Prepping for Spring

Of Chinoiserie, Hardware, Surf, and Other Purported Trends

Contrary to what you may have heard, spring fashion for 2003 is not limited to hazmat suits and T-shirts that say "Empty Warhead Found in White House." In fact, according to the March issue of Harper's Bazaar, the following five trends are poised to take off even as the first bombers sweep over Baghdad: preppie, 1950s, surfing, something the magazine calls hardware, and the already burgeoning chinoiserie. So, though disgusting heaps of black snow still littered Lower Manhattan, we spent a recent afternoon searching for these harbingers of spring, just in case the desire to wear any of this stuff seizes us as soon as the weather heats up.

Our first idea is to check out a pair of consummate knockoff houses, on the assumption that if these items are really popping, they'll already be available at two popular venues: Zara, a relatively refined, high-end copyist, and H&M, where stunningly low price tags make up for the clutter, long cash register lines, and total lack of service.

At Zara, the windows are full of droopy black peasant dresses (apparently surf has yet to replace serf), but inside there are indeed pink-and-black, pointy-toed, 1950s kitten-heeled shoes for $99, Lacoste-type polos for $33 in a shade of lime green hideous enough to please the most rigorous preppie (they have a star where the alligator should be), $25 T-shirts printed with Chinese lanterns, and even a $44 khaki dress with little buttons that is sort of preppie-chinoiserie. (By the by, are we the only ones who think this chinoiserie obsession is just a teensy bit sick-making, evoking fond memories of docile geishas tiptoeing around their preppie masters?)

At H&M, preppie and surf looks don't seem to have made much of a dent, but the store is heavy into hardware—a $39 brown cotton skirt has many more snaps and buckles than is strictly necessary—and there is also, not surprisingly, a glut of Asian-influenced items, including a $25 black rayon blouse printed with red peacocks that has enormous draped sleeves, so campy it could have hailed from an MGM wardrobe trunk. (According to its label, it was actually made in Romania.) Unfortunately, H&M falls down in the '50s category, maybe because it's difficult to reproduce the narrow sexy dresses parodied six months ago on Marc Jacobs's runway for $15.

Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, we decide to get closer to the traditional sources of preppie, surf, '50s, et al.—after all, in New York you can buy anything, anytime, right? If you want preppie, you just go to J. Crew. Surprisingly, even J. Crew has made some faint stabs at Bazaar's trends, most notably with a V-necked Chinese flower-printed shirt that is already marked down from $38 to $19.99—perhaps indicating J. Crew's lack of confidence in resurgent chinoiserie—and a pair of floral, surf-ready flip-flops. But of course the overwhelming aesthetic here is indeed preppie, and we are gratified to report the appearance of a style last seen at a Kennebunkport lawn party: a patchwork shirt made of deliberately clashing patches of stripes and checks, a fashion favored by people who never had to wear anything patched in their lives. In any case, it's now available to non-Choate graduates for $48.

As luck would have it, around the corner from the Soho branch of J. Crew is Quiksilver, a store that announces its intentions by placing two lipstick-red surfboards on either side of its cast-iron entranceway. Inside, a showcase labeled "History of Women's Surfing" holds trophies and photos, including one labeled "The Girls Laguna Contest 1967." A sign hanging over a rack of wet suits offers a free set of FCS Occy fins with the purchase of any gorilla grip pad or coffin bag. (Asked to translate, a saleswoman says the fins go on the boards, as does the gorilla, while the coffin is for carrying.) Which is not to say there aren't plenty of fashionable items here as well: There's even a stretchy printed slip skirt for $36 that closely parallels the runway designs of Nicholas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, the guy largely responsible, for good or ill, for this surf business in the first place.

Going to the source turns out to be fun: For those '50s Marc Jacobs dresses, we decide to try Alice Underground, a vast vintage store at 481 Broadway where the prices are still fairly palatable. Alas, though the best '50s dress we find is a stunner—yellow printed rayon sprinkled with sequins and even sporting that rarest of all vintage commodities, its original belt—it costs $125, and in truth is far more I Love Lucy than Picnic. (Want to know what the '50s really looked like? Check out those tight waists and repulsive Peter Pan collars worn by Donna and her daughter on The Donna Reed Show, every weekday at 10 a.m. on TV Land.)

As it turns out, the nascent lust for chinoiserie coincides with the recent reopening of Pearl River Mart at 477 Broadway, a few blocks away from its old location on Canal Street. If the old Pearl River was a slightly ramshackle affair, the new version is as slick as any Soho loft, albeit one with a large but dignified waterfall crashing down an entire wall. Prices have remained as congenial as ever: A blouse made of heavy satin that closes from neck to shoulder with the little cloth hooks dressmakers call frogs is $39.50; pajamas too pretty to stay inside are $42.50; a silk overnight bag is a mere $29.99. For $28.50, there's a purse meant to evoke a Chinese food container with satin replacing the traditional cardboard. While it is true that this item has a metal handle, it hardly fulfills the hardware category, and what if maybe, just maybe, hardware is the trend that really takes off?

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