THE MESSAGE IS THE MIX
FORGET THE STANDOUT TREND THIS FALL--NO ONE LOOK HAS MOVED TO THE FOREFRONT, RETAILERS SAY. BUT A FEW COMMON THEMES HAVE EMERGED: CLASSIC TRUMPS THE FLASH-IN-THE-PAN, MINIMALLY MODERN BEATS OUT FUSSY EMBELLISHMENT, AND YES, THE BLOUSE IS BACK.

Byline: Janet Ozzard

New, new, new.
That's the mantra of American retailers heading into the fall 2001 women's ready-to-wear shows. Of course, every season is about new trends to entice customers to shell out for the season's must-have looks. But this fall, there's an even more intense edge to the retailer's quest: Fashion is in a murky phase of hard-to-sell eclecticism, say the stores, making it difficult to decide what will be the item or the look of the season. And needless to say, competition for new designer names has never been so fierce.
"The most important thing is the evolution of themes from the past season, so that customers can follow," said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue. "Of course we want to see newness, but it has to make sense."
"It's all about bringing in [the] new," said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising at Barneys New York.
"You can anticipate trends, but trends happen so fast now that you have to jump on them immediately, and then they're over. We all know what designers are trending. But we're looking for things that are special and unique for our customer and that will give us a point of difference," she said. "We're trying to find new people and get them to be exclusive, and we're working harder on developing our own collections. It can't just be new--it has to be new, special and good."
But good can mean many things to many people. And with a brutal holiday season behind them and the threat of a softer economy ahead of them, some of the country's bigger upscale retailers are making it very clear that they are not going to try to force customers into a trend-driven look more appropriate for "Sex and the City" than "Once and Again." "When we think about last fall, the success came from the fact that the clothes were very feminine, yet very elegant," said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director for Neiman Marcus. "We would like to find that again."
Fashion has skewed so young, added Kaner, that a simple truth has emerged: Women are having a hard time finding clothes.
"We all love Nicholas Ghesquiere, but let's face it, the one-shoulder mini is not something most women have a lot of occasion to wear," she said. "We all want to look younger; this isn't like our mother's day, when we wanted to look older than our years. But we also want to look ladylike and elegant. And a beautifully cut suit or dress can be sexier than a bare midriff and a crop top."
It's a common cry: Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom also called for designers to get their noses out of their high school yearbooks and design for real women.
Jennifer Wheeler, director of designer sportswear for Nordstrom, calls the look she's after "cool classics," or the kind of clothes that "fill the needs of a modern Babe Paley, who leads an active, multidimensional life and is just as comfortable in a chic pair of pants with a great novelty knit as she is in a smart, skirted suit or the perfect little cocktail dress."
"We're hoping to see a real return to modernism, away from so many prints, embellishment, [and] even color," said James Aguiar, rtw fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "We'd like to see things get a little simpler, even minimal. The suit has to be modern. It can't be retro."
"We hope to see a whole kind of urban dressing movement that is clean, modern, and sophisticated," agreed Saks' Lividini. Suits have done well at the store, she said, and she'd like to see that continue. And short, agree all the retailers, is definitely on the upswing.
For Henri Bendel, on the other hand, "good" can equal a more freewheeling look from one of its smaller young designers, like Bernhard Wilhelm or Jean Paul Knott. Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at the store said he expects trends to continue their diffusion, moving away from any one central theme and toward an eclecticism that blends vintage with new looks and mixes up silhouettes and fabrics.
Eclecticism "plays into the whole vintage trend. Who needs another closetful of clothes?" Burstell said. "Sometimes you want to go back to the original, great thing." Younger designers, meanwhile, tend to be less constrained by standard commercial ideas, he said, "and they show a little more freedom than designers did 20 or even 10 years ago."
As for concrete trends, Burstell said "spring was a nice balance between color and black, which the customer liked. I'd like to see that continue for fall." Nordstrom's Wheeler said she'd like to see "the deepening of spring shades of blue and lavender to richer shades of sapphire, navy, plum and aubergine, a continuation ofthe sophisticated brown color palette and as always, black in general."
With the couture and men's shows fresh in their minds, retailers say they've got a whiff of what's to come.
"I'm interested to see how the men's shows and couture will affect the women's shows, because I don't think they've ever been this close before," said Aguiar. "I'd expect that there will be more direct correlation than there has been in the past." For example, Aguiar was intrigued by some of the new ways shearling was handled in the men's shows, and he'd like to see a similar evolution in women's.
Two images emerged loud and clear from couture. First, the blouse can stand on its own.
"We saw a lot of important blouses in couture, and we liked it," said Lividini. "It's becoming more grown up. The trend had started out very simply, but now it has evolved."
"I like the idea of the skirt and blouse," said Aguiar. "It's not new, but it's going to be strong."
Second, the waist is the new, new thing.
"The hourglass silhouette, as exemplified by the corset, was definitely important," said Gilhart. "It was a theme that was picked up and repeated, and I liked it a lot; it really made me think of luxury."
"The couture was all about the waist," said Lividini, who said the details around the waist--beading, cutouts, corset details-- were feminine and sexy. "The silhouettes were very pretty. And we like pretty clothes."
As for the heavy-handed decade references--ditch them.
"We're looking for fashion to move forward, and get away from very obvious decade references," said Aguiar.

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