SLINKING INTO FASHION Lingerie looks dominate next year's designer collections


Valentino presented one. So did Bill Blass, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

They all showed versions of a slip dress in their recent ready-to-wear collections. So many New York and European designers included lace dresses, sheer skirts and diaphanous wraps in their shows it looked as though there was a universal directive mandating lacy lingerie looks for spring.

Of course, there isn't such a thing as a seasonal design directive. The impetus came from consumers. Yves Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein were not designing in the dark when they created almost identical lace slip dresses -- their customers had already indicated their willingness to buy them. And Mr. Klein and Mr. Saint Laurent had experimented with lingerie looks in previous collections with great success.

The business of fashion is exactly that -- a business -- and designers hedge their bets every season. They design with an eye on the balance sheets and the fashion action in the streets and the stores. They consider their bestsellers from past seasons and speculate on what their competitors will be doing in the coming one. It's no wonder, then, that they come up with similar looks. Remember 1988 -- the year of the pouf dress? Or how about all the plaid now saturating stores?

Well, for next spring and summer, one of the most dominant looks is clothing that bears a marked resemblance to lingerie.

Here's how it happened.

Lingerie-inspired ready-to-wear did not just blossom on the runways. The fashion cycle of underwear as outerwear has been building for some time and has yet to run its course.

Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report, says it all started with Madonna and designer Jean Paul Gaultier. Most people probably remember Madonna's early days of black roots and black bustiers. She influenced a decade of MTV fashion with that look.

Few but the most rigorous of fashion trackers remember Mr. Gaultier's original ruby-red velvet bra top with the conically accentuated cups that he showed for spring 1988. But its pink satin sister is seared onto the memory banks of millions. Madonna wore it to fashion fame on her "Blonde Ambition" tour in 1990. When the designer and the diva combined forces, they made an indelible mark on the rest of the design community.

"Sex is always a best-selling fashion item. It made headlines when Gaultier first showed it, but Madonna used the power of the media to drive it home to the youth population. She made it OK to wear innerwear as outerwear," Mr. Millstein says.

An army of young imitators sent the underwear trend off on a two-year track through the junior market. Wearing bustiers instead of a blouse is still a strong junior look.

However, the 35-plus crowd did not take to the music video-style dangerous-looking underwear -- they preferred to keep their lingerie under wraps. But they were attracted to the merchandise that was appearing in stores and in the Victoria's Secret catalog. Their purchases of pretty little nothings, combined with the sales of the wanna-bes' bra tops, boosted the sales figures of the lingerie manufacturers.

"The lingerie market has been on fire," Mr. Millstein says, citing recent figures in the National Purchase Diary that show bras as the fastest-growing classification in intimate apparel.

While their younger sisters were buying studded bra tops, older, wiser and well-heeled women began to embrace slip dresses. Here was a lingerie-style garment they felt comfortable wearing.

Calvin Klein showed one in his spring and summer 1989 collection that turned out to be one of the season's bestsellers. It was strikingly simple, a strapless dress made of gold and silver metallic lace. It became a signature look that he has incorporated in each successive collection.

The following July, at the 1990 couture shows, Yves Saint Laurent turned his hand to evening gowns that resembled negligees. A one-shouldered column of sheer black fabric, scattered with a few sequins, was split all the way up one side and held together with a few strategically placed pink satin bows.

The gown is remembered, like Mr. Gaultier's bras, as a turning point. The positive response to Mr. Saint Laurent's dress, coupled with the success of Mr. Klein's slip dress, indicated that women were ready for scanty -- but pretty and feminine -- lingerie-style dressing.

The time was ripe. And designers responded. Why so many of them chose the exact same fabrics and interpretations this season, is, like the origins of the trend, open to speculation.

Joan Kaner, vice president of Neiman Marcus, has several theories. She believes there are only a few great fashion innovators. Other designers, she says, merely interpret the signals.

The drums of the design underground were sending a loud message, and designers heard the call. This season, Donna Karan, Louis Dell'Olio for Anne Klein and Michael Kors chose black lace over skin-tone silk. Mr. Kors even went so far as to refer to his black lace dresses as "dressing gowns."

Chanel and Valentino went for soft, negligee-type dressing.

Calvin Klein messed with a good thing and added underwire support to his strapless silver lace dress.

And Bill Blass opted for the street-style bustier but added a peplum stuffed with silk roses.

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