If there is a garment that is emblematic of the clothes showing up all over town this spring, it is a pale pink sweatshirt, or what remains of a pale pink sweatshirt now that the sleeves and neck have been torn off. The garment, $23 at Zara (580 Broadway), may have been brutalized, but it's valiant: Across its pale pink chest, the word Deluxe is picked out in sequins. Could anything speak better to our post-September 11 mood than this combination of lavishness and humility, tatters and resistance? The spring 2002 fashions had their sad birth literally in the shadow of the Trade Center disaster (the collections were being shown in New York the week the towers fell), but it wouldn't be fair to say that September 11 alone is responsible for their scruffiness: This glut of dirty denim and resurgent bohemia had been making its presence known at least a season before the tragedy. Still, a recent tour of four storesZara, H&M, French Connection, and Club Monaco, all famous for an ability to rapidly translate runway trends into more affordable fashionsshowed a pronounced preference for the rough over the sleek.
Zara leopard peasants
The armless sweatshirt at Zara is far from the store's only foray into the artfully unfinished. A denim maxi-skirt ($55) is made to look as if it has been constructed from two pairs of old jeans, a style invented around 1967 by home-sewing hippies. (In another nostalgic touch, the skirt has been lavished with the kind of thick fringe last seen hanging from a Victorian lamp shade.) Those peasant blouses for sale everywhere from Cavalli to Canal Street are at Zara, too, in a perfectly nice sheer black fabric that is in fact real silk, as well as a leopard version ($79), though one is cautioned to be wary of sheer animal prints, which if she's not careful can make the wearer look like a truck-stop waitress. For the same amount as the silk blouse you can get a whole peasant dress (it is in fact an extended blouse) and it is black, which is usually a good sign, though the material, alas, may be just a bit too polyesterish. Puffy-sleeved denim jackets at $89 are undeniably a pure rip-off of the Marc by Marc Jacobs denim jackets, but how much do you really care? (In any case, Marc's own jacket looks suspiciously like the ones pictured in 30-year-old copies of Mademoiselle magazine.)
Marc's not the only one whose ideas are popular: The giant-legged trousers that Nicolas Ghesquière introduced last fall on the Balenciaga runway have been cuffed, striped, tagged at $89, and are occupying a prominent position in Zara's window. (Why will fashion instruct us to diet down to nothing, only to swathe us in gigantic slacks?) In any case, you may not be swayed by the Balenciaga connection, since he was responsible for the dress Jennifer Connelly wore to this year's Oscars that was so roundly hated.
"Huge, huh?" says one shopper to another at H&M (558 Broadway), gazing at that store's array of baggy pants, including pinstripes and white linen sailor pants, both of which can serve as an alternative to the season's ubiquitous jeans skirt. H&M, which on a recent afternoon offered an example of failed crowd control to rival the very worst Century 21 experience, also has a transparent black peasant blouse (lots of oversexed serfs out there, apparently) that is $15 to Zara's $79. The Zara version is silk and the H&M one is 100 percent viscose; since whichever one you choose will be tossed out by September, allocate funds accordingly.
Club Monaco fringe benefits
The stock at Club Monaco (520 Broadway) has always seemed to us to have a slightly more dignified air than comparably price-conscious stores. Though the dirty denim here could hold its own at the bottom of the dankest coal mine, its decrepitude has not stopped its designers from adding refined touches, like a tiny zipper to close an inside pocket. A black-and-white printed cotton dirndl skirt ($119) is an excellent replica of the Miu Miu original (there's never much wrong with the tailoring at Club Monaco) and it provides an added benefit: If you're not sure how you look in a dirndl, you can find out for hundreds of dollars less than the same thing would cost you around the corner at the Miu Miu flagship. Club Monaco may be a good place to get those first outfits you need when you finally land a respectable job, but that doesn't prevent an occasional foray (or lapse) into friskiness. A skirt of real suede devolves halfway down into a welter of fringe ($250), like something Cher might have worn while singing "Halfbreed"; an item called a hobo purse, also suede and similarly lavished with fringe, is $119 and is probably somewhat easier to carry off.
French connection denim
Apparently it has not occurred to the people at French Connection (435 West Broadway) that shoppers might at some point cease to be amused by this FCUK businessthe bawdy anagram that has become the store's trademark continues to appear on everything from flip-flops to T-shirts. It's a shame, because there are some surprisingly appealing spring clothes here, in some cases more inventive than you'd expect. A flower-printed skirt trimmed with green piping ($78) looks like you found it at the vintage store, but since you didn't it's available in a full range of sizes and, unlike so many secondhand finds, when you get it home you can be sure it's completely stain-free. Cognac leather has been employed in a very, very tiny miniskirt ($248) that will come as a relief to the young woman who isn't interested in baggy sailor pants and dirndls. And the store even offers a refreshing take on the dirty-denim jacket phenomenon: Instead of being yet another Marc Jacobs pretender, its style harks back to a time when the quintessential denim jacket hailed from the house of Levi or Lee. Now, if only those buttons didn't say FCUK.
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