AS THE CYCLE SPINS
WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND — FAST.
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Everything old is new again. Except sometimes, it’s not so old, and it seems to be new again faster and faster.
Pinstriped suits. Wide-leg pants. Stiletto heels. Tunics. Schoolgirl looks and tartan kilts. These are some of fall’s biggest fashion statements at retail, and in some cases, it’s a case of deja vu. These trends might have a subtle twist, but they are often reheats of what designers dished out just two years ago.
With the fashion cycle spinning faster and faster, trends keep coming back sooner. It used to take at least eight years for the same look to reappear, but fashion industry observers point out that now the time frame has shrunk to about two years.
Pundits attribute the speedy return to a society that has become fixated on the Internet and bombarded with information on fashion and style from the media, be it CNN or MTV. Consumers, they say, demand something new every season, and given the finite number of styles that can be served, it’s only logical that trends will reappear sooner.
As Kurt Barnard, publisher of “The Retail Marketing Report,” reasoned, “It is a case of creative bankruptcy.”
In a difficult fashion environment, he said, retailers are trying to play it safer, going back to what worked two or three years ago.
“The real problem is that all the retailers want commercial, salable clothes, and the designers just go back and reinvent safe retro fashion,” said Kenneth Zimmerman, president of Kenar Enterprises, which markets such contemporary and bridge labels as Kenar and Kenar Studio.
“There is this constant need for something new,” said Norma Kamali. “Before, fashion would evolve into the next season. It would not be eliminated. Now, because everyone wants something new, things get dropped instead of evolving. It is a result of a communications blitz.”
“The pace is so unnatural,” bemoaned Karen Harman, part of the design duo behind Dana Buchman, the bridge division of Liz Claiborne. “It is getting harder to sell clothes. There is this constant strain for the new and trendy every season. Everybody is knocking each other off so much that the same trends keep coming back, though at different price points.”
“I feel a lot less like a fashion designer. I don’t design clothes, I reinvent classics,” said Isaac Mizrahi. “It is when I really try to get trendy that I get stuck.
“Five years ago, I was terrified of the trends,” he added. “I would ask myself, ‘Where the hell is my camel coat?’ when everybody was into it. I’m not doing that now. Two years ago, I did the pinstriped suit, but I didn’t do it again for fall. It was just too soon. I was more into flannels.”
This phenomenon has had an ironic effect: The most forward-fashion cognoscenti could easily be wearing the same sort of clothes as the style-challenged, who might be two years behind the styles.
“Everything is going so fast that it is going nowhere,” said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, a New York buying office. “Fashion is like a horse race — people who are running at the front of the race are now catching up with the people in the back.”
Wolfe and other observers point to a ricochet effect in fashion. One designer creates a look, which is then copied almost simultaneously by knockoff firms. Then, a season or two later, another designer does the same look, which is copied again by the mass brands.
One example, he points out, is the popularity of low-slung hip-hugger pants, worn with midriffs, featuring hardware. The look, of course, was first pushed by Gucci two years ago, and was instantly copied by streetwear designers. Soon after, a slew of other top designer names such as D&G came out with similar looks, which were then knocked off, by everyone from contemporary to mass firms. Even the discounter Conway Stores marketed the jet-set look.
“I am hitting a brick wall,” Wolfe said. “I am doing the fall ’98 forecast trends, and they are the same trends as from fall ’97, only from different designers.”
Take fall 1997 highlights. Schoolgirl looks, which three years ago showed good-girl prepsters — later made popular by the hit movie “Clueless” — have now gone hard-edged and sexy. These schoolgirl-gone-bad looks were embraced on the fall ’97 runways by such designer resources as Anna Sui, John Galliano, Blumarine and D&G, some of whom showed them with combat boots, and anklets with stiletto heels. Pinstriped suits have returned, but slouchy — with extra-long legs that bunch around the ankles. They are also less masculine than the looks from two years ago and include lots of stretch. Wide-leg pants are back, too, but this time around, they’re tighter in the waist and hug the hip. And the stiletto heels, which were mostly in a pump version, now boast cut-out designs and are sexier.
The big question is whether these style changes are different enough to get the consumer back into the stores, and, more importantly, whether the consumer knows the difference. The response from the fashion crowd is mixed.
On one side are people like Linda Allard, designer for Ellen Tracy, who commented, “The average consumer is very savvy and does know the difference, mainly because she is so well-connected to what is around her. The customer wants to really feel that she is in fashion.”
She added, however, “I think women are interested in buying a wardrobe that lasts, not making it so obsolete. When fashion moves too quickly, clothes become outdated. That is difficult for the average woman.”
“It all comes back looking new,” said Kady Dalrymple, vice president of design at Express, a division of The Limited. “If someone is wearing the pinstriped suit or the wide-leg pants or the tunic from two years ago, I can tell. It doesn’t look the same to me. Maybe it is my eye.”
She added, “The tunics we did two years ago were big and oversized, and there was no real definition. Now, it is slim and close to the body. Instead of wearing it with a legging, it is about wearing it with boot-cut pants.”
However, Kenar’s Zimmerman and others are less confident about the general public’s ability to discern differences, particularly when something is just on a hanger.
“I can see the consumer just walking into the store and saying, ‘Wow, I already have all of that,’ and walking out,” he said.
“They don’t care about the fine points of the pinstriped suit,” said Dana Buchman’s Harman. “But you can’t walk away from pinstripes — you want to give her some replacements. You always need the great layering pieces, and then you want to give her things that she doesn’t have.”
Harman noted she and Buchman substantially changed some of the resurrected styles. For instance, Dana Buchman’s tunics this fall are tighter; its former version was more of a big overshirt. Pinstripes are not as graphic and instead of black and white, they’re charcoal.
“It depends on how astute she is. Most women know about it, but they don’t know the subtleties,” said Kamali. “They get a little confused….I think it is a problem that we have to deal with.”
Kamali’s way of “dealing with it” is not to dump trends every season, but to continue with them.
“I kept doing pinstripes, but changed the width of the stripes, and am working on power suits for spring that are feminine,” the designer said. “I kept doing slipdresses, even though they are in and out every other season.
“I am trying to keep going with it, instead of stopping and starting again, to try to have continuity while still making it interesting,” Kamali added. “We are not in a revolutionary time, but we are at a time that is more about style, that is more about the way something is worn, rather than what it is.”
She continued, “I think it is harder for the stores because they are dealing with how well something sold. Did they really want it back, and how did they deal with a business that was just there two years ago? How do they present it in a new way?”
At least one retail fashion director — Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale’s — and other designers agree it is more about style and less about marketing trends these days.
“Selling trends is in the past; style is in the future,” said Ruttenstein. “We are presenting a Bloomingdale’s style. Nobody wants to buy the whole new wardrobe. We are now trying to show our customer how to put it together, teaching her to be prudent.”
For example, Bloomingdale’s featured pinstriped suits in all its windows. The look trickled down throughout the retailer’s contemporary department.
“We made it a point to really showcase it in our catalogs,” he said, adding that the clothes are doing well. “We showed it with bustiers. We tried to personalize it and make it appealing.”
“If it [a resurrected trend] is handled in a different way, it comes out new,” said Karen Aro, director of sales and marketing at Saks Jandel, a designer boutique in Washington, D.C.
Even animal prints, which continue to come out of the fashion jungle every other season, have been given a new shot at Saks Jandel.
“It had been in standard fabrics like silks; now we have been selling it in different textures and fabrics,” she said. For example, the store is carrying animal skirts in a fabric that resembles velour from Yves Saint Laurent, while Saks Jandel’s adjacent shop, The Right Stuff, which sells younger, more contemporary looks, is showing chenille animal print sweaters from several young designer lines.
“The ongoing struggle is timing,” said Kathy Bufano, executive vice president at Macy’s East. “As a retailer, we are not the creative force. Our job is to maximize the strength of a trend. You can’t be too early or late.”
As for the wide-leg pants, the retailer is touching it a bit for fall, but expects to expand its offerings in that style for spring.
“The wide-leg is doing well at the stores. But we are still doing well with narrow pants,” she said. “Now, the look [in wide-legs] is solid, whereas before it was mostly in prints,” she said. “It’s happening mostly in the junior market, but we will probably see it take off in the designer market for spring.”
Bufano noted pinstriped fashions for fall are being driven by skirts, not pants, which fueled the look two years ago, she said.
Bufano added that schoolgirl looks this time around haven’t gone mainstream, but she believes that will happen for spring.
“It is definitely more sexy — cardigans over a camisole with a short skirt with a high slit,” she said.
“[Stores and consumers] have to play stylist,” said contemporary designer Betsey Johnson. “There are more ways to wear the old stuff combined with new stuff. People are too smart to throw their wardrobe away.”
She added that she felt no trend direction for spring, and instead is “going for sculpture” — hoop skirts, lantern skirts and strong pleats and ruffles.
But, ever the retailer, Express’s Dalrymple has these harsh but practical words for the consumer: “Everybody should clean out their closet every year, and if you haven’t worn it for a year, it needs to be given to charity.”