STYLE : Suiting Yourself

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many women consider buying a new suit a necessary rite of spring.

Those shopping for the best and brightest suits of spring in Orange County soon discover that these are not the dull corporate uniforms of the '80s.

Designers are using high-voltage colors--neon without the acidity--that give new meaning to the words "power suit."

"Colors are very wild, very fun," says Sandy Magill Duckworth, district manager for Mondi in Newport Center Fashion Island and MainPlace/Santa Ana. "The most fashionable color right now is apple green. We have it paired with red and black in one collection, and with cobalt blue in another."

Mondi's apple green jacket of "soft and yummy" microfiber, a polyester with the feel and look of silk, comes embellished with lavish gold embroidery around the cuffs. Swirling gold braid embroidery also decorates the front of a cobalt-blue jacket. Both jackets can be mix and matched with coordinating blue or green skirts and slacks.

Red, hot pink and orange silk Shantung in solids and "screaming prints" make up Mondi's collection of form-fitting jackets, skirts, blouses and bustiers. Big floral prints and flower-shaped buttons give the pieces an undeniable '60s look. The straight floral skirt can be worn with the matching long jacket or mixed with a solid red double-breasted jacket with pink trim and pink buttons. Both jackets sell for about $500.

Escada's new boutique in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa offers candy-colored suits in mint green and peppermint pink, some in solid gabardine or nubby wool plaid.

"They're very difficult colors to dye," says Salvina Sultana, vice president of sales for Escada in New York City. "It makes these suits rare."

Those who don't want bold color can choose Escada's classic wool jacket with big navy and white checks or menswear-inspired suits in black and white glen plaid with contrasting white cotton pique collars.

Escada suits sell for about $900 to $1,500, Sultana says.

Most designers are keeping suit jackets long, although there are plenty of exceptions, and skirts are all over the map: pleated or narrow, short or long. It's an as-you-like-it market for most tastes and budgets.

Long-over-short suiting can be found throughout Nordstrom in South Coast Plaza, MainPlace/Santa Ana and Brea Mall. There are tailored jackets with short straight skirts that come in hot pink, orange or yellow wool boucle outlined with black ribbon banding around hemlines, pockets and notched collars. The jacket goes for $198, the skirt for $88.

If you don't like strong color, you can try a tan wool suit by Tahari with a double-breasted jacket that has an inset peplum and shawl collar for about $300.

In addition to solids, prints play an important role in this season's suiting, according to Kristine Cleary, gallery buyer for coats and suits for Nordstrom in Orange County.

"There's a lot of head-to-toe patterns, a lot of gingham and black and white checks. It's a fresh and clean look," Cleary says. Gingham can be found everywhere. Gillian has black and white gingham shorts and a matching jacket with black suede buttons and a lace-up detail on the front for $360 at Nordstrom.

Spring suits often have unusual design details such as soft sculpted necklines, contrasting trim and ornate buttons in unique shapes, Cleary says. Nordstrom has an ivory wool suit by Tahari with a sculpted neckline and brushed gold buttons and another Tahari in red wool that laces up the back.

At Champagne in Irvine, fashion-forward suits by Carmel have iridescent rhinestone studding or insets of satin against ivory-colored crepe for a glitzy look.

"These are not your standard three-piece suits," Maureen Jenkins, owner of Champagne stores in San Clemente, Huntington Beach and Irvine.

"They're more colorful and more fun."

One of her more outrageous suits is a jacket and matching straight skirt with big three-inch multicolored dots floating against a black background. The jacket, skirt and coordinating sleeveless yellow top with black-and-white-striped piping sells for about $400.

For a more romantic look, there's Peggy Martin's scuba-style white Lycra and cotton jacket with white lace sleeves and a lined white lace skirt.

"People know when they come here they're not going to get that corporate look," Jenkins says.

Such suits aren't made just for work.

Many women are wearing suits with beaded trim or intricate embroidery for evening, Cleary says. Nolan Miller's $650 navy suit with intricate beading around the lapel of a shawl collar can go to any cocktail party.

Cleary says many suit buyers belong to the "lunch bunch," women who are active in charities and find that the softer, more feminine suits are perfect for luncheons.

"These suits are feminine but they're still businesslike," she says. "We're getting away from uptight suiting."

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