With the UK women's ready to wear exhibitions Pure and Premier now running side-by-side on the same site at the Excel exhibition centre in London's Docklands, and with Britain's two most important men's wear events - 40 Degrees and Level 2 - just across the corridor, this quartet of trade fairs, each important in its own right, provides retail buyers with a previously unparalleled opportunity to monitor trends as they occur across the entire fashion scene.

It is an obvious advantage for the many stores which today offer men's and women's ranges under the same roof but also reflects the growing trend for each sex to "borrow" fabrics and trimmings traditionally associated with the other. This borrowing was underlined at both Pure and Premier by the predominance in women's outerwear of the houndstooth check more usually associated with the men's trade, and the renewed interest in tweeds of every type.

Also "borrowed" from the men's suiting sector is the Prince of Wales check. Companies like Spanish manufacturer Juan Roga are using this fabric for feminine trouser suits, the three-quarter length pants of which are equipped with turn-ups. The use of turn-ups for women's trousers is in sharp contrast to the line of men's suits being promoted in the adjacent Level 2 exhibition where a narrow ankle look is preferred.

Meanwhile across the board in casual wear, and especially in denim ranges, manufacturers are looking to a return of flares, many as broad as those of the early 70s.

Similarly, in tailored outerwear for both sexes there's a strong feeling for fur trimming for next winter. German and Italian exhibitors at each of the shows uninhibitedly offered real fur trimming and real leather, though British exhibitors, more sensitive to animal rights issues, prefer obviously fake fur as in the specialist HF Greenfield collection. Both natural and simulation fur however are frequently dyed to fashion colours. One of the evening wear novelties from the French designer Helena Sorel was a zip fastened, rabbit fur lumber jacket dyed to match the pale blue brocade evening dress it accompanied.

Show-stoppers

Meanwhile, slinky black slip dresses, their bodices edged with diamante and with cheong-sam like thigh slit skirts, proved show-stoppers for Ronen Chen at Pure. At Premier, the slits were modestly veiled in translucent fabric by the Dutch couture house of Fayazi, which is also a bridal wear specialist. More boldly, Fayazi also offered black evening dresses with fully see-through bodices.

It was indeed at Premier that evening wear came most into its own. A return to the kind of formal ballgown in satin or silk taffeta was predicted for next winter by a number of manufacturers of all nationalities.

And beyond that, allied to the more rigidly corsetted silhouette which would have to accompany such a change, some houses are even suggesting a mid-decade return to the S-bend and bustle line typical of the first decade of the 20th century. Most notably, Anouska G showed silk ball gowns with mini trains.

Corsetry is certainly no longer a dirty word among the fashion conscious young. It is to this audience that the obviously boned bustiers dotted with diamente or steel studs along the lines of the boning, introduced at Pure by Evita, are targeted. At the streetwear section of the same show, even T-shirts designed with cut-out back panels to simulate the look of traditional back-laced corsetry seemed to be a hit with buyers visiting the Out of Xile stand looking for "something different" to appeal to the fickle tastes of the under 25 consumer.

Generation Gap
The generation gap was most evident this season in the very different colours selected by the exhibitors. Premier put the emphasis on supplying the better end departmental store or independent, while the younger, more fashion minded shopper was catered for at Pure.

Sweet pea pastels are evidently still pullers for typical Premier customers, especially in the spheres of knitwear. There were glitter dusted twin-sets at Michel Ambers, and
neutrals, funky darks or "in your eye" brights at the Gill Knitwear collection. These seem the first choice for designers whose creations end up on the rails at Pure.

Both events, however, produced a quota of floppy, "special occasion" frocks of the type traditionally worn by English wedding guests. Many of these garments, cut on the bias and with either ruffled or handkerchief point hemlines, had a distinctively Art Deco revival look.

At Premier they came mainly in manmade fibre chiffons and georgettes, while manufacturers at Pure tended to prefer dark tone panne velvet.

Tie-Dye And Batik Comeback At 40 Degrees
The triumphant return of tie-dye and batik inspired designs to the UK casual wear scene was a key feature of the recent 40 Degrees trade fair - the first in the series to take place at the new Excel exhibition centre in London's Docklands.

This time around, however, there are differences. For these apparently hand-crafted patterns are more likely to be supplied ready printed, in bulk, on the fabric that manufacturers use to create their garments than be the result of "one-off " artistic activity in the distributor's own studios. And the same goes for the patterns based on newsprint and executed in a combination of red, white and black which was the other big T-shirt fashion story of this season's 40 Degrees.

And while February 200l did, as is usual for this show, throw up a crop of interesting newcomers to the casual wear scene, it was also obvious that the volume trade in T-shirts is now increasingly dominated by companies who have been in the business long enough to adopt the mores of mainstream garment manufacturers.

Such manufacturers are now indeed apt to refer to their ranges as "classic T-shirts". By this they mean a short sleeved, cotton or cotton/manmade knitted fabric garment decorated with just a printed inscription and usually in a simple, three-way colour choice of white, red or black

And both this "classic" sector of the T-shirt market and the still avant garde arm of the trade manufacturers are increasingly looking for follow-up sales by offering underpants in patterns which co-ordinate with their best-selling T-shirt designs.

Yet others, Gotham Angels for example, are now building on their success as T-shirt printers as the basis from which to launch a full-scale women's wear range.

In this segment of the market it is so often the skirt - and skirts are very much back in style in the women's casual wear market - that is all-over printed. They are also designed to be teamed with a plain top rather than, as would definitely have been the case a couple of seasons' back, the other way around.

Top rather than T
Top rather than T is appropriate to women's wear casuals as seen at Excel since the basic T-shirt form is being subtly feminised with details like ruffle edge or drawstring necklines, front draperies and even, as at Smash, by the addition of an artificial flower perched on the shoulder.

Men's T-shirts, as in the latest Schindler range, are lavishly embellished with glitter without any apparent diminution of the macho image. The craze for glitter can lead to such apparent design anomalies as Pink Soda's camouflage print T-shirt with a huge glittery gold star centre front.

At a number of houses, too, nostalgia for 60s/70s freedom fighter militaria takes a bow. Second time around portraits of Che Guevara vie with the simple word Cuba in ultra large letters as at Flip. In sloganned T-shirts Flip also scores a bad taste bullseye with the enigmatic inscription "Titantic swim team", plus the date "1912."

Meanwhile, Clothing's new logo of an enormously fat lady stripper with a wadge of notes tucked into her G string will probably offend at least as many viewers as it amuses.

At Grape, a front panel which appears to be a cut out to reveal a bare female bosom on an obviously man-size T-shirt is likely to appeal to customers who like their garment humour on the blue side. Grape also claims there is a continuing steady demand for T-shirts with the old CCCP insignia of the former Soviet Union. While this appeals as an export as well as UK home market line, to date the company hasn't actually managed to sell such shirts back to present day Russia.

More in the mood of the moment are T-shirts with angels' wings printed on the back. At Vive Maria the wings are printed on a see-through fabric top accompanied by briefs bearing the legend "Fly With Me."

Proving that lightening does indeed strike twice, and sometimes even more often, in the world of casual clothing design this slogan was used by several 40 Degrees exhibitors. As was the display gimmick of pegging out their T-shirt and/or underpants range on a washing line - a marketing ploy that is now almost certain to be widely copied by retailers in the coming season.

Angel wings also figured as an important new print motif in the Lovebomb collection which has, this season, exchanged its conventional silver embossing on black for constantly colour changing irridescent effects.

Black and silver were, meanwhile, the basic colours for the somewhat scary collection presented by Skincraft. The label had padded the sleeves and shoulders of its T-shirts to lend them the look of a space suit and completed the alien illusion by dressing the models who demonstrated the range in l939-45 war gas masks.

By Sonia Roberts.