Anyone who works in fashion will tell you that January is traditionally menswear month. It's also the time to start scanning the landscape for womenswear trends. Whatever surfaces first usually sets the tone for the season, and then along comes the spring/summer haute couture season to dot the i's and cross the t's, as it were. Judging by fashion spreads in the February glossies, a trend that is up and running already is "the new pretty". It's possibly because the recession is not quite over and - guess what? - pretty sells.
The big surprise is that the designers who have pinpointed the new pretty and how you wear it aren't whom you might expect. The conceptualist Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf, for instance. The day before the designers' spring/summer ready-to-wear 2010 show in Paris last October, the American trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily published a picture of Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren wielding a chainsaw in front of a fairy-tale frock.
All was revealed at the finale of what could otherwise have been a pretty show of colour-blocked dresses, when an assortment of ball gowns consisting of layer upon layer of mille-feuille tulle, in shades of the palest marshmallow pink and rococo blue, suddenly appeared with skirts sliced diagonally, tunnelled into and trimmed, as if they were topiary hedges. One of the "chainsaw" dresses (which were the result of painstaking tailoring, not a real chainsaw) appears on the cover of the February issue of Dazed & Confused magazine. It's a testament to the extreme interpretation of the new pretty, along with Alexander McQueen's disturbing reptilian prints and Christopher Kane's girlish gingham Sunday School frocks with their "training" bras placed strategically on the outside.
I prefer the work of a handful of labels being hailed as the "new romantics": Etro (whose flora and fauna digi-prints blew away all the competition at the last ready-to-wear shows), Rochas (designed by Marco Zanini, who uses an extremely original colour palette including saffron and aubergine but also weaves in ubiquitous pastels), Valentino (designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, whose short, sheer, ruffly dresses are giving Roland Mouret a run for his money) and Nina Ricci.
Thanks to this lot, a whistlestop tour of my favourite department store revealed that an area formerly devoted to stiff, dark grey and predominately black tailored winter pieces had vaporised into a froth of featherweight textiles in absurdly pretty pale shades and prints. Who would have believed the new pretty would sound the death knell to Balmainia, bandage dresses and shoulder pads? Although "pretty" is hardly how I would describe my personal style, I would rate feminine over femme fatale any day.
Interestingly, the battle lines seemed to be drawn in Paris during the spring/summer 2010 haute couture shows over exactly the same thing. With John Galliano at the helm, Dior will always champion the femme fatale, but I doubt his latest equestrian-themed silhouette, which harked back to the bygone age when a perfect figure was achieved with a corset, will have the same impact his boudoir chic did last July.
There is so much more to being feminine than having a tiny waist, which is as much a cliché as trowelling on so much make-up that the effect resembles a man dressed as a woman. (Dior's show last week was a case in point.) Paleness of colour, lightness of texture and freedom of movement are, on the other hand, very feminine. Karl Lagerfeld rolled out all three at his Chanel spring/summer haute couture show with the result being an almost other-worldly vision of prettiness and romance. How fitting for this Avatar-obsessed age.
And by moving away from his signature "greige" and turning towards pure light (moonlight in its various twinkling hues), Giorgio Armani put his finger on the new black: a delicious aurora borealis pastel palette. If history repeats itself and Armani dresses half of Hollywood's leading ladies on Oscar night (March 7), as he did last year, it's going to be a very pretty frock fest indeed. I predict the Italian maestro will find that he has a rival in the form of Peter Copping, whose debut at Nina Ricci has already been pounced on by celebrity stylists. (The lace dress worn by Carey Mulligan to the Golden Globes was one of his designs.)
And, for once, Chanel hasn't secured this season's It-bag. The honour goes to Fendi - Karl Lagerfeld's other label - for transparent perspex clutches that are stark, not pretty. They are the perfect accessory to offset everything else.