Designers Pull New Styles Out of the Past

Times Staff Writer

Tacky, graphic wallpaper ends up on a fashion runway in the form of a purse. A watercolor by Cecil Beaton is reincarnated as the print of a bias-cut cocktail dress.

In the fragile ecosystem that is fashion -- to use the words of one participant in the Ready to Share conference Saturday at USC -- it is difficult to get away from the idea that everything old becomes new again.

The event, sponsored by the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, focused on how fashion and entertainment revel in the art of reinvention. It also provided an opportunity for students, academics, designers and fashionistas to meet, mingle and reflect.

“The last 10 years have sped up everything,” said designer Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. “Appropriation and sampling in every field has been rampant.”

Though some participants acknowledged that they must strike a delicate balance between appropriation and inspiration, others said that they revel in reaching back to previous ages to find their creative muses.

Designer Kevan Hall presented dresses from his spring 2005 collection, along with pictures, fashion and photographs that had inspired those creations: the watercolors and tinted photographs of Cecil Beaton; the fashion choices of Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress whom Hall called “the epitome of chic.”

“Everybody is drawing from somewhere,” said Hall, who revived the Halston label before launching his own collection and studio in Los Angeles.

An image of Rogers displayed on a screen; she was a vision of elegant jewels, crisp white shirt and full black skirt. Below that photograph, a tall blond model sauntered onto the stage in Hall’s take on the look: a white blouse with intricate wrapping, a flowing turquoise full-length skirt.

Ford said that as a designer, nothing made him happier than seeing his designs copied by others. “Because it meant I’d done the right thing.” Though he acknowledged that the customers who might buy counterfeit versions of his work were not the customers he’d designed for.

“There is a difference,” he said, “between clothing and fashion.”

Other panels at the daylong conference included a consideration of music, ownership and the creative process; a discussion of the business of creativity; and a meditation on the legendary Chanel jacket.

David Wolfe, the event’s keynote speaker, took participants on a quick, guided tour through the last 100 years of fashion. Society used to be guided by the trends first articulated on the runways of Paris, said Wolfe, a trend forecaster. These days, he said, “trends follow a shifting society,” and come at a blistering pace.

The good news, according to Wolfe: The trashy-flashy-vulgar look that has dominated fashion for the last few years is about to be way out, as is the age of celebrity saturation. In their place will be a kinder, simpler era of natural beauty, pure design and what he called “deluxe minimalism.”

But as the event charged on, it seemed that participants weren’t quite ready to start ignoring the waxing and waning of trends.

“You can hear the buzz,” said Barbara Bundy, the vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. “The synergy between entertainment and fashion. It’s here, and it’s happening.”