DENIM NATION
WHAT COULD OSCAR DE LA RENTA AND MARC JACOBS POSSIBLY HAVE IN COMMON? THE ANSWER, SURPRISINGLY ENOUGH, IS JEANS.

NEW YORK — “An explanation?” Marc Jacobs asked on Sunday night, as he was about to oversee a final fitting on Shalom Harlow. “It’s an old story and a new story — jeans and a T-shirt. The casual life. That’s it.”
Jacobs had a point. Just how to deal with the casual life at high-ticket prices is a major issue with which designers must grapple. Never before has that old fashion cliche, the one that proclaims, “There are no rules anymore,” been more accurate. The last half of this decade, in fact, has seen a remarkable shift in the way we think about clothes. Only a few years ago, the idea of dressing down fueled controversy, leading to reams of press coverage, from reports on confusion over the notion of Casual Fridays to Newsweek’s 1995 cover question, “Have we Become a Nation of Slobs?” In the early Nineties, a mainstream flirtation with deconstruction led to a dearth of jackets on the runways and made for disaster at retail. Now, however, all of that controversy seems like the distant, parochial musing of an old-fogy generation. As for the jacket issue, these days it’s almost a given that the suits are back in the showroom. And throughout corporate America, dress codes continue to relax with the surety of death and taxes. The change has crept up on us as a society, with many people joining in without even noticing.
But the fashion world must notice to survive, especially those at its high end. Designer clothes have never been about need; they are about want. And with basics such as jeans, khakis and Ts increasingly acceptable, creating that want at the luxury level is more of a challenge than ever.
For spring, some designers are choosing to reinvent the wheel, focusing on that ultimate fashion/anti-fashion essential, jeans. The idea is to create alternatives with, rather than to, casual chic. On Monday night, Jacobs worked jeans, the cut and the fabric, in all sorts of ways, while on Tuesday, Oscar de la Renta gave denim a terrific ladylike slant.
Jeans have always been a favorite theme of Jacobs. Over the years, he’s twisted them every which way, from tacky-chic laminated sequins to last season’s refined tuxedo take in silk and wool. For spring, he played a middle ground between those two moods, and it looked great.
This collection marks the completion of Jacobs’s move from the gentility he has recently preached (the shift started last season) toward a renewal of the intriguing dialog of good taste-bad taste. At the same time, it offered a witty reprise of Jacobs’s favorite theme. Jeans may have anchored the collection, but Marc also touched on the peacoat, sailor pants and military jacket, all while serving up a strong dose of Seventies.
How new are the jeans? Very. They came long and flood-length, multi-patched or paillette-trimmed, earth-toned or forever indigo, many with demonstrative sunburst pocket embroideries that harkened back to ooh-la-la Sasson. And, on the subject of ancestry, the sexy dotted tops had a hint of Huk-a-Poo.
The dresses were another story, a few sweet debs among seriously dowdy types and oddball characters in cotton net done up with cartoon paillettes. Still, these girls could always seek cover under the fab trenchcoat — every Jacobs collection has one.
Dressed-down chic is relative, even when you’re talking denim. And for some women, funky is simply not an option, but oh, to look smart, chic and on the cusp of hip! Thank heavens for Oscar de la Renta, who supplied the glorious goods in droves.
De la Renta’s obviously feeling fresh and very feisty. In fact, he has been on quite a roll lately, with some of his best collections ever. And with spring, he took the mood even further, starting with those dishy denims — clean, crisp and so au courant for both day and night. But Oscar didn’t stop there, moving on to leathers with embroidered or perforated skirts paired with polite twinsets, and even a leather dresses detailed with rivets, just like your college 501s!
Still, Oscar knows when to say when. For those women who must, he showed polite shifts along with a few pantsuits. And, after all, there’s more to life than urban sanity. How about all those parties to dress for, not to mention whirlwind vacations? That’s when Island Oscar played his hand, with runway-only HotPants worn with filmy halters and frilled gowns in tropical floral prints — there’s still plenty of cha-cha left in this guy. Not to mention a few pirouettes: De la Renta’s huge ballerina skirts probably won’t be the next big thing in evening separates. But no matter. They were fun to look at, and let’s face it, don’t we all want to dance through life?

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