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Fashion’s True Grit : A Spare-Me-the-Details Trend Toward Plain, Even Stark Dressing All but Screams ‘80s Backlash

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Fashion’s newest direction is a puzzler indeed. The details tell the tale. Extra long sleeves slump over hidden hands. Extra short bodices give the impression clothes have shrunk. Short vests over long shirts, and other unusual proportions, suggest skewed thinking. String ties replace buttons. And shades of black or white are all that count for color.

Cloistered nuns and Sikhs dress more upbeat. This is simple to the point of unsettling. Still, what began as a sidelight has seeped into the mainstream. And women may find themselves loving it or leaving it sooner than they think.

Some see it as a glance back toward the dog days of the pre-Industrial Age. Shakespeare’s most disturbed leading ladies wore versions of the long, plain dresses basic to this wardrobe.

Or possibly this is part of the hippie waif revival. Designer outfits that cover hands and hang off shoulders look like ill-fitted thrift-shop finds worn by the lost girls.

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But as much as it is a glance back, this is a jolt ahead to an imaginary place where a handful of idealists abandon civilization--and all they ever knew about sewing--to become New Age primitives.

Its leaders are all but unknowns. Martin Margiela is the trailblazer, with Ann Demeulemeester close behind. Both are Belgium natives who show their collections in Paris. Margiela worked with Jean Paul Gaultier before going out on his own, and he now lives in Paris. Demeulemeester is based in Antwerp.

Beyond them are several others with even less familiar names who seem to have similar ideas about tearing down stiff, rigidly structured clothing.

Dirk Bikkemberg, also Belgian, and Sweden’s Marcel Marongiu, now show in Paris. Both treat fashion as a reflection of past and future primitive. But they add a ‘20s silhouette to a suit, or the suggestion of a bustle to a skirt, that seem impure compared to designs by Margiela and Demeulemeester.

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Retailers are watching with interest, buying with caution.

“You have to be an adventurer to wear them,” says Herb Fink, who carries Demeulemeester in Theodore, his Beverly Hills boutique. “You don’t know where these designers are coming from, or how they arrived at these clothes. One thing you do know. They’re saying, ‘No more heavily constructed fashion.’ The look is almost naive.”

Shauna Stein carries none of it in her store. “I look, I say, ‘They’re progressive, they’re great,’ ” Stein says. “Then I say, ‘Who’s gonna wear those clothes?’ ”

The answer to that question changed recently when Calvin Klein and Donna Karan stepped into the picture.

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Their fall ’93 collections may help move what has been a fringe fashion trend into the American mainstream. Department store shoppers will see the look this summer when Klein and Karan deliver their fall lines.

“Maybe I’m feeling something these other designers are feeling,” says Klein. “Modern women aren’t about decoration. These clothes have no details, nothing superfluous. This is a way of looking beautiful but so natural.”

A fitted black dress in his line has a jewel neckline, long sleeves, empire waist and a graceful skirt to the ankles. He puts a cropped rib-knit sweater over it, which softens the starkness. Layers will do that.

More than anyone else, Margiela gives new meaning to primitive with coats that resemble dry-cleaners’ bags plucked from the wardrobes of the homeless. His sweaters of boiled wool look like castoffs that ran through the washing machine by mistake--short, tight and lumpy. Long skirts with the seams on the outside are cut from a patchwork of fabrics, including some meant as skirt linings. He often uses recycled fabrics. To him, “It’s very beautiful to make new things from old.”

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For women who wear designer labels, this is gritty reality and then some. Yet, for Margiela, “it expresses what must become more and more important in the future.” For him, that means recognizing limits and making better use of what we have.

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Costume curator Edward Maeder of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art sees fashion’s true grit as part of a long tradition in Flemish art. Flanders, the region that includes modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, was a center of commerce and wealth in the 17th Century, he notes. “But artists of that age were painting the common people, the dour, rural stark version of life.”

For Maeder, Margiela comes from that tradition. “Today, people are wearing plastic bags and ill-fitted clothing. These are displaced people, thrown out of their own countries. The clothes are a perfect statement for a world that has no idea who it is or where it’s going.”

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Demeulemeester seems to be reacting to harsh reality with fantasies of cloistered life. Some of her strongest styles recall ecclesiastical wear. Columnlike dresses, worn with a long unbuttoned vest, suggest nuns’ multilayered habits. String ties flutter free from necklines and waistbands, as in church vestments.

“Why does fashion always have to be a comedy?” she asks. “I’m not afraid of deep, beautiful or even sad emotions. They can be very poetic. My work has to be a soundtrack for my life and that of others, so I have to work on a big scale of emotions.”

Ecclesiastical themes are part of some other fall ’93 collections by designers whose styles do not otherwise relate to fashion’s new realism. Los Angeles-based Richard Tyler shows velvet evening dresses that resemble priests’ cassocks.

“It’s minimal, it’s very clean,” Tyler says. " I don’t get into the deeper meaning. For me it’s a gut feeling.”

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The point of connection is this: Cleaner, simpler styles are pervading all of fashion. Some see it as a reaction against the recent, gaudy past.

“The Reagan years are over, the show and excess are really finished,” says Klein. “There is a sort of spiritual awareness creeping into clothes, mine and others. It has to do with beauty as a reflection of who you are inside.”

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Fashion watchers will say they’ve seen it before, most notably in the work of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo.

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She first showed her Comme des Garcons collections in Paris 12 years ago, and stunned the fashion world with her “post-nuclear” theme. Clothes appeared to be patchworks threaded together from scraps that survived a global disaster. Sweaters with holes, dresses with three sleeves seemed to say the seamstress was permanently dazed.

But she wasn’t. Now celebrating her 20th year in business, she is godmother to this new generation.

“The forms of expression may vary,” notes Kawakubo. “However, these young designers are questioning established concepts and existing structures in a way which is similar to Comme des Garcons.”

Her influence has its limits. Kawakubo keeps a link to traditional Japanese ritual fashion, to the Japanese folk craft of indigo dyeing, and the art of origami, that are her own. And her tailoring skills far outrank all but very few of her followers.

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Still, Kawakubo has been showing seams on the outside of clothes, sleeves that more than covered hands, ill-fitting sweaters and “deconstructed” jackets, with shoulder pads on the outside, or only one lapel, since the beginning. For her it was an antidote to the heavily structured French designer wear of the day. And that is behind the work of the new generation she inspires.

Even the frail beginnings of the spiritual theme in current fashion, to which Klein refers, reflect back on Kawakubo. For her, dresses that cover the body, with long sleeves, long skirts, and few glimpses of bosoms thighs or hips, offer the wearer personal privacy. “One can experience a sense of freedom when covered completely by clothes.”

Several of her recent collections were uncharacteristically commercial and seemed “corrupt” compared to her purist standards. One featured navy gabardine suits with navy vinyl collars that a banker could wear to work. But her spring ’93 line is a reversal of sorts, back to asymmetric dresses that look as if they are folded and stitched right on the body, instead of cut from a pattern.

“There is, absolutely, a connection between Kawakubo and Margiela,” says Charles Gallay, who was among the first in the city to carry both labels in his Los Angeles boutiques. “And lately she has been influenced by him. She’s reverted back to her true instincts.”

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Some worry this new direction in fashion will swallow up all signs of creative dressing. Jeans, T-shirts and The Gap at one end; stripped-down, understated high style at the other. “If they have one thing in common, it’s blandness,” Stein says of the two extremes.

That, and the possibility of affordable prices. Designer versions of the detail-free dressing are costly, but because the look draws so heavily from early ‘70s fashion it is easily imitated. Kids dressed in beat-up retreads from that era inspired the big-name designers in the first place. Junior boutiques, quick to pick up on designer styles, will stock lower-priced copies.

Anyone tempted to buy the high-priced spread might want to do so sooner than later. Margiela’s prices range from about $140 for a top, $750 for a jacket and $150 for pants. Demeulemeester’s are comparable.

“These younger designers are not yet commercialized,” says Gallay. “But if they are as greedy as their parents and grandparents in this business, five years from now a Margiela jacket will be $3,000.”

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