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Suited for spring Fashionable men poised to loosen up and go for the bold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Men who aren't 25 anymore and aren't athletically built rock musicians should thank their lucky stars for President Clinton, a 46-long with a paunch who nevertheless is a new pinup for America's men's fashion industry.

Though no one will ever confuse our husky president with a GQ model, the menswear industry is as giddy as a co-ed whose blind date arrives in a smart Italian suit. Compared with George Bush's preppy, passe pinstripes, the industry hopes that Mr. Clinton's taste for softer suits, bold ties and French cuffs will inspire male baby boomers to loosen up and dress with a -- more panache.

"Mr. Clinton has already made some changes in what is acceptable in suit silhouettes," said Tom Julian, fashion director of the Men's Fashion Association (MFA), an industry group that sponsored a preview of men's spring fashions in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Attended by fashion reporters and a sampling of menswear and accessory manufacturers ranging from Pendleton Woolen Mills and J. C. Penney to Pierre Cardin and Mondo di Marco, the preview also spotlighted promising young designers of "directional" apparel for young men.

"Directional" clothes are inspired by the most extreme fashion trends. This season they are mostly derived from the hip-hop, rave and grunge music scenes -- though a few renegade designers took inspiration from the genteel fashions of the 1930s and the swaggering Muscle Beach scene of '50s Southern California -- and are of the type featured in Details, the fashion magazine for men who think GQ is for their fathers. Directional clothes, also classified as "contemporary sportswear" by retailers, usually look best on chiseled 22-year-olds with sassy attitudes.

The music scene won't have much fashion impact on 40-year-olds with office jobs, however; the Clinton ascendancy will. As all the fashion world knows, Mr. Clinton likes updated suits with pleated pants and double-breasted, roomy, ventless jackets with broad, soft shoulders. Think of the suits worn by actor Tim Robbins in the movie "The Player" and you have the general look.

"Almost every resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has put his own style imprint on the nation," Mr. Julian said, adding that Mr. Clinton's fashion legacy will likely be to give regular guys more sartorial options. The industry hopes Mr. Clinton will make it chic for powerful, serious men to look like something other than aging Secret Service agents.

In two days of runway shows, the MFA suggested options. There were plenty of suits and blazer-and-slack combinations in sophisticated olives and taupes, colors often shown in spring collections, but which usually fade like summer blooms once fall rolls around. The industry believes such colors will become more acceptable in boardrooms now that the generation that 25 years ago traded its letter sweaters for love beads is taking over this nation's most powerful offices.

Among other trends in tailored clothing: lapels are wider, to 4 1/2 inches; shoulders are still broad, up to 21 inches from outer edge to outer edge, though no longer stiff and block-like; jackets are long and ventless, either double- or single-breasted (double-breasted currently represents 30 percent to 40 percent of all sales). Single-breasted jackets have two or three buttons placed low, though a few manufacturers are showing three- and four-button jackets.

Pants have two to three pleats and are usually cuffed. The exceptions are trousers meant to go with the sportier nautical looks that appear each spring in navy and white themes. Some of these trousers are flat front, slim-fitting and tapered at the ankle.

Mixing patterns is also a fashion trend this spring, a look that requires creative thinking. Essentially the look means mixing a patterned suit or jacket, perhaps a herringbone or check weave, with a striped shirt and a print or striped tie. The trick is to mix

subtly, and there are a few easy rules: A jacket with a small, tight pattern, perhaps a tiny check, should be worn with a loosely patterned shirt, perhaps one with widely spaced stripes. The tie would then contrast with the shirt by having a tighter pattern and more vibrant colors.

With many men now eschewing suits for dressy blazers and slacks, manufacturers are promoting the idea of mixing tailored sport coats with T-shirts, knit polos, and shirts with banded collars, a look that Mr. Julian said will be hitting mainstream men's fashion soon. Polo shirts shown were sometimes patterned with a contrasting solid collar and were always worn buttoned all the way up.

Men shopping for weekend wear will find it difficult to avoid stripes this spring. Bold, bright stripes sometimes as wide as several inches across are on casual shirts, shorts and slacks. The loudest patterns are called "awning stripes" after the old-fashioned window awnings or canvas beach chairs they resemble.

Sometimes the stripes are shown in blocks, meaning that stripes on one part of the shirt may be horizontal, while the block of stripes elsewhere may be vertical. The many print casual shirts shown also were frequently made in blocks that contrasted one print with several others. Though such color-blocked shirts can be stunning teamed with solid casual slacks or jeans, they are not to be confused with the more subdued patterned shirts that can be worn successfully under a patterned jacket. Rather than making a high-fashion statement, the combination of a color-blocked shirt and patterned jacket would be evidence that the wearer had dressed in the dark.

In shops selling the most directional sportswear, young fashion plates will find oversized shorts and shirts, spring's version of winter's rave and hip-hop fashion. These clothes are not just oversized but huge; the look makes even lanky young models look like preschoolers wearing Michael Jordan's clothes. The crotches of these shorts hang half-way down the thigh, and the wide legs stop just below the knee.

In slightly less gigantic styling there will also be denim and canvas apparel inspired by blue-collar work uniforms, such as those worn by gas station attendants or train engineers. Worn most often with chunky Doc Marten boots, the stiff, large denim pants, and long boxy jackets designed by such contemporary designers as Paul Kaufman for NaNa, have an industrial look suggestive ofworkers' apparel designed by idealistic Soviet artists in the 1920s.

The most distinctive young designer collections were presented Walter Muroya, for his Wallace Muroya label; Gregory Poe for Dutch Courage; and Lat Naylor for Think Tank. All are California ++ designers whose labels are less than 5 years old.

Dutch Courage bucks the trend toward oversized pants in cartoon colors by teaming sleeveless button-down shirts in vintage tablecloth prints with slim-fitting black jeans and rubber beach thongs. Form-fitting vests and T-shirts gave his models a vaguely dangerous James Dean look.

Muroya, whose Wallace Muroya apparel is sold at Urban Outfitters, presented graceful rayon and linen outfits in muted shades of wheat, sea foam and tobacco that were suggestive of classic '30s silhouettes.

Naylor's elegant, fluid outfits in linen, silk and cotton were the epitome of timeless good taste and style. In gorgeous pales, such as ivory, pearl gray, sea blue and pale yellow, the barely constructed, sometimes collarless jackets, draping shirts and relaxed trousers suggest a gracious seaside resort lifestyle.

SPRING LINEUP

Additional fashion trends gleaned from the Men's Fashion Association's spring presentation:

White tank tops, sometimes ribbed, worn under unbuttoned or barely buttoned sport shirts for a swaggering South Miami Beach look. Muscle shirts -- form-fitting shirts, often without sleeves -- are making a comeback.

Textured cotton sweaters, with ribbed or pebble stitch patterns.

Vests in everything from black biker leather to harlequin-colored silks. The most daring and muscled men will wear them shirtless for informal summer events. (This is related to the tank-top look and requires weight-lifter arms.)

Fluid, soft shirts, especially those made of rayon or washed silk.

Round sunglasses, with metal or tortoise-shell frames, a look reminiscent of either the Great Gatsby or John Lennon, depending on your cultural references.

Neutral colors, including the natural color of undyed linen and earth tones. The fashion industry is chalking this trend up to consumers' interest in environmentalism.

Designer underwear. Calvin Klein, maker of the shorts advertised everywhere by the nearly naked Marky Mark, and Joe Boxer, the manufacturer that has revived the men's boxer business, have been so successful at getting men to think of underwear as fashion that there is a host of competitors on the horizon. Among them is men's sportswear designer Ron Chereskin, who previewed his new line of brief and form-fitting underwear at the Men's Fashion Association show. The line is notable for its use of fabrics decorated with traditional Chinese images of fire-breathing snakes, dragons and serpents. Mr. Chereskin says the underwear will appeal to the same young men who think of tattoos as fashion accessories.

Wider ties, from 3 3/4 to 4 inches, in regimental stripes and patterns. As a side note, the knit tie, say neckwear manufacturers who attend the show, is dead.

Seersucker suits.

Silver jewelry, including neck chains, pirate earrings and chain bracelets, though only as accessories with hip-hop and South Miami Beach looks. (See tank tops and vests, above.)

Monk-strapped shoes, which are slip-ons with a strap across the vamp that buckles on the outer edge.

Chambray shirts worn with ties for casual office dress. The look has been around for several seasons and is more popular than ever.

Hoods on jackets and pull-on shirts. Hoods have been part of hip-hop since the beginning but are now moving into designer wear.

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