Work-a-day demim works itself into some posh and pricey designer collections


That sad voice in the background? The one wailing against the cry of the harmonica? That's the denim purist weeping over the state of the blues.

Denim the fabric of casual-is-best blue jean lovers has gone designer.

Not only is it no longer necessarily blue, it doesn't even have to be in the form of jeans, it doesn't automatically mean playtime and it's certainly no longer cheap.

"Denim is coming out like the new No. 1 dress code on the market, in the whole social circle," says menswear designer Ender Murat, who introduced his first line of denim for spring.

Denim long has been a canvas for street-smart artists who have used it as an inexpensive way to display personal style, decorating it with everything from silver-stud peace signs to elaborate, hand-painted landscapes.

But as designers have taken advantage of the fabric's sheer versatility, the styles have become more uptown. And upscale.

The fabric, often with softer finishes and in lighter weights than traditional jeans, now is used to create such un-denim basics as classically cut blazers and out-on-the-town evening dresses. Combined with silk, satin and velvet and embellished with sequins and beads, it is often so dressed up it's hardly recognizable unless you're close enough to spy its telltale nub.

Credit Donna Karan with doing her trend-setting bit to help denim lose its weekend-only reputation. A staple of the designer's DKNY collection since its 1989 debut, denim recently made the jump into Karan's higher-priced couture line.

"We almost see denim as though it isn't denim at all; it's just another great fabric," says Christy Hood, a Karan spokeswoman. "Donna found this fabric and said, 'Wouldn't this make a great cutaway jacket as an option to wool?' And it was just good luck that it also happens to be denim, which meant we could do something in the couture line that was much more affordable than usual."

Of course, affordability is a relative notion, especially at the couture level. In the Donna Karan line, it means the difference between paying $825 for a denim jacket and $1,600 for a wool version.

Other dressed-up denim is available for much less, often under $100. But it's still not likely you'll find these styles for the same price as your favorite pair of Levi's.

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