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Designers push formal elegance. Will fashion follow?

Designers push formal elegance. Will fashion follow?
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First Published: Sat, Sep 15 2007. 12 17 AM IST

Posh effects: Victoria Beckham’s new-found elegance.
Posh effects: Victoria Beckham’s new-found elegance.
Updated: Sat, Sep 15 2007. 12 17 AM IST
Designers and retailers are trying to sell a fashion concept that’s so old it’s new again: Polished, matched looks.
After years of successfully persuading women to break all the rules of fashion and mix and match casual and dressy clothes, the fashion industry once again is trying to sell the idea of carefully put-together ensembles, complete with tailored jackets, matching skirts and high-heeled pumps.
Posh effects: Victoria Beckham’s new-found elegance.
Stores from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to Banana Republic and Target are promoting this more formal look as a big trend this season. Bloomingdale’s is prominently displaying mannequins in matching outfits that include 1920s-style hats and gloves. Even trendy boutiques like Intermix, which has 18 stores and also sells online, are calling the fitted jacket and the traditional pump some of the most important fashion items this season.
“We call it the chic revival,” says Stephanie Solomon, fashion director for women’s ready-to-wear and accessories at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s no longer the ‘just got out of bed’ look.”
But persuading women to go back to head-to-toe ensembles could be a tough sell. The iconoclastic mix-and-match approach has been one of fashion’s big success stories of recent years and has brought about a sea change in shopping habits. Women—especially those in their 20s and 30s—have grown accustomed to bypassing single-designer looks in favour of tossing together disparate pieces to create an eclectic outfit that expresses their personality or mood.
“Individuality continues to be one of the emotional drivers for many women and with that comes creativity of wardrobe and apparel,” says Tom Julian, director of trends at ad agency McCann Erickson. “Rules tend to put off shoppers.”
But designers and retailers, who have pushed a casual aesthetic of high-end denim and flowy baby-doll dresses and tops in recent years, counter that the “have it your way” take on fashion has run its course. This Fall’s more-polished looks will appear “fresh” and will “resonate with shoppers who have grown tired of the Carrie Bradshaw (of TV show Sex and the City) concept of fashion—that mad mix of casual and gussied-up, that look of intentional chaos,” predicts David Wolfe, creative director of Doneger Group, a Manhattan-based retail consultancy.
The fashion industry, of course, benefits when styles change dramatically and women buy more clothes to avoid looking out of date. If women turn towards more formal attire en masse, this could mean a significant bump in sales.
This time around, designers are pushing high-waisted looks, hoping that women will ditch the low-rise pants and skirts they’ve worn for the past several years. Coats are oversized and cocoon-shaped instead of fitted. Shoes are high-heeled pumps instead of the chunky wedges and platforms that have been popular in recent years. Jackets make a statement with short sleeves or voluminous ones and often come cropped, having been designed to match high-waisted pants or skirts. To finish off the ensemble, designers are pushing hats and gloves.
But will women really want to dress this way? Victoria Marble, a 28-year-old realtor from Ashby, Massachusetts, says she’s tired of the youthful baby-doll look and is eager to buy some of the more formal clothes she has seen for Fall. But she won’t be wearing head-to-toe matching ensembles. “I like to tweak things a little bit,” she says.
To reach customers like Marble—and ones who may worry about stepping out in ensembles that are so matchy that they may resemble other women’s outfits—Luca Orlandi, who designs the Luca Luca label, has been careful to create pants, skirt and dress options for his jackets. “If someone buys the jacket with the dress, the salesperson can go, ‘Oh, it also goes with this skirt and it creates a different look’, ” he says. “It helps us make a multiple sale.”
Evening-wear designer Carmen Marc Valvo, who also designs daywear, notes that even while adopting the eclectic mix-and-match fashion sensibility, many women have still largely worn uniforms. “Women get overwhelmed and confused with too many choices,” he says. “When they’ve mixed and matched and put an outfit together, for them, in their heads, that’s their costume, that’s their ensemble. They’ll always wear that shirt with that pair of pants—that outfit is never broken up.”
Retailers say some fashion-forward shoppers are already adopting the new rules. Some customers at Olive & Bette’s, a New York-based chain of trendy boutiques, have lately begun asking for more-polished looks, says owner Stacey Pecor.
Some have mentioned wanting to look like Victoria Beckham, who has been photographed lately in tailored ensembles with matching pumps and handbags. “They see stacks of jeans and stacks of T-shirts and they just want something different,” Pecor says.
Designer Nanette Lepore says she started getting calls this spring from retailers asking if she could make skirts to match her jackets because shoppers were requesting them. The result: 80% of Lepore’s Fall jackets and coats come with matching bottoms, compared with less than 50% this past spring. “It’s a need right now,” she says.
The industry is betting that more formal looks will give a boost to sales of women’s apparel, which have slowed lately. In the year ended in May, sales rose 4.4% to $103.8 billion (about Rs4.26 trillion), according to market researcher NPD Group. That compares with a 6% increase in the previous 12 months.
But even some in the industry aren’t following all of the new rules. Kohl’s, for instance, is stocking up on matching suits, hats, gloves and high-heeled ankle boots. But it is steering clear of dressy, high-waisted pants. ”You have to be very thin for that to look nice,” says David Hacker, the chain’s vice-president of trend and colour. “Anything that’s high-waisted shows every flaw.”
Banana Republic is pushing hats and long gloves intended to be worn with short-sleeved jackets. Deborah Lloyd, executive vice-president of design, encourages women to display personal flair by adding a striking necklace or by wearing shoes with a handbag and belt that are the same colour but aren’t all of the same shade.
Hats aren’t striking a chord with some in the industry either. While Bloomingdale’s and Banana Republic are pushing structured hats like the 1920s-style cloches and fedoras that designers Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler showed on the runways in February, Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing doesn’t think women will run out to buy them this Fall. On the runways, he says, hats worked as a “punctuation point,” but he believes women won’t want to make that much of a fashion statement. Another strike against hats: “We’re a hair-obsessed society,” Downing says.
Still, some shoppers are looking forward to more order in the fashion world. “The mixed and matched look takes a lot of work, frankly,” says Christine Pierce, a 45-year-old dietitian who lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon. “If you know exactly what pieces go together, you won’t even have to think about it—it simplifies your life.”
(Write to wsj@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Sep 15 2007. 12 17 AM IST
More Topics: Fashion | Style | Style |