SHOWING THE FLAG Public shows passion for patriotic apparel


From the haute couture runways of Paris to the display windows of American shopping malls, an unprecedented passion for things red, white and blue and starred and striped has been unleashed.

An enormous public desire to show support for American forces in the gulf is just one of the factors contributing to the avalanche of patriotic clothes and accessories.

Credit also must be given to fashion's perennial spring emphasis on nautical colors and stars-and-stripes detailing.

Also at work at the international fashion level is a burgeoning interest in Americana apparel, evidenced by the many stylish European youths who clamor for American preppy basics and Western classics.

In Baltimore, patriotic apparel can be found in virtually every department store and most of the specialty stores, ranging from $2 flag pins to thousand-dollar leather jackets.

Jan Flora, spokeswoman for JC Penney, estimates that her company's red, white and blue inventory may be up more than a third over the traditional spring tricolor selection. "It's in virtually every department, from jewelry to men, women and boys and girls," she says. "Some of it is consolidating merchandise we already had into red, white and blue displays, but there's a lot that's new as well."

Since the patriotic merchandise is proving to be so profitable, companies may risk criticism that they're exploiting the gulf crisis rather than supporting the troops.

Certain stores opted not to stock the patriotic merchandise rather than chance a misunderstanding of their motives, says John Wegorzewski, manager of the costume jewelry company TACOA, which supplies American flag pins and earrings to stores around the country.

"It's one of the reasons we decided to make the pledge we did," he says. Ten cents of each piece sold is being contributed to the American Red Cross activities associated with American individuals serving in the Persian Gulf and their families.

Many retailers have also responded by donating sales on patriotic merchandise. For instance, Ann Taylor is giving the total sales on an American flag pin to the Relief Societies of the Armed Forces.

Since high fashion's interest in Americana has been a rather gradual trend, only the most prescient predicted this spring's explosion of patriotic apparel. Ralph Lauren was one of the first designers associated with patriotic apparel since his flag sweaters and flag swimsuits were already big fashion hits a year ago and new variations were already available for this season's markets.

Several years ago, Marc Jacobs also hinted at the beginning of the trend when he made a splash in his first runway show for Perry Ellis with giant stoles emblazoned with stars and stripes. And at the spring shows last fall, designer Geoffrey Beene showed early signs of patriotic support when he took his final bow in a bright red, white and blue American flag sweater, quite unlike the somber clothes in which he usually appears.

The degree to which public enthusiasm for patriotic apparel has continued to rise since the outbreak of hostilities is something retailers haven't seen in decades.

"We haven't seen anything like this since '73-'74 and the mood ring phenomenon," says Mr. Wegorzewski. "The whole thing exploded, and then, after a few months, it died."

"This time I don't think it will peak as quickly. My feeling is that if things keep going as they are, and the war is over and people come home, there will be an explosion of

patriotic feeling -- 'we're proud to be American.' "

Talking with fashion forecasters, he's also gleaned that apparel and accessories for spring '92 in Paris and in London are likely to continue to emphasize the American theme.

Military detailing such as epaulets and cargo pockets might even begin to turn up on fashions in upcoming seasons, predicts Kaye Davis, fashion director for the Atlanta Apparel Mart, which represents clothing and accessory manufacturers. She hypothesized that patriotic fashion so far has been mostly limited to red, white and blue merchandise because it's something that manufacturers could quickly turn around.

Military-inspired clothes could be on its way, she says, since designers are currently working on their fall collections and very much influenced by the world around them.

"I'll be going to Paris in a few weeks to see the fall collections, and it'll be interesting to see what influence shows up," she says. "Although a lot will depend on how events in the gulf eventually turn out."

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