on accessible versions of the idea, capitalising on the move to lower heels with clear, crystal-embellished “jelly” pumps (£99.50) and sandals that are both pretty and comfortable, exclusive to Russell & Bromley.

Clarity, however, is only half the story. It is also cunningly mixed with conventional materials to conceal and reveal. Cesare Paciotti’s delicate stiletto sandal (about £455) has clear straps decorated with oval spots that look at first glance as if they are randomly dotted on your feet – “a marriage of futurism and classicism”, he says. Jean Paul Gaultier uses transparency in both styles: in bold, wide straps “as part of a futuristic, homage-to-Cardin look” and also as titillating inserts ( €590), revealing a glimpse of toe, “because the collection is lingerie-inspired, so peep-through inserts look sexy, no?”

The late Alexander McQueen’s undersea-world fantasy included some of the most extraordinary shoes ever to grace a catwalk – high-rise creations made from a lustrous, specially developed resin with retaining straps made clear so as not to spoil the line. These hand-moulded artwork shoes were made exclusively for the show, but such has been the interest from collectors that a charity auction is being discussed.

They also bring us to technology. Shoe designers now work as closely with techno-wizards as with leather craftsmen, none more so than Mellon and her team at Jimmy Choo, whose futuristic Zap style (£1,495) with its heel and platform in part-coloured, Day-Glo Plexi lights up as you step down: the sophisticated clubber’s equivalent of children’s flashing trainers. These are uncompromisingly modernist, as are Emporio Armani’s coloured Perspex geometric heels (£369), most striking in red teamed with black patent – a theme the designer takes through to jewellery and hair accessories in a clever blend of 1980s influences and spare modernity.

Equally technical are Kurt Geiger’s Perspex heels and platforms flowing with subtle glitter or painted with bold abstract stripes (Galaxy, £260). “We researched with a Tuscan factory to develop a new process for the effect we wanted: clean-lined and simple yet decorative,” says Farrar-Hockley.

In some cases, technology leads to a glamorous, embellished effect – Choo’s tiny embedded metal studs (from £545), for example, or Roger Vivier’s high-luxe, crystal-containing Plexiglas heels (£825) which, says designer Bruno Frisoni, are just coincidental with current trends. “Lightness and the unexpected are both part of the Vivier philosophy,” he says. “For my super-nature theme I was looking for something natural – crystal is an important natural element but you cannot make a heel from it so I chose Plexiglas. Its transparency gives the allure of crystal with the glamour of ‘diamonds’ locked up in the heel.”

If new technology helps designers and consumers enthuse about transparency, clear handbags are harder to explain. Karl Lagerfeld showed them at Chanel in spring 2007 and again in autumn 2009 as a spoof; “vacuum-packed” bags containing neatly displayed small items such as wallets and iPod holders. But how many of us would want the stuff we carry round with us exposed to public view, or feel constrained to smarten up? Fendi gets it right, with a series of exquisite, slightly art deco, evening-sized Plexiglas clutch bags (price on request), which deserve only the most beautiful objects inside them.

Rykiel’s satchel-like little bags come with black suede trim (£495) or occasional crystal pins (£531) to distract from the detritus inside, while Prada’s bags are leather- or canvas-trimmed (£750), or have a pretty edging of crystal (£1,550) – they are very sheer but include an interior pochette to keep you tidy. Others sugar the pill with colour. Hogan’s sporty styles (£275) are practical in red or black, Kenzo’s Candy Box bags (£260) are cheerfully bright and Emporio Armani has bags with transparent handles (£409) or trims to match the Giorgio Armani Plexiglas heels (£995).

If, despite all the trend pointers, you feel this may not be a long-lived look, accessories allow you to acknowledge rather than embrace it, and have advantages. Rykiel’s clear belts with bright plastic buckles (£104) – a favourite, she says, of Michelle Obama – are flattering, giving shape without cutting you visually. Prada’s clear-framed sunglasses (£189) are big but don’t overwhelm the face as a heavier colour could. And Emporio Armani’s Bauhaus-inspired, geometric jewellery (from £99) makes a bold, individual statement with summer’s simple dress shapes. Any of these items do enough to show that, while you may not be a style slave, you’ve seen the light.