The end of the century has brought hippies. And they are toting thousand-dollar handbags.

In this last gasp before the millennium's end, the fashion industry's embrace of hippiedom encapsulates the trends that have dominated the last decade. Today's hippie chic has little to do with the cultural revolution of the '60s and everything to do with a final hurrah in a postmodern world.

Hippie style embraces the globe-trotting exoticism that has so enticed fashion designers recently. The look is bursting with references to India, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With their tiers of ruffles and picturesque kerchiefs, the ensembles are romanticized visions of Gypsy dressing and nomadic lifestyles.

These clothes, from such design houses as Emanuel Ungaro, Fendi, Marni and Gucci, come in a dizzying array of patterns and are adorned with eccentric plumes and blossoms. One can also attribute the obsession with pashmina shawls and ponchos to the hippie trend--a hippie chick wouldn't want to catch a chill wearing some featherweight, little nothing of a peasant blouse.

But what makes this version of hippie style so different from the '60s take is the lack of any political subtext. The clothes are not positioned as subtle opposition to the Establishment's social mores. They do not cry out for political upheaval. They don't even whisper about grass-roots activism.

Instead, the new brand of hippie chic takes its cues from the indulgent '80s, when fashion was about adorning the self in the manner of a Christmas tree. It is a study in extravagance, a reexamination of the public face of wealth.

Hippie chic also underscores how difficult it is to be creative and distinctive in an industry that specializes in commodifying cultural signposts.

While this style is couched in reverie about the personal, the individual and the iconoclastic, its reality is not tie-dyeing a shirt in one's back yard but rather finding an overpriced vintage version as realized by an obscure 1970s couturier. In true contemporary style, one can purchase salvaged jeans hand-decorated with bits of antique fabric. This version of hippie fashion is consumed with buying the latest oddity rather than whipping it up at home.

In his heyday, Yves Saint Laurent helped bring hippie style to the world's socialites by putting Russian peasant garb on his runway. But the difference between then and now is that Saint Laurent's catwalk style was marketed only as fashion, not as something earthy, organic or artisanal.

In the September issue of Vogue, photographer Steven Meisel depicts a modern gilded age of fashion in which hippie chic takes on a grand, almost courtly style. The photographs are intriguing because they reflect wealth defined by references to a host of cultures--the hallmark of the well-to-do is their globe-trotting and treasure hunting. Ethnicity--clothes that seem rooted somewhere other than the sterile rooms of an atelier--are deemed most exquisite and most desirable.

But there is also an air of dishevelment. Wealth means not having to try so hard to be beautiful. This bit of fashion logic has its roots in the much-maligned early '90s grunge trend, which in its one-season life span championed slovenliness as chic.

The new hippies are defined by their boho-mirrored Fendi bags and sheared mink coats, their Jean Paul Gaultier sweaters and their Marni pony-skin skirts. As the fashion industry moves forward, one could argue that fashion has sucked the meaning out of one of the few style trends that actually had a clear, unforced message. But to go further, it would also be accurate to say that the fashion industry has redefined the look of wealth.

It is not enough to belly up to the Chanel or Gucci counter and spend a fortune on the newest handbag. The high-gloss rich are passe. Instead, the most desirable items are those that are not sleek but that have a few rough edges, that look as if they might have been bartered for in a Moroccan souk.

Of course, people with seven-figure incomes dressing as if they've just ransacked a vintage clothing store is no more a sign of individuality than a parade of Potomac ladies clutching their Gucci handbags.

But hippie chic is a sign that a new roster of influences and attitudes has been deemed important, pleasing and valuable--at least for the moment. Fashion has placed into vogue ethnicity and the beauty of imperfection.