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Seventh Ave.’s Lost Chic: Center of Style

NEW YORK — Fashion Avenue is a street paved with messy dressers.<br><br>The industry might be showing off its finery this week in the glare of the catwalk spotlights, but take a peek inside some Seventh Avenue showrooms and an alternate universe...

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NEW YORK — Fashion Avenue is a street paved with messy dressers.

The industry might be showing off its finery this week in the glare of the catwalk spotlights, but take a peek inside some Seventh Avenue showrooms and an alternate universe emerges, where showroom employees routinely dress in ripped T-shirts, dirty jeans and ensembles so glaringly loud that the vibrancy is only eclipsed by the click-clack, click-clack of an army of flip-flops slapping on the floor.

While it’s not exactly the picture one might imagine at what are reputedly some of the most fashionable companies in the world, an increasingly messy-casual standard of dress for the American workforce has suddenly infected even an industry that is hypercritically image-conscious. Even though creative types usually enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere at work than their counterparts in, for instance, finance, the dress code on Seventh Avenue seems to have suddenly hit a crisis point during an unusually hot and dry New York City summer.

“I look at the streets of New York, and I ask, ‘Why am I designing?’” asked Donna Karan, as she looked out the window of her limousine. “People are ugly. It’s pretty bad out there. People want comfort and they want casual, but it’s hard to dress professionally that way. Then again, you’re talking to the wrong person. I wear Tevas every day to work.”

Maybe it’s the proximity to the Port Authority bus terminal that makes Fashion Avenue look like an oxymoron, when the “fashion dont’s” parade by morning, noon and night. But a lot of store buyers and editors are beginning to wonder why such sloppiness, usually reserved for the white sneaker-and-hose crowd outdoors, has crept into their chic offices as well. Some blame it on the summer intern infusion — they just don’t know any better — while others claim it’s caused by the general malaise of hot office buildings in a heat wave. Of course, this overlooks that modern convenience called air conditioning.

“No matter how old you are, you’re still a little bit bitter from having to work during the summer,” said Kirna Zabete co-owner Sarah Easley. “But I used to notice that it was people downtown who were always in flat sandals and midtown was more dressy. Now that downtown attitude is creeping uptown, this summer in particular. Maybe it’s the fashion trends, since the main influence was a bohemian style, which made it seem more legitimate to wear a torn shirt, a prairie skirt and flip-flops.”

Still, it’s hard to justify sewer chic with the excuse of being fashionable. Another buyer said he recently went to an appointment at a top-designer showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue where the entire sales staff wore T-shirts and jeans, and covered themselves in pashmina shawls to keep warm from the air conditioning.

“They looked like little cocoons that kept popping open, every time they pulled another dress off the rack,” he said.

The casualization problem goes far beyond the fashion industry, of course, as many Wall Street firms that experimented with casual Friday concepts in the Nineties found the efforts to be disastrous, with workers turning up in bizarre combinations of pleated chino pants and undershirts. They quickly returned to a more formal standard of dress, creating a backlash against corporate casual that has been so strong that many designers and magazine editors have trumpeted the “return of the suit.” Yet that doesn’t mean American workers are anywhere near being ready to handle the constraints of business attire on the level of their counterparts in the Fifties.

“There’s a lot of skin around here some days,” Cynthia Rowley said. “That’s not very professional, unless you’re talking about another kind of profession. But the only thing I would really wish for is a little more creativity, because people really have gotten into this uniform where everybody looks alike. It’s just different versions of the exact same thing. Sameness is the worst thing I can think of.”

The casual fashion workforce is not limited to Manhattan, either. Jil Sander designer Milan Vukmirovic said European offices have become more casual: “It’s funny that if you work in fashion, you don’t have any occasion to wear fashion. It’s very hard to be in the current trend if you’re working on the next one.”

Designers who have been around longer are even more appalled. “I guess I would just say, ‘Yuck,’” said Arnold Scaasi, who trained under Charles James and has rarely been seen in less than a three-piece suit during his four decades on Seventh Avenue.

“I am amazed when I look at the covers of WWD each day and see clothes that have nothing to do with fashion at all,” he said. “They are just sort of coverings. I don’t know where the spirit has gone.”

But the savviest of magazine editorials doesn’t always translate to the street. Often, it doesn’t even sound like the same language, as evidenced by Seventh Avenue women wearing some recently highlighted trends that were a bit over their heads. Take the lace socks under military boots and knockoff Balenciaga fatigues, all on one woman, or another who combined a fringed skirt, fringed jacket and fringed bag for a look that was less on the fringe of fashion than its outskirts.

“Offices have gotten very lackadaisical,” said Donata Minelli, director of the ready-to-wear label Yigal Azrouel. “The combination of such little clothing, so much denim and flip-flops in somebody’s corporate offices doesn’t convey a professional atmosphere to national and international retailers. I’ve made employees change certain aspects of their attire. No one wears jeans here, except for the men, but even they come in wearing a tailored shirt and beautiful shoes.”

All in all, denim is in danger of getting a bad rap, but it doesn’t have to be that way, said Rachel DiCarlo, vice president, fashion public relations for Gap Inc.

“Jeans are perfectly appropriate for work, but accessorizing them in the right way, with a great jacket, blouse and a Hermès belt, can bring jeans to a whole new level,” she said, adding one bit of cautionary advice. “Wearing flip-flops is a little bit too casual. Anything with a heel will make you feel more pulled together and dressy.”

But some outfits on Fashion Avenue are a mess no matter how a woman accessorizes them. And the problem, observers warn, is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“In a lot of ways, you would think these people would be looking to dress in a way that reflects the merchandise that they are selling,” said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager of Henri Bendel. “But they’re not. They’ve just become too casual.”

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