For those of us whose early sartorial experience was formed by the standard-issue grey school skirt, loving pleats is a big ask. Back then we did our best to make them look more attractive, hoisting them to an indecent length, but a suspicion of pleats remains ingrained. On top of which stories abound of pleats that disappeared forever when sat in on a hot day, or of pleated items carelessly washed that became a vast plain of fabric, not an undulation in sight. And despite the best efforts of tastemakers like Carine Roitfeld to make pleats chic, there is always an underlying worry: if I wear them, will the frump factor rear its head?
Well, it seems not any more. Far from looking pseudo-intellectual or confirming the fear they could only work on the lissom-limbed, the pleats on the spring catwalks were joyous. “They appeared so fresh in their pops of colour, metallics and rainbow stripes, so much so that we’ve called the look Visual Optimism,” says Net-a-Porter’s senior buyer Holly Russell. Pleats twirled and floated down the runways, some with different colours within the pleats – as at Veronique Branquinho, who uses a very silky polyester to create airy dresses (£1,115) in which pastel stripes and geometric panels play “a game of hide and seek between plain and pleated fabric that is romantic and free yet easy to maintain”.
In a season dominated by flounces and ruffles, pleats are the grown-up way to catch the light mood and inject some fun. “I’ve always been fascinated by a technique that creates texture, volume and femininity,” says Julie de Libran, artistic director of Sonia Rykiel, of her vivid saffron and flame 1990s-inspired chiffon designs (top £1,520, skirt, £795).
The surprise is their variety. Some pleats look modern yet classically elegant: Hermès’ knife and inverted pleats in graphic checked silk or silk jacquard (£5,680); Gucci’s bright-green box-pleat skirt (£915) with matching webbing-trimmed jacket (£1,670); and Chanel’s traditional summer-tweed pleated suit (skirt £3,671, jacket, £3,429). Others combine nostalgic shapes with embellishment or directional materials: Prada has 1920s-influenced, low-waisted dresses (£3,935) with soft pleated skirts in graphic broken stripes, worn with silk-veletta neckpieces that look almost futuristic; and Sacai has tops (£980) and skirts (£620) where sheer sunray pleating is contrasted with graphic weaves or panels of gilded lace. At Hugo Boss, artistic director of womenswear Jason Wu uses feminine technical-organza pleating to create contrast in a sharp white shirt (£325). “It is the attraction of opposites – masculine and feminine – that interests me,” he says, also reflected in the contrast of elegant bias-cut metallic pleating on a slick New York-inspired dress (£850). And Louis Vuitton has added pleated panels to spray-painted shorts (£3,150) and skirts (£3,850) with laser-cut beads.
Some houses show their craft prowess by pleating the seemingly impossible, such as longline skirts in wave-pattern-intarsia metallic leather (£3,780) or python-print leather (£3,720) at Gucci, the brand Net-a-Porter’s Russell credits with turbo-charging the trend. There’s more pleated leather in a punchy-yet-poised black dress (£3,920) at Valentino, which also pleats fragile silk lace for gladiator-skirted dresses (£5,200) and more robust lace in geometric patchwork dresses (£7,600) for a collection encompassing ancient Rome and tribal Africa.
For many designers pleats are about experimentation, finding new ways to hold those little folds in place, whether in traditional fabrics or new ones that push the boundaries of modern technology. Last season, as influential young designers like JW Anderson (both for his own label and for Loewe) started to re-examine the fashion of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they looked at the conceptual shapes and permanent pleats created by the Japanese designers then making waves at the Paris shows. Anderson put a 21st-century spin on pleats and came up with some of autumn 2015’s key pieces, including the pleated, metallic lamé, longline skirt and dress for Loewe. Add creative director Alessandro Michele’s storming first collection for Gucci, with its prominent pleated leather skirts, and the scene was set for this spring’s plissé explosion.
None of it could happen without those fabric technologists, and here lovers of natural fibres must suspend their disapprobation. The way to make pleats permanent, come hell, high water or a 12-hour stint in the luggage hold, is to use a synthetic fibre that can withstand the necessary baking and coating processes without losing softness and lightness. The balance of fibres and the clever way designers interpret them with cotton and polyester mixes is what sets the new pleating apart.
Issey Miyake, the originator of the hugely successful Pleats Please range, remains at the forefront of experimentation. This season Yoshiyuki Miyamae, the designer of Issey Miyake’s women’s collection, debuted the Baked Stretch technique, which entails printing onto a smooth fabric with a special glue that expands under high temperature, moulding the fabric into permanent pleats. On the catwalk Miyake’s display of techno creativity, accompanied by live, synthesised music, told a futuristic style story in which dresses (£1,355) printed with waves bounced jauntily in movement. Paula Gerbase, founder and creative director of label 1205, turned to Japanese innovation, knitting a mix of extremely delicate, breathable Japanese cotton jersey and steam-pressed polyester – that feels like silk but is tough and durable – into pleated form (top, £420, culottes, £539).
These developments modernise a detail once regarded as old-fashioned. “Sunray pleats have been a staple of feminine dressing since the 1950s, but they also suit modern life because they allow women to move freely,” says Akris creative director and fabric maestro Albert Kriemler. “Pleats can be practical in technical fabrics treated with heat; they stay in place and are travel-friendly, even when washed or dry-cleaned. To make them contemporary I created super-light linen-plissé skirt/short combos [£1,055].” Brazil-born London-based designer Barbara Casasola has made small Fortuny-style pleats and wider ones with an almost smocked effect her signature, paired with relaxed tailoring. “I like how gracefully they move and how light they feel, yet they are fabulous for busy, globetrotting women,” she says. “I use a silk microfibre mix made in Italy in a surprisingly artisanal way.” She has also recently created a capsule collection (from £295) for Net-a-Porter and finds modern pleating exciting. “There’s a buzz in the studio when we’re working on pleats, because there is always something different you can do,” she says. Young designer Georgia Hardinge (Hera dress, £499) is another who has made pleats her own in adventurous ways, from sunray pleats to permanently pressed asymmetric folds. For spring she’s added delicate laser-cut Japanese stencilling motifs for extra lightness (skirt, £599, top, £267). “I’m interested in clothes with a 3D quality and pleats give you that without being stiff and unwearable,” she says. “I use different finishes based on high-quality, breathable polyester treated at high temperature, and they are easy to care for as long as they’re washed at low temperature.”
For pleats that bounce back however they are treated, the knitted pleat is the failsafe. A byword for frumpdom in the 1970s and for unflattering in the bodycon 1980s, it is now a test bed for beautiful innovation, especially when mixing colours within pleats. Stella McCartney’s bicolour pleats (skirt, £895, and top, £725) are transfer-printed onto fabric already pleated and shaped and then layered for graphic effect, with hems cut with a serrated edge that rises and falls in movement. Missoni uses its wizardry to turn its familiar multicoloured zigzags into a pleated finish, many with metallic threads (dress, £1,171). And Agnona, master of the finest natural knits, pleats a polyester mix and adds lines of subtle, graduated colour (skirt, £995). If brands as grand as this are working with synthetics, it is plainly no time to be sniffy about them – not least because they are now made to feel as luxurious as the best natural materials.