DESIGNERS WHO VENTURE BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE BRIDGE THE NORTH-SOUTH STYLE DIVIDE.
Traditionally, Southern buyers’ needs go beyond the obvious climate considerations of lightweight fabrics and color. With plenty of no-nos, including anything too sexy, or tacky, Southern buyers still clamor for good day dresses for a variety of occasions. And above all, women here want to look pretty.
The South, in some areas at least, still has plenty of do’s and don’ts, a tradition going back as far as Mammy telling Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind” she “couldn’t be showin’ her bosom before noon” at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.
Some women still feel uncomfortable wearing pants to church, while others lament the fact that jeans and tennis shoes are allowed even in the nicest restaurants.
Designer Yansi Fugel compared Southerners to Parisian women, who also prize a pulled-together appearance. “It’s very refreshing that they dress more in the South, as opposed to New York or L.A., where everyone is so dependent on jeans.”
Nonetheless, regions within the South vary widely in terms of what women wear. Miami, for example, represents a different sort of melting pot than does New Orleans, though both carry influences of other cultures. Dallas is still steeped in Western heritage, and fashion reflects that fact. Even in Atlanta, with its boomtown vibe, is more classic and less edgy than New York or Los Angeles.
Overall, though, southern retailers say that among the biggest sartorial taboos in the South are:
Plunging necklines, miniskirts or dresses with thigh-high slits.
Distressed and dirty denim.
Clothes that are big and baggy, or too masculine.
Retailers give the thumbs-up to color and lots of it, particularly in more tropical, resort settings. Buyers below the Mason Dixon line complain that, with a short spring season and temperatures soaring to the 90s as late as in October, even the lightest spring and fall wools won’t work here. They said the selection of Southern-friendly apparel that’s surfaced recently is largely due to fashion trends touting color and feminine detailing, as opposed to manufacturers making a conscious effort to appease Southern customers. Manufacturers insist, however, they are working to alleviate differences and that this year’s turnabout isn’t just a fashion fluke.
Some designers who tout their looks as regionally appropriate are, not surprisingly, popular among Southern retailers.
“I’m surprised with the things I’ve found that work well in the South,” said David Ethridge, owner of D. Ethridge, a specialty store in Dothan, Ala.
“Manufacturers are finally beginning to understand the single most important issue here: fabric weight.”
Ethridge’s store does well with Misook’s easy-care acrylics, Chetta B.’s high-end leathers and Ann May Silks microfibers and silk tweeds.
Having grown up in Memphis, Tenn., New York-based designer Dana Buchman is conscious of fabric weight, with vivid memories of brutally hot summers and mild winters. Buchman said even if a fabric merely appears heavy, Southerners will shy away from it. “Mills have the technology to make wools, tweeds and other textured fabrics without the weight, yet even the appearance of weight is the kiss of death,” she said.
Buchman draws on fabrics appropriate for all regions of the country, including tropical wool, silk, silk blends and linen-look viscose, as well as suede and leather, both of which sell well in the South and continue to sell later into fall than in the North. Designer Yansi Fugel downplays regional style differences, yet does note differences in deliveries due to climate.
“I don’t really see any regional differences, except which time of the year they wear things,” she said, adding that she has had success with washable suede, moleskin and microfibers in the South.
Gregor Simmons, owner of an eponymous New York buying office focusing on specialty stores, has had some luck in the South with featherweight cashmere, lightweight tweed, boiled wool and leather trim pieces, including a leather motocross jacket for fall.
But seasonless fabrics have become most popular everywhere, she said. “With global warming, even my Milwaukee store won’t buy wool.” Simmons said designer Joseph Greco’s new bridge collections, Di Vita and Il Gilet, are ideal Southern resources. Popular choices from the Il Gilet line are silk and Lycra spandex sweaters with touches of beading.
To meet population shifts and the swelling Sunbelt, designer Elie Tahari focuses more than ever on Southerners’ needs. “In the past, we’d allot 20 percent of the collection for the South. Now, it’s up to 50 percent,” he said, adding his attentions are turned toward lightweight fabrics, frills and fitted silhouettes.
Fugel said colorful pieces sell better in the South than other areas of the country. “Women are drawn to pretty, feminine colors that flatter the complexion,” she said. Fugel’s fall collection has deep teals and violets that can function as base colors.
Southern-friendly pieces in Fugel’s line include washable suede boot-cut jeans, boot-cut flat-front pants, a moleskin tunic with a slight bell sleeve and silk, cotton and Lycra spandex blend T-shirts.
Fugel said 95 percent of her line is appropriate to wear in the South, though not really designed with that intent, and that her Southeast sales increased 30 percent from 2001 to 2002. She expects similar gains for 2003.
Elie Tahari, Tahari’s sportswear line, has had a positive response from the South to the line’s red jeans-style jacket in lightweight suede and motocross jackets in colored leather. Cobalt blue is also a popular choice for Tahari.
One of the biggest style concerns Southern retailers have is the lack of stylish day dresses with sleeves that cover the upper arm.
Vickey Hoffman, owner of J. Hoffman, a boutique in Lubbock, Tex., also struggles with finding Southern-friendly dresses. She described David Meister dresses as “pretty nice,” ABS as “good, but sleeveless,” and Diane Von Furstenberg as “going to a tinier fit and sheerer fabrics.” She added, “I need knee-length or longer versions with cap or three-quarter sleeves in prints or solids. If someone did this, he’d make a lot of money.” After hearing retailers’ pleas, Fugel included some dresses with sleeves. The fall line features a microfiber dress with cap sleeves and novelty seamwork, as well as a pleated skirt that falls right below the knee and a sheath dress with long sleeves and removable fox fur cuffs.
Ethridge said that in the South, classic, rather than risque, sells. “I tell vendors I’m in L.A. as in lower Alabama, not L.A. as in Los Angeles,” he said.