ON THE BUTTON A touch of whimsy can turn a weary old standby into an attention grabber


Between seasons and bored with your tired togs? Or perhaps your wallet just can't stretch to another purchase right now. And besides, who can relate to buying spring clothes in February?

The solution is right at your fingertips with the stitch of a button. A one-stop jaunt to your local fabric store or notions department can uncover a medley of decorative buttons for a minimum price -- compared to what you'd shell out for a new wardrobe addition.

Take a deeper look into your closet. Seek out items with cheap looking plastic or bland buttons on suits, dresses, sweaters, shirts, vests, coats -- even that ratty old hat you were about to toss into the discard pile -- and apply some creativity for a surprising metamorphosis.

Add zip to a boring basic, such as the navy suit jacket pictured on our cover, simply by changing the buttons over to a gold military-inspired style. Such a swap sets sail for layering -- over a gold lurex T-shirt and white trousers -- for a snappy nautical appeal.

Whimsical ceramic or antique-like mismatched buttons can enliven a simple cardigan sweater or jazz up the front of a vest. Oversized, assorted versions make great trim for the worn hat in our photo, or something like a beach bag. For yet another playful addition, take a handful of basic shirt buttons, and sew or glue them onto pretty ballet flats. Taking a look from day into evening is a cinch, when overhauling plain buttons with pearl or rhinestones.

Remember: When approaching a button make-over, snip off one from the front of the garment to take with you for size measurement; be sure to check for a smaller size on the sleeve.

Also examine the buttonhole. Often the size and thickness of the button correspond, but sometimes there is leeway for going up a size, giving you more variety to choose from. Don't forget to keep personal details in mind when seeking a replacement, such as whether you favor wearing silver over gold jewelry.

Moms can pick up all sorts of novelty buttons to refresh children's hand-me-downs. "Cartoon characters and moving eyes are a hit," says Ira Blank of Blanks fabric store. "Beatrix Potter, hearts and baseballs are most popular with the kids," says Monya Bearman, owner of A Fabric Place, which carries hundreds of buttons, from 10 cents up to $15 apiece.

For adults, "gold and multicolored stones are big, as well as the large colorful or wood styles which are turning up on everything," says Mrs. Bearman. "Ladies are coming in with the clothing tags still attached, in order to upgrade the look with richer-looking buttons."

Dennis Jordan of the downtown button store Morton Schenk and Co., which carries an array of more classic styles, suggests that "men update their suit jackets by switching to horn or gold metal buttons ranging anywhere from 15 cents to $7 apiece."

Another menswear idea is to take the buttons from an old tweed jacket, vest or coat, and replace them with a leather or wooden toggle style, for a weekend accompaniment to jeans and a T-shirt.

Conservationists may be interested in buttoning down with La Mode's Tagua Nut Buttons. Made from South America's Tagua palm nut, this natural resource is harvested without damage to the tropical rain forests of northern Ecuador and similar regions. These ivory-like, earth-toned buttons, which sell for $1.60 for a small set of three up to $3.75 for two larger ones, are available at Danneman's Fabrics.

For an even quicker fix, you can purchase button covers, which clip onto the existing button. Sold in most department stores, they come in a wide range of styles, from silver coins to dressy stones. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny for them: Most go for $15 to $50 for a set of five or six. However, a set can be a flexible investment for temporary transformations on a variety of ensembles.

Today, buttons are serving more of a fashion than function. This spring, designer Mary Ann Restivo favored the look so much that she embroidered them all over a natural linen blazer from her collection, which retails for approximately $400.

Italian fashion designer Franco Moschino is known for his unusual, whimsical buttons that embellish his costly designs. Last spring, fashion designer Gemma Khang was propelled into starting her own jewelry line, after receiving an abundance of customer requests to purchase extra buttons that adorned her clothes -- to have them made into matching earrings.

More manufacturers have caught on to the idea that a better button makes for a richer-looking garment, therefore contributing to a higher price tag. Smart shoppers are opting for the less expensive item with potential for change, to jazz up themselves, or -- better yet -- update what they already own.

So take a cue from the pros. Start combing local vintage shops and flea markets for ornate or antique buttons to transform into unique jewelry pieces.

Or the next time you're at the mall, pop into a fabric store and pick up a bunch. Then kick off your shoes, grab a juicy video and start sewing -- you can be your own designer.

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