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LONG AND LEAN In a season of options, designers are banking on the elongated silhouette

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What goes up, eventually must come down. Just when you think you've finally caught up and shortened most of the hemlines in your wardrobe, skirts have slimmed down and stretched below the knee. But don't be so quick to toss out last year's skirt. Short still looks good and will continue; however, long and lean is newer -- presenting yet another alternative in a season of options.

This fall, in a quest for newness, designers staked out the very long skirt, plunging daytime hemlines to midcalf and some even to the ankle for an elongated silhouette -- that when worn correctly, gives the illusion of height and narrowness. But for women who have never stopped wearing them -- what is all the hoopla about long skirts anyway?

The new long skirt is pencil slim and looks best when stitched up in dark wools, stretchy knits or sleek leather. Cushioning the fall are slits that break through the side, back and front to maximize movement and reveal a sliver of leg. Couple the skirt with a long waist-defining jacket or vest, a softly shaped twin sweater set, or a luxurious body-blouse cinched with a wide belt. "It's the skirt of the season that is not meant for the shy," says Nancy Sachs, regional fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, referring to the confident attitude needed to carry off the look.

Nordstrom fashion director Heather Femia believes the key to wearing the long, slender skirts is in the appropriate footwear choice. "A pair of neutral half-inch sole platform shoes or short-heeled bootees and opaque hosiery in the same tone as the skirt are your best bet for grounding the new silhouette," she says. Of course the return of the platform shoe is not to be confused with the wedgie of the '70s, where the whole bottom was in one piece. A true platform only stacks bulk under the sole.

The look is meant to be contemporary rather than nostalgic -- although it is in tune with the recessionary mood. "You shouldn't look like you dressed out of an attic," says Leon Hall, international fashion consultant. "In order for it to come off fresh, the look is best measured on those young enough who haven't experienced it before. If you've already owned it in past heydays, ignore it this time around," says Mr. Hall.

Giorgio Armani, in his Emporio Armani diffusion line which is geared toward a younger customer, offers a slew of longer skirts -- as opposed to the slim pickings on long from his more upscale collection line. Does all of this mean that long and lean is reserved only for the young and slim?

"Age has little bearing," says Ruth Shaw of Ruth Shaw boutique in Cross Keys. "Whenever a major silhouette change takes place in fashion, it all comes down to proportion and what works for your particular body type," she says. The waistline should almost always be visible to balance the relationship of top to bottom. A sturdy two-inch wide belt will do the trick, even encircling a jacket or alluring button-front knit dress. High necklines also support the vertical line. Other long influences include maxi coats, thigh-grazing necklaces, saucy berets, even longer hair.

"If you don't have an Olive Oyl figure, be sure to balance hips with shoulders," advises Tina Sutton, national fashion consultant for Hit Or Miss stores. "Pear-shaped women should be wary of sweater sets without shoulder pads that will only accentuate the bottom half -- better to stick with long jackets and vests," she says. Even a soft turtleneck sweater that drapes just over the fanny, or last year's boxy boyfriend jacket worn open over a tailored shirt and tucked into a long sarong skirt, will still give off a leaner line when your figure doesn't accommodate anything snug.

Although petite women tend to shy away from long skirts that can often be overwhelming, the Petite Sophisticate stores are backing long as an important trend for fall, according to their marketing manager Deborah Kotchen. "Forget natural hose and anything oversized with this look. It is important not to break up the vertical line by dressing head-to-toe in a dark color and finishing off with a heavier platform shoe instead of hhTC spindly-heeled one. Petites can also get away with wearing shorter jackets without them looking skimpy over long skirts," says Ms. Kotchen.

In a modern society, some see long and lean as illogical. "It just doesn't make sense to wear skinny ankle-length skirts if you're running around on your feet all day or working out of car," says Ms. Shaw.

In an office environment, it is unprofessional to wear a long, sexy skirt slit high up the front because it poses a revealing sitting-down dilemma; it's best to keep slits in the back for work.

"The average woman hates the new long, skinny skirts and doesn't know what to put with them. Designers forget that the real world drives. Women don't want to crunch their skirts up around their waist to get in and out of the car," says Mr. Hall. With this in mind, J. C. Penney does not plan to carry any long straight skirts because of the restriction factor, according to fashion director Lucille Klein. "Our customer has never stopped wearing long skirts, only she likes them soft and fuller," she says.

While continuing to back knee-baring styles for day, designer Geoffrey Beene just said no to the long haul that prevailed over most designer collections on both sides of the Atlantic, deeming long too restrictive and not modern enough. Karl Lagerfeld, the designer who relaunched long last spring, quickly abandoned it in his recent fall couture showing for the house of Chanel -- where hemlines hovered somewhere around the knee -- except for a sprinkling of ankle-length transparent skirts which also filled his ready-to-wear collection.

For others, it is already proving to be a persuasive new silhouette. "They're blowing out of the store, especially by Ellen Tracy, Jones New York, DKNY, Augustus, and a great long wrap by Stephanie Queller," according to Macy's regional fashion director, Carolyn Moss, who has been tracking preseason sale indicators. "The fashion-conscious customer is adding one or two to her wardrobe along with a wider belt with gold hardware this season, and mixing them with basics like a white shirt or a long jacket," claims Ms. Moss. Hilda Levin of Miller Brothers, sees long skirts selling in a Western mode with denim skirt and vest. At Saks Fifth Avenue, long versions by Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are leading the checkout list or fall.

But just when you think you have mastered the art of wearing the new length, some industry experts are predicting skirts slit to the waist come spring. Suddenly, hedging the whole hemline controversy by opting for pants is looking more and more enticing.

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