Women's designers muscle in on men's fashions


Expanding the lineup of men's clothing designers is a new squad of players with impressive stats from the women's arena.

And with these new labels come a fresh approach: Lifestyle dressing. "It's like a Gap approach, but at a designer level," explains Colby McWilliams, director of men's fashion and merchandising for Neiman Marcus.

Yet moving into men's wear is no easy task. "Men are sticklers for fit," said John Jones, buyer of men's clothing at Ultimo in Chicago. "Typically it's much easier for a designer of men's clothing to make the move over to women's than the reverse."

New York designer Donna Karan is foraging ahead anyway and made headlines in April by showcasing in New York about a dozen men's outfits in her fall 1991 ready-to-wear show for women.

Karan is steering men into a concept that women already are familiar with: day-into-evening dressing. This means lots of black, luxurious fabrics and a certain sensuality from classic silhouettes. Some highlights of Karan's preview: a mid-calf, black wool single-breasted overcoat, a cashmere hooded sweatshirt and a black leather jacket with gold zippers and snaps. Price tags are expected to be high, although company officials said they wouldn't talk prices until mid-June.

Karan stressed that the line is in a test phase and will be sold in only one or two stores this fall (no one has been tapped, yet) with a major retail push slated for fall 1992, according to Patti Cohen, vice president of publicity and advertising for Donna Karan New York.

Michael Kors, another New York women's designer, also is gearing up to launch his first men's collection. "There's 75 percent chance it will be ready for fall 1992. If not, I'll launch it the following spring," said Kors, who recently expanded into footwear and swimwear.

Kors is crusading to break the old rules. "It used to be men were supposed to dress a certain way at a certain age. Now men work out more and take better care of themselves rules are breaking down," said Kors.

"You know what you're supposed to wear to work or to a very dressy situation, but no one tells you how to look polished in the off hours."

Since Kors owns only four neckties, it's a safe bet that his idea of looking polished will be an easy brand of elegance.

Kors eschewed "matchy coordinates" opting for unexpected combinations. "This doesn't mean weird fashion," protested the 31-year-old designer. "It's about a guy wearing a cashmere blazer and khaki pants with a T-shirt and shearling coat."

Kors also plans to give cherished classics a new twist: "For example, a chambray shirt will be done in cotton and silk so it drapes more. There will be the addition of stretch in my wool sport jacket. Men have yet to know the pleasure of Lycra and I'm not talking bicycle shorts here." Kors prices will range from $50 for a T-shirt to $2,400 for an overcoat.

Isaac Mizrahi tested the waters last fall. The resounding theme of his men's line (carried in Saks Fifth Avenue stores and Ultimo) is softness: "My men's apparel looks like constructed clothing on the hanger, but feels like a sweater when you put it on," said the 29-year-old New York-based designer.

Although the designers admitted that the men's arena is tough, being a veteran player has advantages. Mizrahi reported that sales of his men's collection have been "disappointing ... although I've still sold more men's than I did when I first launched women's."

Traditionally, women designers doing men's clothing have met with more skepticism from the fashion industry, which may be why Karan is moving cautiously. (The fact that her father was a tailor has been brought up more than once.)

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