Fall Fashion Forecast: Party Hearty and Cozy Up

The fashion season that rings in the big calendar change will have no specific “look.” Fall/winter 1999-2000 will be a season of pieces. A woman can update her wardrobe with a few key elements, such as a puffy down-filled coat, a pair of leather jeans, a crinkled shift in shiny silver, or a pony-skin bag. The season’s watchwords include comfort, protection, American, and futuristic.

Some designers have produced the kind of apocalyptic, outer-space looks one might expect for the dawn of a new age, but others have declared themselves sick to death of Y2K hype—they turned their backs on it and looked to rugged American roots in-stead. The American influence has resulted in clothes that are wearable and comfort-driven. Jeans and jean jackets, lumberjack plaids, denim of all kinds, Eisenhower jackets, overalls, cashmere sweatpants, and bomber jackets inspired many European design houses. That’s not surprising, since many are headed by Americans (including Tom Ford at Gucci, Michael Kors at Celine, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Narciso Rodriguez at Loewe, and John Bartlett at Byblos).

Futuristic looks on the runways included sleek silver or aluminum-colored, rubberized “space suits” (like the ones Helmut Lang offered), nylon parkas (Donna Karan), A-line silhouettes, and zipped-to-the-teeth flight pants. But mostly, the coming millennium seems to have sparked a desire to protect and coddle oneself. The urge to skip the madness and crawl back into bed has been translated into walking bedclothes, such as long, puffy, down-filled duvet coats, blanket-inspired ponchos, and big woolly turtleneck sweaters worn like a real turtle in defense mode—pulled all the way up to the eyes. Handbags continue to be hands-free, worn on the body like armor. Shoes are molded to the shape of the foot in an expression of New Age comfort. (Though the new high-heeled metallic silver shoes shown for evening don’t really qualify as comfort gear!)

Fashion insularism is especially evident in fabric treatments. Deliberate wrinkles and the Teflon coatings that kept summer whites spot-free will continue into fall/winter, and the word on the street is that if you can identify a fabric, it’s old news. Fabrics have been boiled, felted, quilted, sheared, bonded, coated, and otherwise manipulated to the point that even the experts can’t always tell what they are. The fabric on everyone’s shoulders and wish lists is cashmere (and its fancier, rarer cousin, pashmina). Intimidated no more, designers insouciantly boil it, felt it, quilt it, etc.

Ringing in the new. So what will you wear to the biggest party of the century? Don’t worry, be happy, forget that your computer may self-destruct, and just get dressed. Designers in Paris and Milan have adopted a playful attitude about Y2K, resulting in clothes like Tom Ford’s panne velvet skirt paired with a navel-baring leather T-shirt at Gucci and the rabbit-fur sweaters designed by Parisian Jean-Paul Gaultier. Marc Jacobs, the American head designer at Louis Vuitton, has offered up an embossed purple leather shopping cart. Practical? Not at any Safeway we’ve seen. Fun? Absolutely!

Whatever you choose to wear for the big event, make sure you decide early—retailers expect a huge sell-through on glamour gear. Many have shifted the bulk of their open-to-buys from fall/winter to holiday, in anticipation of a huge run on evening wear. Socialites and others with big Y2K party plans will probably begin shopping for The Outfit by late summer. This is crucial for jewelers to note, because important party clothes demand important party jewelry, and this is too significant an event not to celebrate with a piece of real jewelry. With De Beers’ high-profile millennium diamonds plus the wealth of millennial offerings from designers, there’s no shortage of commemorative pieces to celebrate the turn of the century. And consumers who don’t want 2000-dated, millennium-specific jewelry still will be tempted by the wide variety of pretty, romantic new designs and the return to color. (For new jewelry trends, see the design segment of The JCK Show report on page 58.)

Consumers in a mood to accessorize should be good news for jewelers. Apparel experts, rather than decrying the lack of a specific look, are saying it bodes well for sales. Shoppers splurging on party clothes and party plans may not spend as much on whole new outfits for fall, but they’ll want to look current. Since the overall silhouette isn’t changing drastically, they can pick up a few choice accessories to complete their look. Clothing and accessory choices are interesting, widely varied, and distinctive, and accessory sales have been booming for the past few seasons. With the economy still strong and consumer confidence high, retailers like Neiman Marcus’s Joan Kaner and boutique owner Linda Dresner say customers are more than willing to buy. Dresner, who owns specialty boutiques in New York and Birmingham, Mich., makes the point: “If it’s special, my customer wants it, no matter what the cost.”

Interpreting The News

The Fashion Group International, an organization of executive women in the fashion industry, predicts the following items will be best-sellers for fall/winter 1999-2000:

  • Wraps. Short, breast-level capelets in fuzzy cashmere or fur are a natural outgrowth of the summer’s shrug, a sweater that’s essentially a shoulder and sleeves.

  • Leather. The skin gets treated in myriad ways, including hand-painted, gathered and shirred, down-filled, and punchworked.

  • Pony skin. Look for it in the obvious (shoes and bags) and the not-so-obvious (skirts and bustiers). When consumers get sick of pony prints, look for pony skin dyed and overprinted with flowers.

  • Fur. You’ll see it in vests and find it spun and knitted into sweaters.

  • Shearling. A relative of fur, this half-fur, half-leather material will be used for skirts, sweaters, coats, and even evening wear. (With so much leather, pony, fur, and shearling available, look for animal-rights advocates to have a crusade year.)

  • Sequins. They’re the newest way to embellish fabric for evening, following on the heels of past seasons’ burnout velvets and embroideries.

  • Down and blankets. Don’t make the bed, take it with you. Coats are big, puffy, and long; blankets show up as ponchos, dresses, and skirts.

  • Strapless. It’s not cool anymore to show your slip. Skip the spaghetti straps and go bare-shouldered. All that skin is great enticement for a jeweled dog collar or choker, or a jeweled hair accessory to complete a carelessly knotted, sophisticated up-do.

  • Gypsy. Ethnic looks still abound as the global society proceeds apace.

  • Miniskirts and space suits. The mini is back, but most working women will keep skirts around the knee for day. Space-age clothes show up in sleek silver.

Here are some of JCK’s observations and predictions:

  • Color and silver. Color was big news for spring/summer 1999, with pink and ice blue the favorites. Look for women to continue the trend (and add other splashes of color) this fall. The silvery metallics featured on runways also should be strong.

  • Pashmina shawls. These are an important accessory, sort of a luxury lover’s security blanket. Aside from the obvious warm fuzzies, these shawls also give color-phobic women a gentle nudge away from black.

  • A-lines. The new silhouette—in skirts, coats, pants—should catch on as an instant wardrobe freshener. It’s flattering to most bodies and a way to look space-age without resorting to a Judy Jetson jumpsuit.

  • Seasonless looks. Rules no longer apply, as we see sleeveless for winter and whisper-thin cashmere for summer. New fabric manipulations make year-round versatility a reality for all but the most bare or down-filled clothes.

  • Softer silhouettes. Whatever the reason—the pervasive influence of casual dress, aging Baby Boomers seeking comfort, or boredom with suits—sweaters continue to replace jackets. Movement is critical, so tight is out, but clothes are cut close enough to the body to give a neat, tailored appearance.