Did anyone in the '80s believe there was life after shoulder pads? And power suits and color-coordinated "outfits"?
If designers had predicted five years ago what was coming for spring '93, fashion stock might have fallen down on its own pumped-up pecs. But the future is here. And a new dress style is emerging: soft-edged, non-aggressive, feminine, fanciful, more inventive than anything in recent years. It may look odd at first sight--but it relates to the world we now live in.
The economy has played a major part in directing this trend. Our age of limits has taught retailers a lesson: Hardly anybody shops for outfits any more. Women are looking for "pieces," for "items" to put together with what they already own.
The insider's list of what to buy for spring is brief: wide-legged pants, long tunics, ruffled poet's shirts, unstructured jackets, dresses as supple as nightgowns.
All of it soft and slouchy.
"The '80s was Nancy Reagan and 'Dynasty,' huge shoulders, nasty little suits, dress for success, hard-edge, hard-core, mean, aggressive clothes," said designer Marc Jacobs after his recent New York show.
His collection for Perry Ellis was a daring display of the emerging new look. Inspired by the Seattle sound in music, and a nostalgia for the age of Aquarius, Jacobs created multilayered, disheveled outfits: sheer floral dresses under plaid shirts, accessorized with knit caps, crop tops and mini-shorts. All of it was mismatched. But each itemqualifies as a safe, long-term investment.
"Let's be a little softer, a little gentler now," Jacobs suggested.
This gentler look spins off hippie fantasy costumes, grunge band groupie wear and a non-aggressive informality that had no place in a Republican White House.
"Fashion reflects change," noted Rose Marie Bravo, president of Saks. She has been traveling the international fashion circuit over the past few weeks, previewing Italian, French and American collections, along with dozens of other retailers and the press.
"There's the removal of any kind of structure," said Bravo. She might have been referring to a suit jacket or the social order.
As the three-country show tour progressed, the best from every city helped make sense of all the rest. By the end of the New York previews, held the week Bill Clinton was elected President, revisionist history was being written.
From Italy, a gold embroidered pantsuit by Dolce and Gabbana that looked like a party outfit on first sight, started to seem OK for every day. Fashion is becoming more costume-like.
From Paris, a Chloe dress and jacket, so fluid and relaxed it suggested special occasions, seemed plausible for the office. Power suits don't have to be so pushy.
"There's a new attitude about dressing," said Kalman Ruttenstein, fashion director for Bloomingdale's in New York. He had just previewed the Anne Klein show, featuring long tunics over soft, narrow pants. At least some women will wear that look to work.
Donna Karan built her spring line around a silk poet's shirt that fluttered over ankle- length skirts and cascaded over the lapels of fluid pantsuits. She extended the shirts longer, for poet's coats and vests.
"This is the beginning of a new era," Karan wrote in a statement about her show. "A renewed sense of hope. A fresh way of looking at life. It's about communicating with one another. Listening. And bringing the artist in all of us out to the forefront."
Several days after Karan's show, President-elect Clinton discussed a pre-Christmas conference that fit right in with her world view. He will listen to labor leaders and business executives tell him what's wrong with the economy and suggest changes. "I want to . . . get as many good ideas as I can," he explained.
European designers grow nostalgic in times of change. A revival of the late hippie era, with early disco overtones, raced through the French and Italian collections. Giorgio Armani tied babushkas on models heads and showed long, sheer dresses over narrow pants and flat sandals. Genny mixed bell-bottoms and crop tops for an early '70s feeling.
At Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris there were bare feet and bare breasts, sometimes veiled by sheer fabrics. Karl Lagerfeld let G-strings show through transparent pants and skirts. Others followed his lead.
American designers factored in economic and social realities in ways the Europeans seemed determined to ignore. Isaac Mizrahi showed a practical tweed suit with elongated jacket and wide-legged pants for day, then switched to Jean Harlow looks for night, with white chiffon pajamas under marabou coats. He headlined the chiffon and marabou segment: "The New White House."
"I was thinking about what it means to go from a Republican to a Democratic administration," Mizrahi said. "Republicans are about appearance, those First Ladies are always camera ready.
"Democrats are more realistic, they confront problems. So they change from somber to gay, serious to let-loose." His collection supplied clothes for mood shifts.
Jacobs said he was thinking of politics when he designed his collection, and, in some remote way, Hillary Clinton inspired him. "This is the first year I've voted," the 29-year-old said. What did he get for his effort? "A more liberal-thinking president, a less structured-looking First Lady."
He agreed about fashion's era of limits, starting in his own showroom. "If a woman wants to replace a navy suit, this isn't the place," he said.
But women interested in the newest that fashion designers have to offer aren't likely to look for basic navy suits right now. The tendency is to buy one unusual item, not replace another.
"We've already carried wide-legged pants and they've done well," said Teresa Tymoski, general merchandise manager for Henri Bendel in New York. Soft-shouldered jackets are another item she expects to be popular for spring. "Jackets have become an accessory," she said.
First reactions to the new look may be cool, even hostile. But if history repeats itself, shoppers will soon change their minds.
"Women get it faster than we realize they will," Bravo noted about fashion changes.
There are plenty of them for spring. Big risks, big wins big flops pelted fashion show audiences from Milan to New York.
But along the way, the most daring designers launched a new movement.
"Designers are making a statement about what's acceptable work attire," said Andrea Jung, a vice president for Neiman Marcus. "It's more casual than in the suited, structured days of the late '80s.
"Women want a wardrobe that is more flexible."
For the moment at least, buyers and sellers are moving closer together.
Inside . . .
Two names emerge from the crowd of hopefuls in the New York fashion scene: Mark Eisen and Anna Sui. His look is long and lean. Her's is a cross between grunge and '70s retro. They're both being hailed as stars on the rise.