Dressing Like It's 1999

The Year in Frock

Sometimes, in a perverse kind of way, problems bring on an 'it's-later-than-you-think' mind-set. You want to feel good about things when there are negative things around," mused Arie Koppelman, president and chief operating officer of Chanel, whistling in the dark when Women's Wear Daily asked him recently about the current retail climate. The Far East economy and the luxury market it supports may be in shambles, but here at home, people were still shopping, even during the wacky impeachment-and-Iraq weekend that fell smack in the middle of the holiday season and threatened to tank retailers' expectations.

At a time when a Gap dress and a bunch of Ermenegildo Zegna ties helped impeach a president, clothes can hardly be dismissed as trivial. Nineteen-ninety-eight was a strange year in fashion for reasons other than the White House: a breakaway group of designers upset the international calendar by insisting on staging their shows in September, before the European collections, arguing that this would quell criticism that Americans copy Europeans. (Unfortunately, timing didn't trump talent: the New York shows were bland and desultory; as usual, Europe wiped us off the map.)

Despite political vagaries, the luxury market simmered. In rapidly expanding, boutique-strewn Nolita (formerly Little Italy), a zip-front, hooded, four-ply cashmere jacket that cost $1850 ($1750 without the hood) was a top seller at Lucien Pellat-Finet on Elizabeth Street. Saleswomen at a boutique on newly fashionable Mott Street joked that they could tell immediately what gift a Wall Streeter would be buying as soon as he strode through the door: no matter what other temptations were offered, he always headed straight for the stack of delicate, lighter-than-air Pashmina scarves. (Not light enough, though, for really high rollers: for them, a scarf has to be made of Shatush, an illegal fiber harvested from the underbellies of a breed of near-extinct Tibetan antelope, smuggled into the country, and sold to rich ladies clandestinely from hotel suites.)

Only pockets of the U.S. economy were this jaunty. A huge number of middle- and working-class shoppers, who don't know a Shatush from their own tush, flocked in unprecedented numbers to two sources: the tax-free Internet and the local Wal-mart, Kmart, or similar dive. So tough were times at certain upper-crust venues that at one prominent Fifth Avenue department store, a clerk was overheard begging a customer to buy an already discounted piece of merchandise ($500 instead of $800) rather than holding out for the second markdown. "We'll adjust your price as soon as it's marked down again! Anytime! Just bring in the receipt! We'll give you the refund!"

Regardless of price point, some trends were earmarked for early death: It's a sure bet that gray flannel Birkenstocks will disappear with winter '98­'99, along with those Marc Jacobs Minnie Mouse­Audrey Hepburn shoes that twinkled on the toes of fashion's front row. Anyone who was suckered into buying an ankle-length skirt will troop to the tailor and get the bottom hacked off before the season is over. The Fendi baguette bag, whose distinctive sausage shape is coveted by the moneyed classes (though its appeal hasn't drifted down to the secondary market, where lumpy Prada nylon and its pretenders reign supreme) is already a victim of planned obsolescence: Fendi is launching a newer, smaller, even less practical version called a croissant bag this spring. (A chartreuse sequinned version is slated to sell for $650.)

Couture labels that read Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham won't be showing up in '99, nor will those much touted "winter white" overcoats— a Marie Antoinette­ish notion that the best colors for hardy outdoor clothing is no color— since they will have disintegrated from frequent trips to the dry cleaners.

Pink, in addition to being, in Diana Vreeland's famous phrase, the navy blue of India, is supposed to become the new gray, but the question remains: Will there ever be a new black? Since Chanel's little black dress of the 1920s, working women have clung to this slenderizing, won't-show-the-dirt, easy-to-accessorize shade, and despite designers' insistence that next spring, or last fall, is all about color color color, black's appeal has hardly slackened. If it has a rival, it's not gray or pink but blue denim, still reigning in everything from floppy pants to stiff, unwashed jeans.

A number of other styles, most of which sprang directly from the street, aren't showing signs of fading anytime soon either: messenger bags, though at this point copied by everyone from Louis Vuitton to Helmut Lang, still look fresh, and we no doubt haven't seen the last of cargo pants, bowdlerized athletic wear in versions from Prada Sport to Old Navy, performance fleece, khakis, hoods, drawstrings, running shoes, etc. And while designers are suggesting a plethora of iffy ideas for spring '99— puffed sleeves, ponchos, apron dresses, and pastel leather among them— our local fin de siècle staple, East Village eclecticism, looks like it's going to stick around a while longer. (This homegrown pastiche— incongruities like an Eisenhower-era coat thrown over camouflage pants and worn with ballet slippers— is still inspiring designers all over the world.)

Remember all that tired talk about how people will dress at the end of the century, usually accompanied by a tinfoil space suit or some other Judy Jetson­ish apparel? Take a look in your closet: unless you're the type that buys a whole new wardrobe every season, you already know what you'll be wearing in 2001. So long: This season's floorsweepers sleep with the fishes.

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Trendy Fendi: Time to say bye-bye-baguette bag?

 
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