In a season destined to be remembered for vulgarity and excess in women’s clothing, the question arises: how well have the cheaper chain stores, the places where the majority of American women actually shop, rendered the over-the-top styles of fall 2000? In years when street looks rule the runways, it’s easy for houses like Chanel to offer souped-up, jewel-encrusted versions of baggy hip-hop pants and ratty thrift-shop ponchos. Now that the pendulum has swung, can relatively inexpensive stores succeed in creating clothes that manage to make the wearer look like she has plenty of cash to throw around?
Surprisingly, some of the more successful attempts to ape the garb of the propertied classes are at Old Navy, where country-club-ready fair isle sweaters, ribbon-trimmed knee-length gray flannel skirts, and muted wool-and-acrylic twin sets offer passable impersonations of the kind of patrician styles magazines are urging you to embrace this winter. (Old Navy even has wide-legged tweed trousers for $34, whose salt-and-pepper fabric recalls the suit on the cover of the September Vogue, and a white cotton-and-spandex blouse with interesting drawstring detail on its truncated sleeves could be by Daryl K but for its $28 price tag.) Another fall trend, overblown houndstooth-check fabric, hasn’t exactly swept the cheap stores, despite being embraced by Michael Kors, John Bartlett, and other A-list designers. Only two shops appear to have jumped on this particular bandwagon: Zara, offering a faintly suburban, double-breasted maroon-and-white-checked trench coat for $189, and J. Crew, contributing a knee-length black-and-white skirt for $98, which is perhaps more money than one would wish to spend for a skirt from J. Crew. And Club Monaco, whose very name is designed to denote exclusivity, combining as it does the word club with a principality best known for serving as a tax shelter, has a pink silk blouse fastened with pearl buttons and printed with tiny green horses that is worthy of a Grimaldi princess.
Though fur was everywhere on the catwalks, careful investigation turned up but a single usage of genuine pelts: a trashy-looking coat made of black patent leather and rabbit fur worked horizontally that seems like it’s meant to conceal a push-up bra and a thong rather than, say, a pair of relaxed-fit jeans and a polo shirt. This item, clearly owing a debt to Tom Ford and the late Gianni Versace, is an astonishingly ambitious $639 at Bebe. Among the pretenders, two fake-fur-trimmed cardigans, a red one at Zara for $66 and a black version for $49 at H&M, both suffer from an affliction that frequently besets fake fur—it may look OK, but it feels like a cheap stuffed animal. (If you must have a fluffy-collared sweater, you might do better going to a secondhand store and searching for a rich person’s castoff.) Club Monaco also has a $179 skirt made of black plushy stuff that emulates broadtail, a flat fur that hasn’t been in fashion for about 40 years. At H&M, there’s a brown nylon skirt for $19 that has a rim of fake fur around the hem; if that’s not strange enough, the store has a skimpy halter, also $19, with a bottom printed to look like leopardskin and bra cups of daintily embroidered handkerchief linen. This combination is perhaps meant as an homage to the Fendi sisters, who have made a career of marrying unlikely couples—spangles with burlap, fur with felt—in their so-popular-they’re-almost-out-of-style baguette bags.
The clarion call of leather is such that even Old Navy attempted a leather skirt this season: The not-half-bad result, in black, comes in wearer-friendly sizes above 14, and though a bit rubbery to the touch, is an encouraging $78. For a little more—$99—H&M has a butterscotch-colored leather skirt with careful stitching detail, a nice touch since most of the leather around is plain as paint. An even more dashing use of leather, in a motorcycle-ish jacket at H&M, is $129; remarkably sophisticated black leather trousers at the Gap are $225. Express breaks the smooth-leather stranglehold with red suede jeans: saucy in a Jennifer Lopez-ish way, but, given how notoriously unstable dyed suede can be, no doubt capable of turning your undies bright crimson after a particularly sweaty night at the clubs.
Perhaps the loudest, least subtle trend of all, making its first appearance since its heyday in the 1980s, is gold, not just in garish jewelry but liberally employed for garments themselves. Urban Outfitters has perhaps the most lurid example, a $125 metallic leather skirt that, unlike the wan gold leather bustier dresses for $198 at Express, is as bright and shiny as a heap of useless, inflated money. The sleazy gold numbers at Joyce Leslie—a skirt and bustier of nylon and spandex—make up in ebullience what they lack in grace: being cheap (in price and attitude) and able, due to that spandex content, to cling even more tightly than leather. Plus, for $16.99 and $12.99 respectively, they can be guiltlessly disposed of when the pendulum swings back, as it invariably will, to high-collared blouses and ankle-grazing skirts.