By  on June 1, 1994

NEW YORK -- Who will wear it?

Sharon Stone won't. Neither will Amber Valetta, who swears it's for "old geezers." Bianca Jagger says it's neither here nor there and besides, you have to worry too much about shoes. On the other hand, Diane Von Furstenberg thinks it's chicer than chic, and Naomi Campbell has already asked Marie Anne Oudejans, hip new designer to the model set, to whip her up a few pieces in time for summer.

It's been called everything from the wave of the future to the lambada of fashion, and it's hitting the stores this fall -- accompanied by more than a few retail jitters.

It, of course, is The New Length, hovering around the knee, from just above to just below. While its most overt enthusiasts are Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein, numerous other designers are in on the act: Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Isaac Mizrahi, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang among them. Even Ghost, which thrives on baring nearly everything, had a few knee-flirting skirts, see-through though they were.

"As a designer, I needed a new way of expression," says Donna Karan, who showed knee-length, short-short and countless hanky hems that went both ways. "Do I think it will sell? It's creative. A small, limited group will wear it."

How limited? Some say most young women won't wear it, and most not-so-young women shouldn't wear it. "Anything can become curious and fun on young, hip women," says Giorgio Armani. "But it's another thing to see it on a 40-year-old woman, who merely becomes bourgeois."

As for the stores, an excellent barometer of what they really think of a runway trend is how quickly they jump in with their own versions. For example, in New York, Versace-esque vinyl has been spotted everywhere from hole-in-the-wall SoHo storefronts to Macy's. Both Bloomingdale's and Barneys New York are testing the waters with knee-nearing silhouettes this summer. But Lloyd Singer, president of the contemporary firm ABS -- ever quick to turn out a knockoff or two -- says that, except for the occasional 22-inch "flirt skirt" and basic career clothes, "the stores just haven't been asking for anything long."Discussion has focused on the Prada and Calvin Klein collections -- especially his -- for obvious reasons. Other collections featured more than one length, and also had a whole lot more going on. Vivienne Westwood enhanced her witty, girly silhouettes with whoopie cushion bustles. Marc Jacobs put amusingly awkward hobble skirts in wild neon materials like rubber or laminated sequins with bright shearlings and wacky accessories. Demeulemeester and Van Noten sent out romantic, diaphanous layers.

But both Klein and Prada made singular statements of length, and the austerity of their designs made the hemlines a focal point, devoid of distractions. Although a handful of smaller Europeans have been showing some skirts around the knees since last spring, Prada made the first big splash. But while hers is arguably the hippest designer label around these days, Calvin is Calvin, and much more important to many more stores. As a result, the bigger buzz surrounds him. Some think he and Miuccia are at the forefront of a major new direction. Bloomingdale's senior vice president Kal Ruttenstein, for example, says that "When skirts get as short as they are, there's nowhere to go but down," and predicts that many hemlines will be descending by spring.

On the other hand, Herbert Fink, president of Theodore of Beverly Hills, sounds an unqualified nay, at least to knee-covering looks. "It's gloomy," he says. "I don't think it's going to fly now, next year or the year after. It certainly doesn't fit in with the California lifestyle."

While few share Fink's hard line, you'd be hard put to pull together a roster made up of retailers who love the look unconditionally. From avant-garde boutiques to huge national chains, the prevailing mood is all caution.

"To wear that under-the-knee length," says Joan Wein-stein, president of Ultimo in Chicago, "you have to have incredible legs -- very tall and very thin. And you have to have a lot of style." Inherent here is a Catch-22, the fear that even those women with killer legs who would look great in TNL won't wear it, so as not to hide those killer legs.

For the record, many fashion directors bestow this length with that most hallowed of fashion handles, "an option." (A skeptic might point out that the moniker is often reserved for left-field looks from mega-designers the stores don't expect to sell in any depth.)"I was under the charm of The New Length," says Saks's Fischelis. "I find it extremely sophisticated. But I don't think there's one answer for length."

"It's a great length for the very young," says Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman. "In a way, it's futuristic, but can be aging on a middle-aged lady."

Another catchword is "difficult" -- which means that pulling it off is no day at the fashion beach.

"It's difficult," says Barbara Weiser, executive vice president of Charivari. "It doesn't look particularly wonderful on many people." Weiser doesn't buy Calvin Klein, "avoided the length from Prada," and bought snippets from Van Noten and Demeulemeester.

"We have to have the news, but this is a difficult length," states Benny Lin, fashion director of Macy's East.

Even Miuccia Prada herself invokes the word: "It's a new length, definitely a difficult one, but surely the most interesting."

But nay-sayers claim that not only is it potentially dowdy, but that, in reality, there's nothing at all new about The New Length.

"This is the length for most American corporate women," says Lin. "No matter what designers do, up or down, she's always at the knee."

"I understand the alleged sophisticated quality," says Todd Oldham. "But it's a length that means something to only one person, and that's secretaries and bank assistants. In the stores, it's going to be kind of scary."

But tell all that to Calvin, who, in the past few seasons, has become increasingly experimental with his collection. "When you make a change in length, it suggests that a lot of what you were seeing looks old-fashioned," he says. "Short, tight, sexy -- it's commercial and mainstream and not what I'm interested in doing. Women don't need stuff they already own."

Marc Jacobs, whose collection couldn't be more antithetical to Klein's, agrees. "Short skirts are not outrageous anymore. In my fashion education, the chic length was at the knee. Now, that length can have an irony and a perverse side. On a young girl, it becomes something awkward and fresh, and on a more mature woman, it looks the way it's supposed to. But it's chic on both."Nevertheless, expect a boom season for tailors. "I think people might keep skirts longer for cocktail," says Saltzman. "But I have a feeling a lot will be altered, especially for day. Which is a lot easier than dealing with a 14-inch skirt that can't be lengthened."

Exactly, says Klein. "On the runway, I show the things that are my ideal, my passion at the moment. But the woman I sell to is secure. If she thinks it's not for her, she'll shorten it. The proportions will work."

Or many women may just bypass the angst and opt for wardrobe Plan C. Rosie O'Donnell, for example, says, "I'll just have to deal with it by wearing pants."

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