Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — Does the runway extend to the boardroom?
The career-conscious bridge customer has become more fashion-forward in recent years, but she still shies away from edgy looks. And while some of fall’s designer trends — neutral colors such as camel and brown, luxurious cashmeres and double-face wools and plenty of jackets and pants looks — were easy to translate to the bridge market, spring presents another story.
Sheer tops and dresses, asymmetrical hemlines, skin-baring halters and camisoles, girlish embroidery and smocking, and high-gloss, high tech fabrics might not be quite as easy to take into the big meeting.
Still, said designers for some of bridge’s stalwarts, the customer will expect some version of the trends when she starts shopping for spring looks. So sheer does turn up in more than a few collections — but lined or layered. Asymmetry shows up in the neckline of a top, the closure of a jacket or on the hemline of an evening dress rather than in a daytime skirt, and feminine touches such as smocking or embroidery can be applied sparingly to blouses or sweaters.
Retailers, meanwhile, said that though the extreme looks got most of the attention, there were also some simple, wearable looks on the runway — among them, shorter fitted jackets, wrap dresses, longer skirts, knit dressing and mannish suits worn with feminine high heels.
“She’s not going to walk around naked,” said Lynne Ronon, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for sportswear collections at Saks Fifth Avenue. “But the total bridge market is continuing to evolve, and she’ll take elements of what was on the runway and mix them so that she feels comfortable.”
The bottom line, say retailers and designers, is that the career-minded bridge customer’s wardrobe still revolves around jackets and suits, and trendy looks are just one part of the overall business.
“You have to quote the trends but you don’t do them literally,” said Karen Harman, co-design director for the Dana Buchman bridge line. “You have to make them accessible to the career customer.”
“It’s our responsibility as a company that follows fashion to pay attention to the trends, but we don’t feel like we have to hit every one,” said Patricia Clyne, head designer for wovens at Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, the designer’s bridge line. “We touched on sheer with print-on-print tops and some embroidered tops, and we have some asymmetrical necklines on a few evening gowns.”
“Sheer is always a shocker every season, but the customer has learned that it’s not going to be that way in the store,” said Carolyn Moss, fashion director of Macy’s East. Moss thinks consumers will appreciate the silhouettes “softening and loosening” from the tight, body-conscious looks that have dominated the past few seasons.
“That will absolutely translate to the bridge market,” she said. “We also saw a lot of prints, especially the florals on dark grounds, that will work. We haven’t seen acceptable prints for a while. The very graphic looks, like last season’s Prada grass-cloth prints, were a bit extreme for her.”
“There’s a perception among American women that the shows are costumey,” said Harman. “I think if they had more access to the fashion shows, women would see that there are a lot of wearable looks. But the challenge for bridge companies is to make those relevant to more standard body types.”
Bridge companies finish booking their spring business well before the runway shows start, so they’ve already calculated their response to the trends.
“Most of the time we have ourselves covered by the time the shows come out,” said Maurice Antaya, design director for Anne Klein II. “When we go to Premiere Vision, we see what everyone is making and the trends that are happening. Sheer is not her thing. We do have some sheer organza tops, but they are shipped with a camisole.”
“We don’t really look to translate the designers,” said Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, senior vice presidents for design direction at Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro. “We stick to our own direction, and since our market is six weeks before the shows, we’re well in advance of what the European designers are showing.”
Embroidery and smocking show up in details on eveningwear, for example.
“There’s a georgette smocked blouse in the evening group, but it’s very sophisticated, not sweet,” said Franco.
“You want to push [the customer] to the next level, but you don’t want to push her out of the boat,” said Kaufman.
The bridge customer is more willing to be pushed than the moderate or better customers, agreed Mariana Keros, fashion trend director for Dayton, Hudson’s and Marshall Fields.
“She reads magazines and watches TV, and she’s aware of new looks,” said Keros. “She looks for interpretations of that when she goes shopping.”
Keros said that a resurgence of color, from blue and green tones to brown, orange and earth tones, was a loud message from the runways. In addition, she said, suede is becoming a year-round fabric, suede, safari and military details will continue strongly through spring, and shirts as a category — particularly fitted shirts — are becoming as important as a jacket.
“Romantic looks are a welcome relief to some career customers,” said Lavelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor. While Olexa said that much of the soft, sheer and ruffled looks that were on the runways will probably show up more in eveningwear than in office wear, she does think that “underpinnings for suits will become softer and feminized by fabric or the touch of a ruffle or smocking.”
Olexa said she particularly liked the way Ellen Tracy paired high-heeled sandals with man-tailored suits.
“I think [the customer] will find an open shoe that will work for the office,” she said.
Some trends got mixed reactions. Asymmetry can be too difficult for bridge customers to work into their daytime styles, and high tech fabrics will be used sparingly.
“We didn’t do any asymmetrical,” said Andrea Jovine, design director of the bridge company that bears her name. “We did a few organza dresses that are shipped with slips for summer.”
Jovine said she started experimenting with high tech fabrics, particularly a shiny nylon used in swimwear, for her line.
“We had T-shirts, T-shirt dresses and some eveningwear [in the nylon],” she said. “I think that’s where the trends show up — in items and eveningwear, as opposed to in an entire group.”
The runway shows only the second half of spring, said Joan Kaner, Neiman Marcus’s senior vice president and fashion director. The early portion of the season, she said, was “very wearable,” while the second half represented “a lot of late afternoon and evening dressing.”
“We all have occasions to go to — weddings, bar mitzvahs and so forth,” she said. “The sheer will be shipped lined, of course. I like the idea of wearing a chiffon blouse or an asymmetric top under a man-tailored suit — although I don’t think an asymmetric hem is wise for the office. Marc Jacobs showed soft blouses under jackets and it looked great.”
“Asymmetry will show up more in eveningwear and in necklines of daywear,” said Ronon. “I like the look under a jacket. But if [the customer] does wear an asymmetrical hemline, it might be over another hem that’s not, for a graphic look.”
It helps business in a general way when runway trends stimulate the consumer immediately, said Anne Klein’s Antaya, but most of the time there’s a lag between the trend and its acceptance by the bridge customer.
“She’s aware of what’s going on, but fashion is not her life,” said Antaya.
“You will sell more clothes when there are certain idioms out there — military, safari and so forth,” said Harman. “Those are naturals for women.”
But those trends showed up in the fall collections. Fall is a season retailers believe is generally more exciting than spring.
“It’s harder to get excited about it,” said Kaner. “I think women in general spend less money in the spring. Still, there are many women who want to be fashionable, and I think they will find a way to make these looks work for them.”