DENIM AMERICA'S DARLING Familiar fabric finds fashionable new friends

We've faded, fringed and patched denim. We've ripped, cuffed and cut it off.

We've stone- , acid- and lava-washed it. Heck, one Tennessee company shoots holes in it -- and charges for the damage.


Protesters flaunted denim in the '60s. John Wayne swaggered in it in the movies. Brooke Shields claimed she wore bluejeans over nothing. Rap stars wear bluejean overalls.

But if you think nothing new can be done to denim, think again.


"Denim is becoming a fabric that has no time limits -- you can wear it anywhere, any time," says Carolyn Moss, associate fashion director for Macy's. "Years ago, it was just casual, now it's casual, dresses, even evening."

You heard her: denim, dresses, evening.

This year, designers have taken the fabric of those good ol' bluejeans and trimmed it with sequins and gold studs; dyed it in shades from pale pink to bright purple; turned it into all-white miniskirts, bustiers, strapless dresses, cropped jackets; called it couture -- and sent the price for some of it into the ozone.

The great denim drive began last fall and has been egged on by several factors including the development of lighter weight and rTC stretch fabric. "Denim used to be only the heavy Levi fabric that you wore as a sports piece. Now it can bend and wear like any fabric -- it's almost a chambray [cotton]," explains Ms. Moss.

But denim has more to draw a crowd than mere comfort. Put simply, something about it has struck a chord with Americans ever since Levi Strauss recognized a market niche in the old West of the 1850s and began making "waist-high overalls" out of canvas.

"Denim is a symbol of what America is all about," says Jean Driscoll, director of Jeanswear Communications, a trade group that represents cotton mills.

"In the '60s, denim was a statement of anti-establishment, and I think in the '90s, it means a whole lot more. . . . It sort of means outdoorsy and athletic and somehow patriotic and in a way goes along with that whole wave of patriotism [that followed the Persian Gulf war] as well as going along with ecology."

Besides all that, somewhere along the line, denim became respectable.


So respectable that last spring, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel began showing tweed suits trimmed with denim and denim suits

trimmed with big gold buttons.

That's right, Chanel.

And as though a nod from Mr. Lagerfeld was all it took, denim took off as the hautest haute couture fabric for the year. And "the American manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon," says Ms. Moss.

PD Now far more than just a bluejean at places such as the Limited

and the Gap, denim jeans are available in colors from pale pinks to wild stripes.


For summer, belted and cuffed denim shorts recalling pedal pushers from the '50s in aqua, blues, greens and pinks and equally bright hot pants reminiscent of the '60s are the rage.

At Octavia at Village of Cross Keys, denim work shirts have made a comeback. But at around $60 and up, these aren't the work shirts you'll find at construction sites: They're made of very lightweight, soft fabric in cowboy-style cuts with pearlized buttons.

"I guess denim is a more acceptable look now," says Trisha Justice, contemporary sportswear buyer for Octavia. "But in ways, they're the same work-shirt look of the '60s. I guess in the '90s you just use your Niagara spray starch before you wear them."

Cropped denim jackets with color blocking and contrasting white threading made by Bis that sell for about $144 are popular at Trillium, says Jan Maslin, owner of the Green Spring Station store. Ankle-length Bis denim skirts that sell for about $76 and are slit up both sides (for those who don't go for the super-short look or who want to wear boots this fall) are also catching on. "Denim is just working so well with so much -- it goes from dressy to play," Ms. Maslin says.

For fall, denim jackets are the ubiquitous mix-and-match item for anything from skirts to pants in tweeds to plaids.

And designer Donna Karan, who calls denim the "new gabardine," created denim swing coats lined with screaming yellow silk and suits of denim with silk piping as well as a whole new line of clothing (her third) called DKNY Jeans. The appeal of denim to Ms. Karan, says her fashion director Patti Cohen, "is with denim, you can throw on a beaded tank top with high heels and go anywhere: There are no rules for denim anymore."


But the real explanation for the demand for denim, explains Ms. Moss, is that Americans feel good about it. "We are the ones who sort of 'invented' it. It's 'our' fabric, like an old friend. China has silk, France has lace, wools and tweeds you might think of Scotland and Ireland. Denim, you think of us."

Devastating in denim

Nothing about denim is not hot. But what's the coolest of the hot?

Here are a few denim items that are all the rage, according to the experts:

* Overalls: Leave one suspender undone.

Shortalls: For summer, wear overalls that have been cut off, leave one suspender undone.


Shorts: Be stylish in any kind of denim shorts from hot pants to pedal pushers.

* Color: Don't stick to the basic blues, any color denim goes.

* White: Wear white on white to look as cool as you'd like to feel.

Denim jackets: Go cropped or not: Jackets are hot. For fall, jackets are going to be the most important and ubiquitous fashion statement.

* Mini-jean skirts: hotter than hot, shorter than ever; enough said.

Dare with denim: If Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld can mix denim with tweed, think what you can mix it with.