SYNTHETIC CHIC

Byline: Kathleen Nicholson and Michael McNamara

NEW YORK--"Sexy as hell."
That's how Calvin Klein describes them. Donna Karan bestows her favorite accolade, "So, so modern," and Michael Kors says they're on the road to the next millennium.
What has designers so enamored?
Synthetic fabrics. That's right. Rayon, acetate, even polyester, are très chic again. After years of wallowing in fashion's bargain basement, man-made fibers have become the toast of the designer circuit. The New York resort collections offered a virtual glossary of them, from rayon in Calvin's satin and Kors's cellulose piqué to Donna's nylon cellophane organza and a cut-and-sew knit construction of a fiber called Tencel that Isaac Mizrahi used for sexy, close-to-the-body dresses and shirts.
Tencel, developed by Courtaulds, is one of the newest fibers on the block. Available since 1992, it is derived from the natural cellulose in wood pulp, as is rayon. Ellen Flynn, marketing director, says designers are responding to the hand and drape of Tencel fabrics "as a Nineties concept, combining luxury and performance."
But that fiber is far from the only news. While rayon, Lycra spandex, acrylic and polyester ring familiar, their current incarnations are light years removed from their origins. Now, megatechnology is facilitating endless fabric possibilities, all of which have designers fascinated. While they may not know the fibers' chemical compounds, how they're made or whether they're in staple or filament form, designers are relishing the new design possibilities of synthetics.
All this attention might prove to be a boon to fiber producers.
In fact, 1994 is shaping up as the best year for polyester since the beginning of the decade. Two of the three polyester producers, Wellman and Hoechst Celanese, point to the fiber as keying increased profits in their most recent quarters.
"The apparel markets seem to be embracing polyester, as we're seeing some modest shifts in blend levels," says Jim Casey, president of the fibers division of Wellman.
At DuPont, which recently posted its best quarter in fibers in 4 1/2 years, Dacron polyester performance was relatively weak, but it is "showing signs of tremendous improvement," says Bob Pruyn, the company's textiles director.
Jerald Blumberg, Dupont's senior vice president who oversees the company's $6.2 billion fibers business, says negative hangups about polyester are a thing of the past. "Polyester is the original wrinkle-free fiber and has shed its leisure-suit image of the Seventies." He adds that R&D has played a major role in the fiber's comeback: "We've made some manufacturing advancements with regard to the feel, so it doesn't have the greasy feel that it once had."
DuPont also dominates the spandex market, with Lycra. A staple in activewear and swimwear, Lycra was on the market for two decades and eventually made major inroads into the ready-to-wear market.
"Remember when Lycra was just in activewear and then it made its way into ready-to-wear? Now, it's a staple," says Michael Kors. "I think we'll continue to see things like that happen in fashion."
"The mills deserve all the credit in my mind," says Richard Tyler, who has been a synthetics devotee since opening his company five years ago. For resort, Tyler used rayon for his crisp white suits and sexy striped knits. "The Italians have done a great job in developing these things so that they have a supple hand. They can even look like silk. They pleat well and, blended with wool, you can get great textures."
Fashion's re-embrace of synthetics is no one-season epiphany. But until very recently, many designers have been faking it on the Q.T., going to great lengths to come up with newfangled names for familiar fibers. Even today, many American designers refuse to speak the word "rayon," opting instead for the more genteel-sounding "viscose."
Whether it's viscose or rayon, the fiber makes for soft, fluid fabrics. Rayon is also cheaper than Tencel and more plentiful. But recently, rayon received a blow when the Consumer Products Safety Commission recalled about 250,000 rayon skirts from India, a move that's led to retailer and consumer confusion over the material.
PR problems may come and go, but some of the big guns have been reaching beyond the all-natural range for years. Giorgio Armani paved the way with his innovative use of rayon. Subsequently, while designers like Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang were experimenting with bold fabrics such as vinyl and rubber, numerous others started introducing less extreme synthetics into their lineups--acetate satin here, rayon crepe there.
This synthetic calm turned mighty raucous in fall's fake fur-plastic-neoprene frenzy. While it's still too early to gauge broad consumer response to such overt fakes, retailers report varying degrees of success with the more low-key synthetics.
For the fake fur market, acrylic has been key. But the faux movement may be only so much window dressing for acrylic, with knits delivering the real punch in terms of market growth. "Acrylic, especially in the knit market, has become a better performer," says David Lyttle, marketing manager for Cytec Industries, an acrylic producer.
In the current New York resort season--a strong one--designers forged ahead with synthetics. Key ideas included shine-and-matte looks, chiffons, cellophanes and reflective finishes.
"This resort looked so new. It was very different from anything else we had seen for the season in the past couple of years," says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president, fashion direction, Bloomingdale's. "The synthetics are so developed now. They look great, they feel great and they take to matte and shine finishes well."
And shine they did. While primaries and pastels permeated the collections, some of the most exciting looks had a luminescent quality. Donna Karan worked in tandem with several European mills to develop fabrics "with the luminosity of seashells." Ralph Lauren also went the sea-breezy route, using polyamide and Lycra satin and rayon matte jersey in gentle pastels. Calvin Klein showed full or half-slips in rayon satin he maintains has a weight that's "sexy in a way silk can't be." There were nylon satins and surfer-trunk-inspired neo-ripstop from Victor Alfaro; Nicole Miller's polyester georgette dresses; and Cynthia Rowley's dresses in Darlexx, Darlington Fabrics' lightweight form of neoprene, and Han Feng's pleated polyesters. Mark Eisen's resort collection was almost all synthetics--raincoats in polyurethane and cotton laminated gauze; suits in acetate and rayon stretch crepe.
"The man-mades look exciting because of their sheen," says Karan.
"When you have a natural fabric and you try to do the same things that you do with a synthetic," notes Kors, "the garment looks billowy, not drapy. These fabrics also have a great hand."
In many cases, the resurgence of interest in synthetics results from the desire to marry style with function.
Ralph Lauren notes that man-mades allow for "fusing the quality and esthetic of old fabrics with modern technology." Case in point: the fleece fabric Polartec, developed by Malden Mills, and H2off, developed by Teijin, which Lauren has used since 1991 for skiwear. "Water doesn't even bead, it just falls off," says Buffy Birrittella, senior vice president of women's design and advertising. "And it looks so sexy. But people were stunned to see the label--100 percent polyester."
Function isn't always the point, however. Sometimes, the only purpose is to make an item fabulous and fashionable--practicality be damned.
"Neiman Marcus called today to say they've presold all of the raincoats," says Marc Jacobs of his much-photographed Latex trenches. "It's hysterical. This Latex doesn't breathe. And it's easier to take care of a child than one of these coats. They can't be dry-cleaned, they have to be handwashed in gentle soap, not detergent, and stored like fur in a cool, dark place, or they disintegrate." On the other hand, Jacobs notes that some more basic fabrics "are indestructible. Look at those polyester dresses from the Seventies. It just doesn't wear out like silk."
In addition, silk has saturated the market at numerous price points, which has helped open the door for synthetics. Joanna Mandl, U.S. fabric agent to six Italian mills, sells to most of the major designers. "It got to the point in the last few years where silk had lost its value," she says. "You could buy it anywhere and at any price. So designers were looking for something new."
While silk may have lost some of its elitist luster, designers note that due to the technology involved and the fact that many synthetics are imported, their prices are often at least as high as those for natural fabrics.
But do consumers want high-ticket fakes? "There has been no customer resistance to it whatsoever so far," says Ruttenstein. "In fact, one of our best suits at retail for fall is a Lagerfeld tweed suit that is part rubber. I think women are intrigued by it."
Joan Weinstein, president of Ultimo in Chicago, says, "If it's glorious and we buy the right thing, they buy it. If it's ordinary, there is price resistance. Our customer loves fabrics like viscose from Armani or Tyler because they're comfortable and travel well. Tyler has the kind of viscose we love, and he always gives you something interesting."
Others, however, are less certain. "For fall I ordered the Dolce & Gabbana plastic coat, but it's just hit the floor," says Barbara Weiser, president of Charivari. "For resort, I like the patent rainwear and some of the satin. But in the past, things like PVC haven't worked. As cool and as hip as synthetic leathers look, they don't perform for me at retail."
Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, notes that consumers are coming around, but not without a struggle. "When it comes to classical fabrics, the customer still likes to know it's pure silk or pure wool, especially from the designer market. In other markets, if it's different and appealing, they don't mind if it's synthetic."
Consumer resistance isn't the only hurdle. Designers say synthetics differ from naturals not only on the hanger, but in the sample room as well. 'They are a little bit tricky to sew," says Kors. "It can take twice as long to cut and sew a viscose garment than a wool one," adds Tyler. "You have to be much more careful with viscose, in sewing, pressing, everything."
"Whenever you develop something new, you don't know its characteristics, limitations, the way it works," Victor Alfaro concurs. "You learn as you go along."
But apparently the pluses far outweigh the minuses, and designers are undaunted.
"Technology allows for so much today," says Donna Karan. "To resist is like saying, 'I don't want to work on a computer.' It just doesn't make sense."

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