NEW YORK--"Let us not go over the old ground, let us rather prepare for what is to come."
Easy for Cicero to say--he was never asked to reinvent the toga.
But for designers who are expected to turn out exciting, salable collections season after season, year after year, it's a daunting task. Most would say it's impossible to do twice, let alone five times a year: Show me something that hasn't been done, the argument goes, and I'll show you
something that doesn't work on the body.
Certainly that's the feeling this season, with designers reveling in fashion nostalgia. It took over the European runways to varying degrees, at times subtly--at times with all the discretion of a Joan Crawford shoulder. Now, with the New York collections underway, we're poised to see more of the same. In fact, many designers have even allowed the word "retro," once considered the vilest of terms, back into their vernacular.
Not surprisingly, a familiar debate had resurfaced: Is fashion nostalgia unavoidable, the result of obvious anatomical restrictions, or is it the unfortunate byproduct of a dearth of ideas?
"I am really disillusioned about this revival of the so-called glorious years of fashion," says Giorgio Armani. "It is part of the past. It doesn't belong to us."
"You're not supposed to look back?" asks Marc Jacobs. "Give me a break--everything refers to something."
Spring's biggest messages have been the looks of the Forties and Seventies, including the Seventies looking back at the Forties, as Jacobs showed on Saturday and Anna Sui promises to demonstrate on Thursday. But there are also elements of the Thirties, Fifties and Sixties.
A pop-culture truism holds that, at the end of a millennium, the penchant for nostalgia increases. But fashion has always pillaged the past--Empire styles, for example, were inspired by the ancients.
In our time, Norma Kamali recreated the Forties for a new generation, while scores of designers have been replaying Sixties' tunes for at least a decade. And just two years ago, Seventies' counter-culture fever ran rampant on the runways.
The current mood couldn't be further from the anti-fashion roots that inspired designers for spring '93. This time around, the much-heralded return to glamour and a more structured silhouette has given way to Forties hype. And, in some cases, the retro element is being blown out of proportion. Certain adjustments of silhouette, however minor or mundane, almost inevitably recall a certain period, until--as the fashion saying goes--"the eye adjusts." Drop a waistline, you flash to the Twenties; drop a hemline and strengthen a shoulder, and you'll likely think Forties. Add a snood, bold lips and platforms, and you crash into the decade head-on.
Calvin Klein notes that his longer lengths of last season might have said Forties to some, but he doesn't see it that way: "I never think about retro. I'm thinking about modern American women, and you know retro has nothing to do with the way they live." "Women want sexy and glamorous, there's no question about it," says Donna Karan. "They want structure. Of course, the mind works from a reference point, but that doesn't mean it's retro." This season, Karan will show plenty of short, fitted jackets, some with three-quarter sleeves, a proportion she says is less about retro than about "wanting to wear bracelets again."
Karan does acknowledge "a tongue-in-cheek retro element" at DKNY, but says it has been there "from day one." The designer continues, "And the collection is sold, finished, done." (She did, however, add a party group for Sunday night's show.)
While many of the recent runway antics are more about beauty and accessories than a realistic rendering of old silhouettes, some in the industry say that too many of the clothes are in fact too literal. "I like retro as a minor trend when done by young designers with a young audience, people like Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs," says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. "However, deep down, I feel retro is a copout--I mean those floppy dresses, overly ornamented, bowed, and those sweetheart necklines. And snoods--I don't see anybody in her right mind going to work that way, not even people in fashion and entertainment."
As for suits, Ruttenstein likes a more structured shape with a slightly stronger shoulder, but: "to look like Joan Crawford and Adrian--that's not what ourcustomers are looking for." He continues: "I think Richard Tyler is on the right wavelength. His suits have strength and structure but little padding."
At Stanley Korshak, there will be only the slightest nod to the Thirties and Forties this spring. "We just touched on those suits very lightly," says Kay Glatter, vice president and director of women's merchandising, of her store's European purchases. "They're so charming with darling hats and high-heel shoes, until you sit down in the showroom and start writing and you think, 'Who is going to wear this, and where will they go in it?"'
And no less a nostalgia authority than Norma Kamali says folks, it's time to move on. "Retro in the Seventies was fresh, new and exciting," she explains. "It's not fresh anymore."
Kamali says those clothes just don't work today because there has been a fundamental change in the way people dress, one that has been profoundly influenced by leisure and sports. "We have to make clothes that make sense--clothes that address lifestyle needs, clothes that are protective given the environment we live in, clothes that take advantage of all technology has to offer. Nostalgia is not the answer. It's like hiding under your mother's skirts when you're scared."

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