By and  on September 13, 1994

PARIS -- Belly buttons and bare legs, creamy white suits, skimpy slipdresses, bra tops, tank tops and loads of linen and silk crepe. Sound like the makings of an airy summer wardrobe? Wrong.

These are some of the looks that broke onto Europe's runways for fall, and they're hitting retail floors now. It's a hint of one of the biggest controversies in la mode today: seasonless clothes.

Shocking? Well, maybe not to fashion insiders. But the rest of the female population may be a bit baffled by the summery air that permeates many of the winter collections.

Some American retailers have embraced the 10-month-a-year fabrics, while others are sticking to true winter-weight wools. European stores are also conflicted: Those with a younger clientele say yes to the seasonless looks, while the traditionalists say no.

But the retailers who applaud seasonless looks say they represent a good value -- even in the pricey designer market -- and can be worn throughout much of the year.

Designers contend rules were meant to be broken, and if women don't get it today, they're likely to catch on tomorrow.

Length, for example, has gone from long to short to a menu of choices. The hemline that's 'in' today is whatever women feel comfortable wearing -- from the tiniest minis to ankle-grazing skirts.

Black with navy, once a big no-no, is now the coolest combination. And with the demise of the big ball gown and the acceptability of pants -- and even sneakers -- at cocktail hour, day and eveningwear have become one big blur.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, Europe's lighter weights have been well received this fall, said Rose Marie Bravo, president.

"The lighter-weight clothes are doing extremely well, across the board -- not just in our southern stores. The cool wools and lighter knits are especially strong.

"Women treasure fabrics that can be worn 10 months a year, particularly when they're making this type of investment," Bravo added. She said layering is the key, considering that most indoor areas are well heated.

"Women would rather layer than wear something really heavy," she said. "The comfort level is an important factor."Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale's, said the store bought into lightweight for fall only when the look was right.

Bloomingdale's opened Karl Lagerfeld and Chloe shops in August, and Ruttenstein said the lighter fabrics there, which include microfiber and other synthetics, have had "excellent" customer reaction.

"Both those shops are running above plan," he said. "We feel that it usually stays warm through October, and with all the traveling people do, they want these lightweight, packable fabrics that don't wrinkle. Plus, you can layer the fabrics when it gets a little colder."

Shelle Bagot, owner of the Gazebo in Dallas, said lightweight fabrics have always been a plus for the Texas customer, but the colors and styling must be appropriate.

"A lot of times, what we see on the runway isn't what's in the showrooms or what comes to the store," she said, adding that summery silhouettes for fall were not a factor for her.

Reds, greens and other rich, vibrant tones have been a big factor in early fall offerings, more so than fabrics, and Bagot said they have been well received by the consumer.

On the other hand, stores in chillier climates are not abandoning heavyweight goods.

Barbara Weiser, executive vice president of the Charivari specialty chain in New York, said lightweight fabrics have not been much of a factor in her stores' fall offerings.

"One of the first things to do well was a heavy coat by Romeo Gigli," she said. "Heavy wools from Dries Van Noten and garments with fur trim also have been selling well, so the lightweight fabrics are not really an issue for us.

"There are many beautiful lightweight silks that some designers have layered under wools," she added. "That gives a softer look to men's wear silhouettes. New looks, as usual, are more important than fabric choices."

On the other side of the order pad are the designers, who seem not to give a fig about the weather anymore and are turning out clothes that move easily from winter to summer and back again."The general attitude now is to wear something that is comfortable and that looks nice, rather than thinking about the materials related to the season," said Gianni Versace, who showed a slew of stretch chiffon dresses under shearling coats for winter.

Most designers agree and hope that seasons' boundaries will disappear completely so that women will have, as Emanuel Ungaro puts it, "a new sense of freedom...and also get rid of old habits that have imposed a traditional way of dressing."

There are, however, the more conservative designers -- and some skeptical buyers -- who still like the cyclical guidelines.

"I think it's an easy game, and one that doesn't work," said Giorgio Armani, about fashion's departure from seasons. "I say, when you create a collection for men or women, it has to be with a sense of wearability. But when you do something like this [light fabrics and skimpy dresses] in winter, the first thing I ask myself is, 'Where is a woman going to wear this?"' Armani continued, "OK, you say, there are women who can wear these kinds of things, but then the question is, how many women are going to want to wear georgette under a heavy coat?"

Valentino lives by the same rules. "It's true that basic pieces, like a cotton shirt, a white T-shirt, a cotton tank top, a chiffon shirt and a pair of jeans are seasonless," said the Rome-based designer. "But I don't believe that it is possible to have just one wardrobe for summer and winter."

It seems that women are questioning the old fashion codes that once declared wool for wintertime, and white, linen and patent leather only after May 31.

"There are no dicta in fashion any longer," according to Gianfranco Ferré. "It's neither shorter nor longer. So there will be women who show their belly buttons in the winter because there is nothing to say they should not."

"If not regularly," agreed Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, "we believe at times some women do have occasions during the winter to bare their midriff."Corinne Cobson claims to be one of the founders of seasonless fashion. "For years I've been trying to break the system," said the French designer, who dressed her models in super-short skirts and bare legs for winter '95. She also showed bathing suits over poorboy sweaters one winter, and another time, very tight and cropped sweaters with shorts so short one could see the bum.

Agnes b, Mariot Chanet, Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten are also nonconformists when it comes to the separate season concept.

Though seasonal fashion may be less relevant to some, seasons do exist -- "But now it's all mixed up," said Karl Lagerfeld.

"Houses are well heated in the winter, so women can wear a skindress between or under all the little pieces," said Lagerfeld.

"In the winter they will not wear it in the streets, so it's more a point of private fashion," he added.

Harrods fashion director, Vanessa de Lisle, explained that in the past, many strong looks for fall were in heavy fabrics not suited to modern, well-heated offices and homes. Customers adapted to that before many designers by buying seasonless styles that they could layer with either waistcoats or fine sweaters.

Another issue in the battle for seasons that the fashion world -- and women -- have become so international.

"In the winter, we travel to the sun," said Cobson, "and in Los Angeles, I don't think they really wear those fur coats, do you?"

But Armani argues that even though one doesn't have to be restricted to tweed in the winter -- "because, after all, our houses are heated, we don't walk anywhere anymore, so we don't have to cover up the way we once did, and aren't obliged to dress like a [Margaret] Thatcher" -- the idea of seeing winter collections that look like summer collections "seems a bit anachronistic to me."

Some designers, though, feel they must cater to the international world when designing a collection, and take into consideration climatic conditions.

Ferré explained: "We develop and sell the collection all over the world, so it must contain light weights that work in winter and spring. And take our shoe collection at Dior: We will have shoes that can be worn in winter in Paris, on the beach in summer and in hot weather in Asia."Rifat Ozbek, who made his Paris debut this season with a collection full of midriff-baring tops, said, "People don't want to get rid of something after only one season. It's blending together, and now women can wear the same things winter and summer, but layer it on or off as they wish."

As in America, European retailers have mixed emotions about the seasonless look. Those catering to a younger, trendier clientele are more open to the one-season philosophy. The more conservative are not.

"I was concerned initially about all the winter collections looking so summery. I kept having to pinch myself to remind myself it was winter I was looking at," said Harrods' de Lisle. "But I can see women buying the slipdresses for parties and dinners. It's not an office look, but lace and chiffon will look beautiful for evening."

Pupi Solari, owner of the Milan boutique bearing her name, said she detests the notion of no seasons -- it only cultivates the retailer's biggest fear: bad business.

"Besides the fact that showing your midriff reveals bad taste, I think that women need to be stimulated to buy new things each season," she said. "If retailers carry universal apparel, the concept of fashion becomes dismal."

At Maria Luisa in Paris, the attitude is au contraire, and a good 50 percent of the stock is seasonless, said owner Maria-Luisa Poumaillou.

"When you buy trendy designers like we do, they work in grays, black and brown, so you can wear their clothes anytime," said Poumaillou, whose customers are "definitely ready for this change. Martin Margiela, for instance, had a velvet skirt for summer. It was sold very quickly with a little jean jacket," she added, referring to the designer's spring/summer '94 collection, which was a "best-of" compilation from the last 10 seasons -- winter and summer.

"In daily life, the system of seasons doesn't exist anymore -- people already mix their summer and winter clothes in the same way that they mix their new and old clothes," said Margiela, adding that buyers were not reluctant to buy his "winter" clothes for summer. "But of course we didn't present sheepskin coats. It really just depends on where the shop is. It's different for California than Belgium."Designers claim they are only offering more options to the customer -- but more options doesn't necessarily mean that a woman knows what to do with them.

"There is nothing to guarantee that," said Ferré. This is where the retailer comes in, say the designers, who, in some cases, are more than a bit disappointed.

"Buyers have less and less talent because they don't want to take risks; they want to satisfy the base customer and at the same time have the gimmicky pieces," said Christian Lacroix.

Added Lagerfeld, "There is a lot to reinvent in the world of retail, to bring the way to wear clothes to women and not only clothes as separate items. The problem is there."

But buyers of the no-season persuasion argue that they do just that. "I'll tell the customer she can wear the same thin dress with thick tights and a heavy sweater in the winter and bare legs and little sneakers in the summer," said Poumaillou. "And crop sweaters are useful for transparent dresses. Tank sweaters are good with tattoo T-shirts under them."

De Lisle from Harrods expects most women to layer the slipdress, for example, with lace or silver bodies under or gauzy tunics over them.

"The slipdress is a very adaptable style and there are lots of different things women can do with it to dress it up or down," she said, adding that women understand the look now and will want to buy it for fall.

At Galeries Lafayette in Paris, rtw buyer Claire Perrin, who "dresses women and not young girls," said, "Why not?" to sheer skirts in winter.

"You just put thick tights underneath; short sweaters are for at home. But it all depends on your age, and customers who like Margiela or Dries Van Noten won't be afraid. It's the customers who aren't near fashion that won't be interested in it."

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