This fall, fashion is a bit schizophrenic. On one hand, you have "Mad Men" beauties in retro full skirts, tight sweaters and kitten heels. On the other hand, you have "Mad Max" beasties in cargo pants, shaggy fur vests, animal prints and tough-looking boots.
Getting the ladylike look can be expensive. ( Authentic Louis Vuitton crocodile bow pumps alone will set you back more than $1,000.) But the military-inspired "Mad Max" look, with its arsenal of affordable trends, is made for the mall, where what's in stores now has never looked better.
A lot of the credit goes to "mid-tier" designer labels — including Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Elizabeth & James, Robert Rodriguez and Joie — whose prices range from about $195 to $895. They represent the most dynamic segment of the designer market right now because they offer so much style for the price. The new Nordstrom store in Santa Monica Place opened with Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim shop-in-shops — not Burberry and Faconnable, as they might have in the old days. Still, since these brands are not too widely distributed, there's an air of exclusivity about them; you have to be in the know.
Specialty retailers are on a roll too, with Loft, Express and Gap offering more fashion-relevant collections than ever. ( J. Crew set the bar high in that regard.) Department stores have also upped their game with exclusive private-label wear and partnerships. In stores now, for instance, are Spanish fast-fashion chain Mango's MNG line for JCPenney, and indie design darling Vena Cava's collection for Bloomingdale's private-label Aqua.
"Everyone is in the fashion game, and everyone is in it at a lower price," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group. "Designers and retailers have to separate from the competition, from Wal-Mart and Target. So they are trying to give consumers more reasons to shop, to visit and to celebrate — more reasons to buy any product."
There is a lot to lure shoppers, and much of it is really wearable. Jeans are still America's uniform, but if there is one thing that will instantly update your wardrobe for fall, it's a pair of cargo pants. Current/Elliot's skinny cargos ($248) are the chicest out there, but you can also get the look at Loft with the "Marisa" slim cargo pants ($59.50) or at your local Army Navy store, where the MOC military-surplus version is just $36 and has ties at the ankles to cinch pants up over heels.
Of course, there's much more to the military look. One of the best anoraks is Joie's "Pendleton" style ($358), because the subtle sheen and refined details, such as three-quarter-length rolled sleeves with buttoned tabs and a waist that can be cinched, make it versatile enough for indoor and outdoor wear. The newest-looking shirt this season is a button-down with uniform-style flap pockets. Express has them for $69.95 in 13 colors.
Sequins are here to stay too, as long as they are juxtaposed with an edgy piece. Try Nanette Lepore's long-sleeve army green and gold sequin "Muse" top ($348) with cargo pants and a pair of lug-soled boots.
There are so many cool boots for fall that Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing is promoting the idea of a "boot wardrobe." You could start with Loft's paratrooper-style "Lindi" buckle suede booties ($128), J. Crew's MacAlister desert wedges ($198) or Cynthia Vincent's "Wiley" clog boots ($325).
Knitwear is another perennial fall favorite, but this season, it's not about prim and pretty; it's about knits with attitude, like Aqua's slashed cashmere crewneck ($168), H&M's black crewneck with silver chain trim at the collar and chest pocket ($39.95), and Gap's ribbed knit military cardigan ($69.50) with epaulets and brass buttons.
Joie's knit poncho sweater ($274) hits two trends in one — knitwear and ponchos. Two more double-duty pieces: Phillip Lim's crisp white cape-shirt ($326) and H&M's cape-trench coat ($59.95).
When it comes to outerwear, Chanel's save-the-polar-bears runway show proved that fake fur is as stylish as the real thing, if not more so. Juicy Couture's cropped faux fur vest ($228) with a ribbon-tie is a feminine take on the beastie look, while Forever 21's shaggy pale peach faux lamb version ($19.80) is pure fun. Another tough-girl topper is Ann Taylor's faux leather asymmetrical zip moto-jacket ($178), which is soft enough to pass for the real thing.
Continuing the walk on the wild side, MNG at JCPenney's spotted silk print blouse with a twisted neckline ($63.92) reads animal print, only more sophisticated. A black-and-white print Rachel Pally Dina dress ($220) taps into the feather trend in a grown-up way. That dress has an ankle-length skirt, which is a welcome alternative for many buyers. Because to wear Robert Rodriguez's Robbi & Nikki black turkey feather miniskirt ($264), you gotta have some great legs. Like Tina Turner in her "Mad Max" days.