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The preppy revival in fashion

The 'preppy' look has always existed in some sort of parallel universe, but it has never dominated fashion until now.

Americans sometimes call it "Ivy League". The Italians, Swiss and Germans have Eurovised it. The Asians and Far Easterners have equally made it their own with a little help from Louis Vuitton. Since modern fashion as we know it began, "preppy" has always been allowed to exist in a sort of parallel universe.

It's been patronised by icons from Grace Kelly and Jackie Onassis to Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow but, give or take the odd overnight fad (the choppy "Rachel" haircut in the 1990s for example), it's never dominated fashion.

Now it appears that Alexa Chung's white cuffs were the tip of the iceberg. The global preppy movement currently bubbling under the fashion radar is not going to be merely a "revival".

Still reassuringly smart and inspired by heritage, class and old money, 21st-century preppy takes account of current trends. Even before the spring/summer 2011 catwalks inspired by the 1970s (the last decade preppy made it into high fashion) would be a hot high-street look, the J Crew obsession set off by the Obamas' love of the brand had started the trend.

New preppy, though, is more glamorous and distances itself from campus and vintage looks. Think everyone's new favourite fashionista Kate Middleton – who never looks anything but exquisite in her pared-down, impeccably ironed clothes – and you are good to go.

New preppy isn't about Charlotte Olympia clunky platforms or Hervé Leger cleavage dresses. It's classic Burberry raincoats, neatly pressed cream silk blouses and dainty hats all the way. It involves quality labels, conservative styles, not wearing too much make-up or tampering with natural hair colour (though brunette home hair-dye is seeing off its rival, blonde).

Amazingly, by preserving in aspic fundamental preppy stalwarts such as classic raincoats, brands like Ralph Lauren and Burberry look fresher than ever. The fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger is particularly enjoying a fashion "moment".

To coincide with his spring 2011 campaign, Hilfiger recently embarked on his "Prep World Tour", which has involved pitching up at key capitals - including Paris (at the Pompidou centre), Milan (alongside the Duomo) and New York (meatpacking district) - and rolling out pop-up shops in the form of a New England-style house complete with white picket fence and tidy green lawn. He will also host a series of talks (including one to students of Central Saint Martins in London) alongside Lisa Birnbach, the author of the best-selling 1980s book The Official Preppy Handbook and her latest work True Prep, which came out in autumn 2010, indicating that prepsterdom was already on the rise again, this time set to be more inclusive and accessible.

This vibe comes across in Hilfiger's campaign, which depicts an all-American fictional family, the Hilfigers, partaking in the preppy rites of spring.

In one advert the eclectic family watches an exclusive sport with rugs on their knees. In another they get out the old family nine irons themselves. The message reads clear: preppy is for everyone. Don't we know it. The adverts, which appear in aspirational publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, look dazzlingly modern not just because trends like stripes or pristine shirts are key to spring 2011, but also thanks to the photographer Craig McDean's dark-humoured images.

At the heart of the preppy wardrobe lie shirts. Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, which owns Tommy Hilfiger along with Calvin Klein and a stable of preppy outfitters including BCBG Max Azria and Michael Kors' affordable diffusion label, MICHAEL, are the biggest shirt manufacturers in the world.

If the noughties were all about luxury flashy designerwear, it looks like it's now the turn of preppy brands to dominate fashion. With the result that the future looks very smart indeed.

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