The clarion call of my teenage fashion fandom was 'brown is the new black'. It was the era of harder Prada (meaning harder to get your head around rather than sharper around the edges), a time of 'geek chic' when the French term jolie laide worked better as a descriptive term translated into good old Anglo-Saxon: pretty ugly. Miuccia was at the forefront of this revolution, her collections of sludgy, geometric wallpaper prints, crotched tights, and lots of drip-dry, inch-thick nylon a deliberate riposte to a lingering sense of good taste. The zenith was Autumn/Winter 1996, and the colour of the season was brown. That Prada collection was bathed in it - it was inspired by the seventies after all, and what colour could be more ostensibly, offensively seventies than brown?
I can't help but feel a bit of déjà vu looking at the Autumn/Winter 2011 offerings. We seem to have moved beyond the idea of 'trends' - our fashion landscape is so fragmented and multi-faceted that every journo will unearth a different handful of universal truths across the shows. But shades of brown are undoubtedly dominant.
As with so many of our contemporary styles, this can be traced back to Phoebe Philo. One of her first hits after taking the helm of Céline in 2009 was a coat: a single-breasted, straight to the knee Crombie, cut skinny on the sleeve but oversized to wrap the torso. 'Hit' is something of understatement: the Céline Crombie became a fashion editor staple so firmly entrenched it almost became a second skin. It was the coat that launched a thousand knock-offs, trickle-down diluted versions from not only every high street retailer but more than a few high-fashion competitors. Then last winter, Chloé tricked out an entire collection in shades from cappuccino to café au lait. It had a mood of the seventies, but was light-years away from Prada's out-and-out revivalism.
Over time, the fashion café has only gathered steam - come 2011, brown is everywhere. Stuart Vevers sent out the palest shades in buttery skins for Loewe, Hermès wrapped models in great tonal blankets of the stuff, Richard Nicoll looked to moths for velvety shades of taupe and Philo's coats came in nubby bonded wool in burnt walnut. Those are the ones I've been brewing over most, but there were innumerable others - even Mary Katrantzou, London's princess of hyperreal print and resolutely undiluted pigment, took inspiration from Coromandel screens and send out a few dresses in tortoiseshell-shades of rich, burnt brown.
But why brown? Because it's softer and subtler than black, less institutional than grey, and much much easier than its duller, easily-stained sibling, beige. It also comes in its own rainbow - coffee is the easiest palette to grasp for, shades running the gamut from espresso through cappuccino, frappuccino and latte for those paler-than-pale, golden-tinged shades.
By and large brown has ditched the seventies overtones and, oddly enough, it's ditched the name too. 'Brown' isn't the word you use in fashion-land. The noun 'brown' is too flat, too pedestrian. Brown is almost 'frown' or, God forbid, 'down'. It has none of the uplifting power fashion journalism so needs - the linguistic face-lift that hoicks a smile onto every visage. Fashion is about seduction - and a brown leather coat doesn't sound half as seductive as a nappa caban in deepest machiatto.
That's fine for the word, but as a colour brown still seems like an anti-fashion choice - a layover from Prada's so bad it's good excursion into the lower echelons of taste. In fact some of the most iconic pieces of fashion history came in the shade that taste allegedly forgot. The subtle tonal hues of the Louis Vuitton monogram rank amongst fashion's greatest and most easily-recognised symbols; Hermès' Birkin or Kelly bags look undeniably chicer in brown than black; and there's always the politically incorrect but potent (and lasting) appeal of the winter great-coat in knuckle-deep, café crème mink. Cristobal Balenciaga crafted Mona Bismarck's couture gardening ensembles in softest cinnamon - the greatest fashion designer in history dressing the world's number-one haute couture client. It's hardly likely they'd get it wrong.
The SHOWstudio Shop exhibition The Café is open until 19 November 2011 at SHOWstudio, 1-9 Bruton Place W1